Wednesday, December 11, 2013

running CD: one man's experience

Critical Distance is, in all seriousness, one of the most ambitious projects on the internet. As a weekly list of contemporary discussions of video games curated by volunteers for free, it’s not a project for only one person to sustain, which is why you see different organizers and staffers over the lifetime of the site. I recently took two shifts and thought I would share my experience and thoughts.

Theoretically, the submission process is crowdsourced. Readers find good writing about games or authors write something they think is valuable, and a link to said article is submitted to the CD Twitter account. Then the organizer reads the submissions and puts them into a nice post at the end of the week.

In practice, that’s not at all how things work. I only received about seven submissions each week. What I actually did was create a new Google document for that week’s CD. As I came across something game-related, either through my personal Twitter feed or my RSS reader, I put the link into the doc before I even read the content behind it, which is ultimately where the majority of links in a given week’s CD originated. At the end of the week, I shared the document with someone who had access to the CD Twitter account, and they added that week’s submissions at the bottom. Of the approximately seven submissions, at least three would be duplicates of what I already had.

On Saturday morning, I would trawl through my list and each link would get read...more or less. If I thought the content was appropriate, I would edit the list to add in a sentence summing up the argument or otherwise describing the article for my own reference, as well as grab the author's full name for citation. If the article didn't seem appropriate, I would delete the link. The final step would be organizing the post. Topics and themes tend to congeal over the course of a week, and it’s just a matter of writing the connective tissue and a quick intro/outro. To be honest, cleaning up the post would be the easiest part.

Problem #1 with the process as it exists today is that the organizer needs to do all the footwork of collecting the posts as well as reading, evaluating, and summarizing them. Fortunately for me, I’ve spent the past four years building a network of people who continually write or link to great stuff. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty high bar to expect of anyone else who might want to help out with CD.

As a partial solution, now that I know how sparse submissions are, I will try following my previous habit of keeping links to everything I read in a week. Instead of a private Google document, I'll push new links to the CD Twitter account much more frequently. In order to solve the specific problem of the organizer needing to collect all the posts, we can start backing away from the idea that submissions need to be stellar, perfect articles. I think submissions need to be much broader in general, and we can leave the gating up to the organizer for that week. That leads into the next problem.

Problem #2 stems from the arbitrary and opaque criteria for selection. A common question about CD asks, “what makes for a good submission?” And in all honesty those criteria change from week to week.

There are some loose guidelines about what kind of articles CD doesn't want to curate. For example, straight news don’t tend to be a good fit for CD. We assume you’ll use one of the many daily gaming news sites. Reviews tend not to make it into CD because if you want to know whether or not to buy a game, you can just go to Metacritic.

However, I can easily come up with several counter-examples where daily news or commercial reviews of a game become stand-ins for larger issues in the community. Gamespot’s GTA 5 review was a critical part of understanding how the game community navigates misogyny. Rock Paper Shotgun’s interview with Blizzard broke a bit of news when Blizzard was caught off-guard by questions of the representation of women.

On the flip side, I felt quite comfortable linking articles I hadn't completely read or fully understood. If an article seemed as though it would provoke a more full discussion, that was good enough for me to include it. Similarly, I had no trouble throwing away a link if I felt it didn't belong for any number of reasons: it’s boring, it’s repeating conventional wisdom, it’s an isolated experience without enough context, or (this didn't actually happen in my experience) it’s presented poorly.

CD has two ways to handle the problem of arbitrary selection: 1) establish some sort of metric for selecting a piece and rigorously run every article through a rubric, or 2) embrace the inherent mutability of curation. Argue the benefit of curating CD for a week as the chance to feature what you think is important, as long as it holds up to some general community standard.

I’m fine with option 2 at this point. The community standard I believe in the most has been firmly demonstrated by Kris’ previous work: empathy toward others, especially the marginalized. CD demonstrates this standard by being accommodating to readers’ needs, especially by making it clear when we link to content that has the potential to be triggering. It would go against a lot of core principles of CD to link to a piece solely to mock it, although a laughably terrible piece might be politely linked if it galvanized a larger, more interesting discussion.

In general, CD would probably not link to someone arguing that women were objects due to biotruths and everyone should shut up about diversity in games because men have it really awesome right now. I guess someone will say that’s a “feminist agenda” or a “social warrior platform” or something, but to me it’s much more about building a welcoming and inclusive community in a space that’s historically been extremely hostile to anyone who isn’t white, straight, male, cis, etc. If CD is going to be a proxy for “what games can mean”, that ideal can’t be realized without embracing the full spectrum of experiences of everyone who plays games as well as all the reasons they do or don’t play certain games.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

the banquet is over

Things I have noticed about Porpentine’s games:

She places links at the ends of sentences. When you finish a sentence, a word links to the next sentence. Placing a link on a word in the middle of a sentence means I read the entire paragraph to get the context of the link, then go back and evaluate the linked word. When the link is at the end of the paragraph, I already have the context I need and I can immediately click to see more.

Macros control the rate at which sentences appear. A long, slow pause makes you consider what’s happening, or sentences rapidly appear to induce frantic scrolling. The choices she gives you make you consider “your” role in the story, as in this example from CYBERQUEEN:

flail scream breathe

It’s similar to Planescape: Torment, which gives you multiple ways to say the same thing. A literate player can recognize there’s not likely a difference between these options, so stakes are low. You aren’t going to “mess up” by choosing to flail instead of scream, so you’re free to experiment without consequence and choose the one with the most meaning to you instead of nudging you toward choosing the option granting +5 to diplomacy rather than strength. This nuance encourages role-playing and immersion.

In the above example, after clicking through all three options there’s a second where nothing happens. It’s an inversion of traditional game logic, where every action has an immediate reaction. In this case it has the effect of being a mind game. Surely “the game” (the designer) wouldn’t leave you hanging in this state, would they? It’s a fun example of the game designer making the player sweat a bit, mostly for the game designer’s own pleasure. (See also: Anna Anthropy, GLADOs in Portal)

Many of Porp’s games revolve around coercion, subjugating the player’s will. Howling Dogs and ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL both feature a central hub with mandatory routine activities: drinking milk, eating nutrient bars and drinking water. In both cases, the routine establishes a rapport with the player, makes the player comfortable. And when the player is settled into a familiar routine, the routine is disrupted. The player is unsettled, and the plot catapults the player into a new, less familiar, less safe routine. Until finally the routine collapses altogether, and the setting congeals into something entirely alien. As one ending to Howling Dogs says, “The banquet is over”.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Starseed Pilgrim

I gave Starseed Pilgrim several chances. So many people spoke with great respect about the exploration and beauty of the game that I went back again and again even after getting extremely frustrated. Normally I quit a game the second it stops respecting my time, but the vagueness with which people alluded to “spoilers” made me think I was honestly, genuinely missing something.

What I discovered on my own is that there isn’t really anything I would consider a “spoiler” about the game. Fifteen minutes of experimentation revealed: digging pink blocks gets you seeds. Seeds have different colors and behaviors. Plant seeds to make platforms. Black stuff comes from the bottom of the screen and from special blocks. You have to connect the special blocks to your platforms while avoiding the black stuff, but once you touch it you go into the negative space of your levelplatforms become corridors and empty space becomes walls. The special blocks become keys. Collect keys, return home, and you’ll take any excess seeds with you, which you can grow to reach new levels.

The game makes gorgeous music. Each seed chimes with a specific noise as it grows, and the void forms dissonant chords as it encroaches. Unfortunately, almost everything else about the game served to frustrate me again and again. Although some seeds are much, much more useful than others, the seeds you get are random and you have no say in the order in which they are planted. This causes trouble with specific kinds of interactions, like how the seed-replenishing pink columns grow extremely slowly, while the void only slows for specific kinds of blocks. This random element makes it difficult to act tactically with your plants, so most ventures into a level will end in failure before you even find a special key-block.

Even if you do find a key-block, any number of things can cause you to mess up. Since special blocks spawn voids, the void generates twice as fast when special blocks are connected. You can accidentally touch the void before you’ve connected enough platforms, making it impossible to grab a key. You can fall off the screen before returning to the beginning of the level with your key in tow, wiping your accomplishment altogether, and if you get to a special block and get the key and make it safely to the bottom of the screen again, you might not have any seeds left over. Your entire adventure, while technically a success, will bring zero reward.

I really thought I was missing something. I tried searching the internet. Here is the official walkthrough for Starseed Pilgrim. I tried watching YouTube videos, which seemed to confirm my findings and didn’t reveal any hidden depth. I asked for help on Twitter and John Brindle was the only one who offered anything approaching human advice. At the end of the day, though, I wasn’t able to find the depth that spoke to so many others in this game.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Endless Space and UI

I really love playing Endless Space. The UI is really frictionless in that it’s always pretty easy to get the information you need but is otherwise unobtrusive. A few simple principles in the interface make Endless Space really engrossing. In short, Endless Space:

  • Makes it easy to access information you need
  • Keeps the context of your decisions clear
  • Uses well-crafted icons to make your decisions as unambiguous as possible

Like many strategy games, ES puts a toolbar at the top of the screen. Each button represents typical strategy game stuff—taxation/empire overviews, research, military and ship design, diplomacy and special “hero” units—but what makes this really useful is how the toolbar is always present and always gives you a quick tooltip summarizing the most important information in each tab. Just hovering over the Empire tab will tell you your income, and hovering over the Military tab tells you your total strength as well as rankings compared to other empires. This may sound like small potatoes, but the tooltip is much more expressive than some of ES’s competitors:

Galactic Civilization 2’s toolbar spreads across the entire bottom of the screen. Tooltips only indicate what each button does. The graph above the buttons gives a really generalized view of each civilization’s progress over time, which isn’t useful when you want to know if your tax income is killing morale.

ES keeps relevant information close together and quickly accessible. In ES, my tax balance is shown above the tax management button, and has a green little smiley face to indicate my empire is happy, whereas GC2 keeps the balance tooltip on the far left, even though you need to go to the middle of the screen to change it. You can’t tell just by looking at the screen where to find a mood summary. On top of that, the entire interface is buried under a giant graph which isn’t really useful for turn-to-turn management.

At the beginning of every turn, ES stacks all the information you need next to the End Turn button.

When your turn starts, everything that needs your attention just sits there unopened until you take a look at it. Here, from top to bottom, the notifications are telling me that another player has something to say to me, that my science research is done, that I have two completed constructions and, slightly to the left of the End Turn button, I have two ships without orders. Just from a glance at the icons, I know exactly what needs to happen this turn.

To be fair, GC does have a notification icon too:
It’s a ship launch reminder / new ship finder. Planets also get a green globe when they’ve completed construction, but these notifications don’t stack, so you can easily end up with 30 of these if you’ve finished 30 ships on 30 planets. They aren’t readable at-a-glance, either. Every completed construction uses the same icon. Most importantly, GC’s stack isn’t inclusive of everything I need to do in a turn, but we’ll get to that in a second.

ES’s Completed Constructions window, accessed from the notifications above, is also really great. It very clearly lets you know when a planet’s queue has run out:

See? The next box is empty! Damn, I should really do something. Fortunately, clicking on a row will take me right to the planet so I can start editing the queue. Once I come back to the notice, it’s updated with whatever I added. This makes it really easy to just scan for empty blocks in the queue to know what I still have to do in each turn. If I want to leave this screen and come back, “minimize” returns the notification to my tray so I can get back to it later. This is useful when I want to check on a planet’s location to decide between making sensor arrays for border planets or ships for more centrally located planets.

Remember how GC doesn’t give you a notification icon for every task you need? That’s because it pops a giant box up at the start of a turn:

A few points in comparison to ES:
1) You can’t see what is next on the planet’s production queue for ships. This is because ships just repeat production endlessly. For buildings , you can see what’s next, but
2) For buildings, the queue doesn’t get updated when you change production of a planet. If I go to a planet to change production and come back, it will still report my planet as not having any construction planned for next turn. Speaking of going to planets...
3) You can’t click or double-click on the event listing to get to the planet, you have to select the right item and click “go to” in the bottom right. Once you click “done”, this screen becomes inaccessible for the rest of your turn.

Speaking of planets!

Endless Space extends its wonderful tooltips to the system management screen. Every output from a system can be moused over to see the breakdown of elements, and every bonus or penalty is clearly accounted for.

This also applies to resources found on planets, and the planet types themselves:

GC has something similar, but it’s cramped. ES lays out accumulated values like an accounting ledger from top to bottom. This lets the numbers line up so you can scan the column at a glance and see where your big bonuses and penalties are coming from. GC muddles its message with asides like, “You are only charged for half of this”. I don’t know what “charged” actually means in this context. A penalty to money? To production time?

Also, GC is more reliant on text than ES. This leads to ambiguous situations like this bonus on my planet:

“Influence bonus: Any cultural district built here will receive a boost in its effectiveness”. Okay, fair enough, but...
Which of these buildings will get the boost? There is no “cultural district” listed. There is a “planetary influence” building, and a “influence” building. Will either of them get the bonus? 
The building description at the bottom of the screen gives some insight, finally[1].

ES avoids ambiguity by relying on iconography. Because each planetary resource (production, dust, science, food) has a color and icon associated with it, it’s very easy to tell at a glance what any given building does. And the tooltip you get for any building is quick to resolve any ambiguity:

The marker in the upper left of each building is color-coded according to what resource it helps develop. The tooltips use the same icons found in the system status screen to unambiguously define the exact effect a building has, as well as any negative effects. If you’re colorblind, the triangles might not be too helpful, but that’s where the icons and tooltips come in.

So how can we summarize the UI decisions Endless Space has made versus those of Galactic Civilization 2?

  • Show the player the information they need in a way that’s easy for them to access.
    • Useful information tends to be values that directly affect player decisions, like net income, rankings or morale.
    • Sprawling graphs can probably hide behind a menu.
  • When you want to grab the player’s attention, use consistent messaging that makes the context clear.
    • Make it easy for the player to take action directly from the notification.
    • If you’re presenting information that needs action taken, keep that information up to date so the player doesn’t lose track of their progress.
    • Try not to rip the player’s context away through use of full-screen windows or unclear notifications
  • Icons and color-coding can prevent ambiguous wording from complicating player decisions.
    • Keeping consistent iconography through the game can make decision making much easier by keeping related concepts linked in the player’s mind

[1] As an aside: There’s a game design issue where GC loves giving percentage-based bonuses, rewarding exploration with 1% increases to this or that, and buildings that increase a value by “15%”. Someone once wrote a great article about why this is not as clear and effective as whole-value bonuses, but I’ll be damned if I can find it. In short, though: a percentage bonus makes me do division, rounding and addition in my head, whereas additive bonuses are much easier to figure out.

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Nier is a game that is kind of unusual in structure but which would easily and quickly win a game of jRPG Trope Bingo. You briefly enjoy a text-adventure boss fight, but you then visit Desert Town and grind for items for villagers. Kaine might curse a bit, but her armor is not only beyond impractical, it’s somehow a plot point that she gets stabbed in the chest on three separate occasions. Boy, some armor would be really helpful in a situation like that!

One problem with the game’s structure is the dungeons. Like many games, you venture into dungeons to grab Macguffins, unlock new powers and fight gigantic bosses. In Zelda games, you get your new ability about halfway through the dungeon and you’re forced to use it to overcome the obstacles of the dungeon. In Nier, you wander through hallways, fight the same enemies over and over, take on the Big Boss and then you get a fancy new ability. Zelda uses dungeons as a training ground for new abilities; Nier’s dungeons are just filler. Zelda bosses have a specific weakness to whatever new weapon you’ve acquired; Nier asks you to take a wild fucking guess at the best strategy at defeating a boss through trial and error, and then asks you to go through the entire process three more times to see All The Endings.

I ragequit Nier twice during boss battles where the bosses spam magic bullets at you with very little chance of evasion. There’s a hard limit on how many healing items you can carry and no chance to replenish before facing the boss. Very, very few enemies require the same sort of tactics you’ll use on a boss. Zelda teaches you how to defeat a boss through its dungeon structure. Nier throws you into the dungeon and gives you a gimmick boss and dares you to get it right on your first try.

I did finish the game, but mostly because of the setting. There are only about eight locations in the world, which makes for a smaller, relaxed and more intimate scope. After a certain point, the protagonist mentions the world is in decline, and it seems like a well-supported conclusion. You visit the towns, see how they struggle to get by and understand how the frontier is pressing in on them throughout your travels. In the early acts of the game, it’s a quick journey through frontier areas to visit each town. A few quests challenge you to reach another town without dodging enemies or getting hit, which is feasible in the wide-open spaces linking locations. Once the enemies ramp up, venturing into the field is legitimately dangerous with tons of enemies spamming magic and swarming over you. Unfortunately, the limited scope backfires when Act II ends up repeating Act I scene-for-scene in almost the exact same order.

There’s also a nonsense plot, vaguely explained, about um, Shades? Betrayals where the bad guys spend 90% of their time straight-up helping you destroy their plans? “Sacrifice”? Whatever. Rest assured, this is a game where you Kill Bad Guys with a sword and then, after all the killing, the game tries to pretend you’re the real monster.

I was told that Nier subverted design tropes, that it was a meta-RPG, that it Tackled The System. It doesn’t. You kill bad guys, you get stronger. If it wanted to do something different besides a tacked-on text adventure, which in all honesty seems like a level sequence that got cut, it could have tried going backwards. If the game is about the decline of a world and the disappearance of humans, wouldn’t it make more sense to start with a horrifically strong protagonist with a ton of abilities, who gradually loses those abilities as his world collapses around him? A game where you lean on your abilities until they are taken away from you and then you are left only with the skill you’ve acquired over the course of playing the game? A game where your strength can’t save the world, not even once? A game where destiny is final and can’t be rewritten by The Chosen One? That would go a lot further toward subverting jRPG tropes than having a sassy sidekick complain about fetch quests.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Dear Esther discussion

CONTEXT: When Dear Esther was re-released last year, Katie mentioned on Twitter the ghosts she saw and Brendan and I quizzed her about it. We moved to a G+ thread because that was the trendy thing at the time. Brendan recently asked to make the thread public, but because G+ doesn't let you do that, I'm reposting here with permission from Brendan & Katie, only editing to remove organizational posts and unwanted metadata.

Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Right! So I only ever saw two ghosts myself.

1) Just past the tanker is a house on a hill you go up a winding path to. Just beyond that is a downwards path hugging the cliff to the beach. From that path you look to the right (opposite the back of the house) and there is a cave in a cliff face across a chasm. In there is a candle. As you watch, a ghost holding the candle walks away into the cave.

2) As you start your final climb to the antenna, about halfway up the hill, there is an outcrop ahead of you and a figure standing there. As you go down behind a rise and get to the outcrop yourself, it is gone. I thought I imagined it the first time I played through but definitely saw it the second time.

Also heard of a ghost in the final antenna fenced area and one near the crashed tanker at the start of the second chapter.

What other ghosts did you guys see? I'm curious, Katie, what 'creepy' ghosts you saw. Did they look different or did they just do creepy things?

Also, have we all played the game at least twice? Want to talk about some things I think are second-playthrough specific....
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
Okay, a caveat, first: I'm hoping to write an article on Dear Esther, so I don't want to give away too much of what I might be putting in that article
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I've played through five times with more to come /nerd :D Okay, here goes...
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Well I think this is a private thread only the three of us can see (right, Zach?) so don't stress too much about that :)
Zach AFeb 20, 2012Edit
this is a private thread. (ED- Was. Made public after I checked with Katie & Brendan)
the tanker one: when you first enter the area, hug the left wall. a pale form stands before you, it's easy to mistake him for the buoy in the distance. but it moves away.
i've seen the second you listed Brendan, but not the first.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
I feel like I'm the only one who saw it and I'm wondering if perhaps I imagined it.... two times. I love how this game makes you so uncertain as to what you actually saw or not
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
haha yeah the first time playing through i did see both the ghosts. but i investigated and convinced myself it was the buoy, or a bit of rock. then Katie confirmed there were actually ghosts and I was like "oh shit". and then she said they were scary and now i'm too scared to play it much more :|

i also saw, in the caves, the big area with the huge river - one of the paper boats floating down the river when you first get in (!). among other bits we can talk about after katie tells us about the scary ghosts.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Yes! Also, at the end of that river is a whole stack of paper boats stuck at the end where the water goes underground. Also, some photos of mammograms scattered on the sand by the water 0_o
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I didn't see any ghosts on my first playthrough. I don't know if I missed them or if they simply weren't there. My boyfriend told me he found ghosts in his game, so as I played through the second time I was definitely looking out for them.

1. First ghost was a silhouetted figure, near the beginning of the second chapter. As you walk towards the shipwrecked tanker, there's a small cliff overlooking it (walking to it triggers dialogue about the buoy). In every playthrough except my first, I've had the silhouette just standing there. Of course, as you move towards it, it disappears.

On my fifth playthrough I noticed this particular silhouette MOVING. I freaked. It was on the path towards the small cliff, and as I walked towards it I saw it move along the path to its usual spot on the cliff's edge.

2. Same ghost Brendan mentioned, a silhouetted figure standing on an outcrop, next to a candle. You can see him from the ground.

3. My creepiest ghost so far was standing in the fenced-in area around the antenna, and yes, this ghost was way different to the others. It had a freaking FACE! It was semi-transparent and its image shimmered like water. Looked to be a man, shirtless, staring towards the moon.

4. The last ghost I have not seen personally; my boyfriend did and he showed me a screenshot of it. It was in the same place as my own creepy ghost, but instead of a shimmering man he got a CREEPY FUCKING HOODED FIGURE THAT LOOKED LIKE THE GRIM REAPER shit I am still not sleeping right after seeing that screenshot.

Ghosts 1 and 2 have been stalking me on every playthrough since my second. I only saw ghost 3 on my fourth playthrough; boyfriend saw ghost 4 on his fifth.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
MY GOD. I am covered in goosebumps just reading that.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
I am never playing this game again.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
Weird, I thought those was ultrasounds...

Brendan, I don't really understand where you saw your first ghost and now I'm wondering if there is a path I missed?! Are you able to upload a screenshot or anything?
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
shit ultrasounds. that's the word. haha.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012Edit
the protagonist has kidney stones. they might be of that. i'm not a doctor.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I KNOW RIGHT!!!! Just seeing the screenshot reduced me to a whimpering mess, I don't know how much I would've freaked had I seen that for real with my own eyes.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
Oh, good point Zach. I did notice one of the ultrasounds had stone-like thingies in it.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
I don't have a screenshot, but in this DeadEndThrills screenshot it's essentially straight ahead on the opposite side of this house:

Like, if you walked up to the house, stood against the wall on the opposite side and looked in this direction, you would see the cave.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
also: the molecule on the wall in the lighthouse is Ethanol. as in, alcohol. it is frequently pictured alongside pictures of things that look like neurons. and (probably obviously) the words on the rocks are bible verses but I have trouble assigning specific biblical meaning to them (other than the protag wonders if the inhabitants of the islands assigned verses to the rocks and plants and walked among them)

there is a grotto to the right of the caves entrance. the things in the grotto change based on the dialogue you having descending the cliff after jacboson's hut. Donnoly's book can be there. Or a suitcase full of clothes. I think I saw a car frame there as well but I can't be sure, it was my first playthrough.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
So who else got different things on the road in the flashback? First game it was two cars. Second game was a hospital bed.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
yup, i got both of those, but not in that order. I only just today got the two cars. also i have screens of the other molecules but i haven't tried to parse them (damn organic chemistry and its convoluted naming mechanics).
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
It seems another playthrough is in order (during daylight hours this time). All ghosts of Esther, I will find you!

In the grotto, I often find dozens and dozens of books that have just been dumped off the side of the cliff. Or discarded clothing. I've noticed discarded clothing elsewhere throughout the game too...

I heard a theory about the nerves, chemical diagrams, and electrical diagrams, but I was annoyed when I found out because I considered them slightly spoilerish, so I don't know if you guys want to hear about it?
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I've gotten cars and hospital beds littered with coins. My boyfriend claims he was once dumped into a highway with absolutely nothing on it, not even road signs.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
I don't consider anything spoilerish at this stage (much of this is blowing my mind, though). So, proceed!
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
Okay - the chemical diagrams, as Zach said, were alcohol, suggesting a drunk driver ended Esther's life. The electrical diagrams are apparently that of a car brake, suggesting she died due to a brake system failure.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I've had a few allusions to drunk drivers in my playthrough, but never to the failure of car brakes, so I was a little annoyed that that last part dictated how I interpreted the story!
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
that explains Paul, who claims he wasn't drunk, "just tired" (and one of the things you say as you ascend the beacon is that "he WASN'T DRUNK, just a victim of lines that failed to converge"). i never heard anything more direct than that, though.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I forget what the nerves were... possibly something to do with painkillers, or even just pain itself.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Hmm. I think I had already suspected both of those (definitely the drunk driver, maybe the breaks) from my two playthroughs. Knowing what the diagrams are, then, just make me feel like I was right.

And yeah, I suspect, too, that Paul was the person that crashed and killed Esther

(and now I leave my computer for 10 minutes ors o)
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I get a wildly different story/interpretation each time, quite honestly. I had one playthrough that I swear suggested Esther was murdered; in another, the car crash was completely metaphorical and no one was dead.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
you all went into the first cave, right? just before the end of the first chapter, at the foot of the brook. the protag has a conversation with paul after the crash, paul is def the driver.
anaesthetic and surgery are mentioned for the kidney stones. also the protag was in the car and had a head wound. i'm disregarding the painkillers for his leg since that happened before he TURNED INTO A GHOST HIMSELF (that's right! i went there! the protag is dead the entire time~!) and he couldn't have painted it after he broke his leg.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
katie - wait WHAT. shit! i thought i had it figured out and I was just trying to see if the protag was dead or alive!

incidentally one of the rock paper shotgun guys hated the game because he thought he figured out the drunk driving thing on his first playthrough. loooooool.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
hahaha. I might be reading into things too much though. I do adore my symbolism and freedom to draw my own conclusions... something I haven't had to this extent since Silent Hill 2! (brb, taking a shower)
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Yeah but to be fair that RPS guy was John Walker.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012

The island itself definitely raises some interesting questions. Is it real? Is it a metaphoric landscape of the protag's mind? Etc etc. I also wonder if the narrator is the person you are controlling or not. Or, if they are who you are controlling, are they talking at the same time, or is it the recollections of an old diary or what?

I think there is no right answer, and I think that is great. Dear Esther is essentially the videogame version of a poem. You can play it in less than an hour then spend years trying to understand it.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Also, I am totally playing it again this afternoon now.
Katie WilliamsFeb 20, 2012
I've read that the island is based on a real place, so I don't know. One of my playthroughs clearly does support the idea of it being real; a journey the narrator has undertaken to come to terms with his grief. Other playthroughs have been a lot more open to interpretation. Ghosts make me wonder if it's metaphorical.

I always felt like it read like an old diary. Like I was retracing the footsteps the narrator had recorded years before. (Hearing that he had broken his leg before you enter the cave seems to support this.)

And back to ghosts again, I should mention that Ghost #4 in my list did not actually look like a ghost (I term it a "ghost" because c'mon, I thought I was the only one on the island!). It was opaque. So that makes it even creepier - that a hooded figure that may very well have been real was just standing there, watching you, looking like the grim reaper.

Matt also felt the hooded figure was female, though I don't remember why.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012Edit
when I first emerged from the cave, my overwhelming thought was, "this is not real". at least, part of the island is not. the part that always gets me is the lines the protag has about the shape and form of the island: it is formed out of his kidney stones. the path of his infection traces a trail like the one he walks up to the beacon. the structure of the caves - i could swear - is meant to resemble some organic process occurring in his body. (I can't prove that and I'm probably & unfortunately wrong)

i lean towards the island being real and the protagonist physically being there at one point. he is absolutely the one who painted the rocks (with Esther's ashes?!? ewww) but the broken leg is clearly something that happens on his last journey - he speaks of his final ascent and clearly plans to kill himself. yet the way the game demands multiple playthroughs (which as far as i can tell is not the result of a specificmechanic, just an overwhelming curiosity on my part) and the subtle changes the island goes through...

there's too much on the island that doesn't make sense. you break your leg on the way to the cave, but the protag does not experience any difficulty walking (or breathing underwater indefinitately, for that matter) (normally I would discount that as part of the game. but this is clearly a FPS - it uses the source engine! - and that has a clear language for expressing hinderance, pain, shortness of breath, etc. it must have been a conscious decision to NOT use those elements, for a specific purpose).

in the final chapter, on the beach, the caves contain scattered pills and a needle and some sort of medical equipment - already used - as if he had already mended his leg. there are car frames on the island - which are wildly out of place unless you take into account the protag's specific trauma. the paper boats are still there, despite the protag speaking of watching them sink. the way you can't kill yourself at any other point except the very end. and, of course, that monumental ending where you do not re-experience the finality of yr suicide. that + the existence of ghosts + the existence of the grim reaper... I feel that you must be dead already, haunting the place that you last experienced in numbing detail in life. it's an abundance of detail.
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Idea! You are the ghost of a man who already committed suicide on the island and cursed to trace his last steps over and over. 
Brendan KeoghFeb 20, 2012
Okay. I just played through a third time and it was TERRIFYING while I tried to find ghosts.

I saw the one near the tanker and the buoy walking down the path, but it was incredibly feint and I never saw it actually stop walking.

I saw the one in the cave behind the hut yet again, but pressed the wrong button and didn't get a screenshot >_<

And I saw the one with a face and I wanted to scream or cry but my body couldn't decide which.

Some other things I picked up this time:

1) The narration is nearly certainly just the reading out of diary entries. When the narrator lists the items in the hut (they call it a... some word starting with 'b' that I can never remember so I'll stick with hut) he lists off 'and this diary'. I think that makes it almost undeniable that the narration is, indeed, diary entries.

2) The narrator talks about Esther, Paul, Donnally (sp), and Jacobson. But right at the end on this playthrough he mentioned he would be flying with "Esther Donnally" and "Paul Jacobson" (!!!!!!). BUT THEN earlier he talks about how he killed Donnally. AND THEN, nearly right at the end, in this playthrough, there was a big kind of epiphany where the narrator accepted that Paul actually wasn't drunk. So maybe (and I'm making this up as I write it) the thing is the narrator blames himself for the accident (I am certain now he was definitely in the car with Esther, at least). Man, this is blowing my mind.

3) THis time in my flashback there were smashed cars. I swear the last time I saw cars they were intact cars, but this time there was broken glass and doors and bits everywhere. Maybe I am misremembering my last time, though.

4) As for whether the island is real or not... I still don't. He does indeed use a whole lot of metaphors that essentially say "I am an island" that suggest the island is all a metaphor or in his mind. But diary entries exist for a real island, too. Maybe it is a dream/metaphor island based on an island he really visited?

This game is doing my head in the more times I play.
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
here are the cars I saw. windows missing and door missing.

apparently i did take a ss of the freaky pile of books:

as well as the scan of the... whatevers. (notice the eggs in the background. he has a shrine to the eggs by the paper boats. one ending he says that esther is like an egg with... tiny black flowers? idgi.)

any guesses as to some of the other symbols? this one looks vaguely golden-ratio-ish, but idg the significance. other repeated elements: the birds (kind of a freedom thing, hence his transformation - although in my second playthrough he mentioned they were trapped here by some sort of miasma thing. and the bird eggs. which... i don't know), the bible verses (mostly nonsense, imo - except for Damascus which I am pretty sure is not in the UK but is symbolic of a place-before-ruin thanks to the biblical verse)

also there is a shrine and painting or two that form the female symbol. one is in the caves before the beacon. i think they represent esther x.X;;;

fwiw I think esther-donnoly and paul-jacobson is a bit of a red herring. i think his beef with donnoly is that they were both hermits on the island, and since reading donnoly's book so frequently (hence the pile of the books in the grotto - he tosses out each one as he finishes it) he id's donnoly as a contemporary (when I think donnoly is a historical figure). i am also sure that the protag was in the car, as he speaks of laying next to esther as metal cools and clicks - and later he speaks of a head wound he recieved.

man, i need to start screencapping the dialogue too :|
Zach AFeb 20, 2012
oh also i thought the narration was him reading the Dear Esther letters he had sent which is +/- his diary. but i guess they could easily be separate which pokes a few holes in my theory that he's already dead. oops.
Brendan KeoghFeb 21, 2012
Well if he was writing a diary to himself after Esther's death, writing his own diary as addressed to Esther isn't a crazy idea.

I'm more and more coming around to the idea that he is already dead.

Unrelated, someone should write a cross-analysis of Dear Esther and Eminem's Stan.
Katie WilliamsFeb 22, 2012
I agree that they read like diary entries, but I'm not so quick to say that's for certain, personally. After my incredibly metaphorical playthrough in which it was suggested nobody had ever actually died, I hesitate to call any of the game real. Though Brendan, what you said about him essentially saying "I am an island" reminds me of that other idiom, "No man is an island". Given what you've said about his possible being dead, that's very interesting to consider.

I found Esther Donnelly and Paul Jacobsen incredibly confusing as well! I have absolutely no theories about that one.

Zach, regarding the eggs, I've had seen a few egg-themed things. Sometimes there are eggshells in the bothy. Often, I've had a nest with three hatched eggs in the underground cave (often surrounded by ultrasound scans and/or photographs). There is also the nest-shrine you mentioned, containing three unhatched eggs. Most interestingly, I sometimes find three rotting bird corpses on the beach, just before the nest-shrine. I wonder if there's a sort of rebirth theme going on?

With the Golden Ratio on the beach - while walking along the clifftop, I once had dialogue about Esther writing her name into the sand. I looked over the edge of the cliff, and there was the Golden Ratio. It was really adorably poetic. Esther = his perfection?

How many playthroughs are each of you up to now?
Katie WilliamsFeb 22, 2012

Guys GUYS wtf new ghost sighting WTFFFF

So it's a shadowy figure with a fucking ROTTING FACE. This screenshot does not do justice to its freakishness. It sways from side to side with jerking movements, quickly and very erratically. It's mainly all shadow except for its head, which looks like something out of a zombie game.

Zach did mention something about a head wound... and there are many references to mental illness throughout the game too.

Matt also reports a new ghost: in the caves! Just before you drop down into the water-filled hole (where you hallucinate about being on an underwater highway), there's a waterfall on the opposite ledge with a cave behind it. He claims the ghost is a shadowy figure that's still, but zips away into the cave as you get close.
Zach AFeb 22, 2012
so i looked at your picture and was like "oh come on that's not that bad" and then i read your description and i freaked out :|

I haven't had a chance to play again since we started talking. i think i might need to play more to hear about this "nobody actually died" thing. i haven't seen any dead birds on the sand, either. nor did i notice the shrine deep in the caves has eggs - does it change over playthroughs?

the birds are definitely full of meaning - especially given your inevitable transformation into one.

quick question - when you go into the lighthouse and into the bathroom at the very beginning, is it a bird or a bat that flies out of the house? i think i've seen both but it's hard to distinguish.
Katie WilliamsFeb 22, 2012
I was about to go to bed and was reminded of freaky zombie-ghost :|

The eggs and birds do indeed change. It's funny how that works. I'm always getting eggs; I know others who've never seen them.

I'm not sure of the significance of being a bird at the end - I mean, it makes total sense except that the bird would definitely NOT be you when you take the light source into consideration! If it really was you, its shadow would fall a long way behind you, off the camera. I know it might be something they bent the artistic rules for so they could include that bit of symbolism, but really - as an art obsessive, it irks me!

But but but I also have another theory about your being a bird. Sometimes I wonder if the bird is simply following you, a companion. My reason for this? Watch the bird's shadow at the very end, as you're about to glide over the water with all the floating boats. Most times, at least for me, the bird has followed me across the water. But once, the bird's shadow veered AWAY from the water as the camera drifted over the beach. I interpreted that as a sign of someone in the story leaving the narrator, whether by death or other means. Also makes sense, given the discrepancy between light source and shadow.

Regarding the lighthouse, it's always been a bird for me... but like everything else in the game, it's not always there. I got a little lonely on tonight's playthrough when the bird didn't chase me out of the building :(
Zach AFeb 22, 2012

so earlier i said i wasn't sure if there was a specific mechanic that asks you to replay the game. i think i was wrong: the mechanic is that if you ever talk about it with someone, they can have either anywhere from a minor to a major difference in the playthrough, which will either lead to an argument or disbelief, and then you play it again and your mind will be blown.

now i need to watch bird shadows.
Brendan KeoghFeb 23, 2012
I never considered the birds doing anything different. I have always had the bird fly out of the lighthouse over my head at the start, and the one at the end, though I admit I can't remember which way the shadow veered each time.

The egg, too, I feel I've always had. The broken ones in the cave and the whole ones in the shrine.

That new ghost is terrifying.

I have too many conflicting and excited thoughts about this game to express any of them coherently. It is still absolutely blowing my mind.
Zach AFeb 26, 2012

Okay, I think i figured out some of the Biblical stuff. Thanks to this review: via critdistance.

"Paul on the road to Damascus". Paul the Apostle never makes it to Damascus. He turns back when the Jews (lol) plot against him - then he goes to Corinth.... where he writes a series of letters.

So that's why the game quotes new and old testament. New testament, Paul goes to Damascus (just as Protag goes to Paul-the-driver's - "My Damascus" - does he actually make it out there?). Old Testament, some kings love to talk shit about Damascus - once a great city / now a heaping ruin (painted on the walls of the caves). Also, "Acts 2:20" is up on the wall: "The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come:", which is commonly cited as part of the prophetic Eschaton - clearly the theme here is the protag's self destruction and last minute renewal.

the game is a lot more about the biblical stuff than I assumed, partially because I am not up on my new testament.
Zach AFeb 26, 2012

so I'm at home and my mom's a doctor. I asked her to take a look at the ultrasound. she confirmed it's definitely a kidney with stones in it. he would, in fact, have to go under anesthesia to have stones removed - that would be the "bottom of the well" where he looks up and Esther is there (probably pre-crash). however, only stones that have exited the kidney would be removed. So the ultrasound would probably be AFTER the crash, and the fact that it shows more stones would probably contribute to his depressive mindset (especially considering how painful they would be upon exit - although not necessarily before they exit).

also, it's more common to use CAT scans to detect kidney stones these days - although ultrasounds were along longer. So that probably points to the general timeperiod the game takes place in - CAT Scans weren't around until after 1972 in GB but matured greatly by the '90s.
Brendan KeoghFeb 26, 2012I have nothing to add at this time other than to say this is all so fascinating.
Zach AFeb 26, 2012
wait no wikipedia is misleading.

"On the way to Damascus, Paul experienced a vision of Jesus that converted him from persecutor to believer" - visions, being one thing we are all wondering about in the narrator's relationship to the island (real or fake? not to mention the ghosts) - and persecutor to believer lends a different tinge to "my Damascus" - he goes to speak with paul not to belittle him but to commiserate with him.

and Acts talks a great deal about Paul (and the other apostles). of course christianity is not merely about sin and forgiveness - obviously appropriate here - but also about renewal and redemption - as in the eggs, signalling a new generation of life - and the final miracle of the narrator's transofmation into a bird - but also, and always most importantly - about the miracle of resurrection and life after death.

i think this is a deeply Christian game. that particular aspect of it doesn't resonate with me very much, but certainly the symbolism and mechanics of it line up very nicely with christian themes. it's very interesting.