It was with some apprehension that my laptop and I settled into a darkened room recently to play [cue suspenseful music] a computer game.
I am not a gamer. In fact, I am what they call in the industry “a n00b”. Up until this point my experience with computer games consisted entirely of The Sims 2 and Putt-Putt Saves The Zoo (that is unless you are including gaming consoles, in which case I challenge you to a Mario Kart tournament on Nintendo 64 next weekend – you bring the cordial). Nevertheless, I had made a promise to try my hand at the figurative joystick, and thus I embarked on my descent into geekdom.
The game was Dear Esther, and the outcome was unforeseen. What began as a half-hearted attempt to take an interest in my boyfriend’s hobbies turned into a bizarre existential trip, from which it took several real-life hours to properly come down.
Dear Esther is an experimental piece. It started out as a mod for the game Half-Life 2 in 2008, and was redesigned for independent release at the beginning of last year. Since then it has been classified as a first-person art video game – an indie venture. A reviewer at The Telegraph described it as being “an oil painting, poem, eulogy and video game all at once”. In fact, Dear Esther has often been accused of not being a video game at all; so far does it diverge from traditional video game conventions.
There is minimal interaction in Dear Esther. There are no tasks to complete, and no choices to make: no puzzles, no quests, no enemies. Instead it focuses on storytelling, and the player is almost less a participant than an observer in the gamescape. The story is set on an unnamed, uninhabited island, and the central character – the one you are controlling – appears to be a marooned explorer. As you wander about the island, the dulcet, poetic voiceover of an Englishman – possibly yourself, possibly someone else – delivers a fragmented narrative by way of a series of letters to a woman named Esther, who was apparently killed in a road accident.
Often the gameplay feels like one of those dreams you have when you’re floating somewhere between awake and asleep. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and you’re not sure if it’s real or not. You feel as if you’re stuck and you don’t quite belong, but you have an urgent sense that there’s something you have to do. You’re by yourself, and though you’re aware of other people existing in some other place and time, you’re not sure who they are or why they’re important. You’re frustrated because you can’t move as fast as you’d like, you can’t jump or climb, and swimming is difficult. You don’t know why you’re going where you’re going, but you know you have to get there.
It’s possible to complete the full narrative in just two or three hours. As a non-gamer, and someone who finds cliffhangers perturbing, this was a relief. However, given the subjective and ambiguous nature of the game, one could quite easily choose to spend much longer getting to the end. Because there are no straightforward instructions, let alone maps, exploration is not just encouraged but necessitated.
And it’s a good thing, too. One of Dear Esther’s foremost characteristics is its aesthetic design. The detail is astounding. From florid grassland to turbulent oceans to dark, otherworldly caves, it’s like being in an actual, breathtakingly beautiful landscape for the first time and it’s all you can do not to take photographs (luckily there’s an inbuilt screenshot function that satisfies this impulse). Between this milieu, the lyrical narration, and an exquisite soundtrack composed especially for the game, Dear Esther really is an artistic masterpiece.
I’m undecided whether my personal inexperience was a pro or a con in playing Dear Esther. It was certainly a pleasant surprise to discover my untrained reflexes and undeveloped tactics didn’t disadvantage me. But the fact that I was also lacking in genre expectations meant that the audacity and distinctiveness of the game were perhaps lost on me.
What I do know is that it is tremendously engrossing, and hence tremendously affecting. The obscurity triggers exasperation, which in turn leads to vulnerability and profound loneliness. The whole experience reeks of mystery and melancholy.
In my naïveté, I thought gaming was a form of escapism; an excuse not to feel anything. Dear Esther, to its absolute credit, has changed my mind. I came out feeling as if