Sunday, March 18, 2012

Dear Esther

A series of questions and answers about Dear Esther:

What makes you finish your first “round”?
The simple joy of walking around a beautiful landscape. The slight mystery of the island. The music. The view.

What makes you start a second round?
For me - I did not realize the island could be explored thoroughly in a single pass. I thought I missed some places.

For others - Discussing the island turns the player into an unreliable narrator; “I heard X” is not true for other players, which prompts a replay to prove one person right and ultimately prove them both wrong.

In particular, “I saw a ghost”, “I saw a car”, “I heard no one died in the accident” all made me replay the game.

What makes you start a third round?
Realizing there is a very large script with a huge amount of variation. Realizing the repeated symbols across the island change. Starting to dig into where symbols are repeated and why. Letting the island inhabit your brain, to the point where you start feeling sympathy for the boredom and endless repetition to which the protagonist sometimes refers as you start at the lighthouse again.

What makes the game compelling to replay?
Realizing it’s a ten-minute investment to play a single chapter over. Not being afraid of encountering endless, pointless combat or searching for that one last collectible that eludes you.
Here is the first choice in Dear Esther.

Do you take the high road, or do you take the low road?

If you are unfamiliar with the game, your question is probably, “Why does it matter?” The joy of this game is that it doesn’t matter. There is no “left for loot” rule, no minimap to consult, no collectibles, no change in difficulty, not even a time limit. You could walk down to the beach, come back up, and walk along the cliff.

The game asks, “What do you want to see today, right now? The cliff or the beach?” I choose the cliff almost every time. I like being up high and looking at the water below. You might choose the beach in order to hear the waves and look at the scrawlings in the sand. There is no “correct” answer, no metagame. There is only your personal preference. When you take a walk, do you go on the high road or the low road?

How come when we talk about 8-bit systems, we talk about the beauty that comes out of working within constraints (four sound channels, eight colors, 16x16 pixel sprites), but when we talk about playing a game, the game becomes worthless if there isn’t a branching ending, different styles of play, or high scores? Isn’t the act of playing a game also an act of creation? When we start a new Settlers of Catan board, we proceed to tell the story of that board--the person who immediately gets a monopoly on wheat, the three players who start too close to each other, and so on. When we start a new season in Madden ‘12, we tell the story of our franchise team. Maybe you’re playing the underdogs as they climb their way to the top, or the established veterans who falter in your unworthy hands.  We get invested in outcomes, we curse and scream when we are betrayed, and we laugh and gloat when we succeed. These are things we create when we play, so if it’s still an act of creation to play, why is it that games aren’t allowed to be constrained?

Some people might not enjoy constrained games, but people hate RPGs and sports games and board games. We don’t allow them to redefine those things as “not a game”.


  1. I played this ~3-4 years ago as a source mod. I'm going to have to revisit the standalone release to more fully explore the story/script.

  2. Are you trying to tackle the complaints that DE is boring? Really, the only answer to that is “different strokes for different folks”. You don’t find it boring, nor do I—but there are certainly people that do.

    Designing within constraints is not at issue (when after all, designing anything is so much a matter of defining the boundaries of the constraints). If you want an example of designing a game within very strict constraints, have a look at VVVVVV. As a whole, only parts of it are gamey—there are many screens with no content that you merely explore, passing through them while looking for the gamey parts. If these screens constituted the entirety of VVVVVV, it would be congruent to DE: something you could explore, but not something with challenges or meaningful agency.

    When I say that DE is not a game, I am not trying to diminish DE at all—we could do with more interactive art with its level of excellence.

  3. Some people find it boring. That's fine, I understand completely. I didn't find it boring. That's my entire stance on the issue. 

    As for "not a game" - I find it to be a complete red herring. It's an unending semantic debate perpetuated by people who can't find space in -their definition- of "game", and so: if it is a game, their definition falls apart. That morphs into Kelley's argument that people who call it a "game" are the ones guilty of destroying language. 

    My motivation here is: I had a wonderful, unique, beautiful, thought-provoking and rewarding experience playing Dear Esther. Yet the dialogue around the game is, "don't call it a game", "why is this game so boring". Well, that's cool and all, and maybe useful if you're writing some sort of codex on The Ultimate And Immutable Definition of What Games Are And Should Be, Forever - but as a gamer, it's not useful to me to exclude certain things from the gamer canon because they lack guns or match-3 puzzles or inventory juggling. 

    The issue for me isn't, "Is Dear Esther A Game" - it's "here is a wonderful experience I had with. How did it share beauty with me? How did it compel me? What did it leave on the cutting room floor, and how did that impact the experience?" Obviously adding combat or light puzzling or faster walking or whatever would completely change the experience of the game - so why are they missing? What does their absence tell us? I am not satisfied with leaving the answers to those questions as "It tells us Dear Esther is Notagame".

    My point about choices in Dear Esther is that this is an authored experience. There -are- choices, and they exist to give a particular meaning to each playthrough. There are also spaces between the choices, there are places with no choice at all, and they give a different sort of meaning. Why are the caves structured in such a linear way? What does it mean to have the player processed through the caves and exit out the other side, in an obviously changed state of mind? What does it mean that you can choose to avoid the cave at the foot of the stream in the first area - how does it relate to Damascus, and Paul the driver, and Paul the Apostle? Why -can't- you leave the path, and attempt to scrabble up over the rocks? Why -can't- you cast yourself off the cliff, or into the ocean, before the final cutscene?It's a different language than VVVVV, or Triple Town. That shouldn't mean it's not a language. 

  4. Andrew Vanden BosscheMarch 19, 2012 at 10:34 PM

    I like how you pointed out that the collectibles often in place to encourage exploration and curiosity actually do the opposite. You can't gamify looking at nature (or if you can, it's by not forcing players to look (I think Ian Bogost made a sarcastic comment about gamifying Walden Once)). Maybe NOT having a game mechanic is as significant a game mechanic as having one? That is, not having enemies changes a game as much as having them. It's funny that Dear Esther gets its flak mostly for what it doesn't have, as if its decision to not have them was not a design decision. 

  5. don't get me wrong - i love a good collectible hunt. and i don't mind converting "look at nature" into a game. but yeah buried in the huge comment I made above is this assumption that Dear Esther is deliberately crafted, and the negative space is just as important as the positive space. Not that his word is absolute, but as an additional data point: Dan Pinchbeck has said as much at GDC - he wanted to give players space to contemplate. certainly most of the time I spend pressing "W" in the game is also spent thinking about what I'm doing, why, and how it is creating meaning.

    Not every game can pull this off - see David Baker's comments in my post about quitting RPGs for a discussion on boredom, and what it means to be bored, and what it means to quit out of boredom.but Dear Esther has enough text and subtext and mystery to propel me through the quiet points. It gives me plenty to think about and plenty of time to think about it.