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”.