Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

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Alice and Kev, and the role of the player

I recently stumbled across the blog Alice and Kev (1), and it’s quite the experience. The author, Robin Burkinshaw, performed an experiment with The Sims 3 where he created a two homeless characters, a father and daughter, with some interesting character traits and followed them throughout their virtual lives. He blogged the results and created a deep and engrossing story along the way. I strongly recommend reading all of it before reading the rest of this post, as it does contain spoilers. You have been warned.

It becomes apparent quite quickly that this is a serious piece. While there is comedy, to be sure, the drama surrounding Alice and the people she interacts with takes center stage. Her story is tragic, uplifting, and poignant. It’s the story of a girl who got the short end of the stick of life and tries to make the best of it.

We first meet Alice as a young girl, clutching her teddy bear in the park where she and her angry and emotionally abusive father live. She has a hard life, living off of free food at school, and whatever she can scrounge up. She never get’s a good night’s sleep and is always exhausted. Everyone she meets looks down on her with disdain. Her father, Kev, is mean to everyone he runs into and takes pleasure in other people’s misery, including Alice. Her only friend in life is her teddy bear.

No hugs and no sleep

No hugs and no sleep (1)

As time goes by, Alice grows older, but her condition in life stays the same. She wants to succeed at school, and certainly tries, but life has other plans for her. Various people enter and leave Alice’s life, but never someone who truly cares about her. In one especially memorable moment, she goes back to the playground she frequented as a kid, and breaks down in tears.

No more hugs, not even pretend ones

No more hugs, not even pretend ones (1)

Despite everything that has happened to her, she wants to be a good person. At one point, she gets a part time job working at a supermarket. In a surprising move, the first thing she does with her new found money is to donate some of it to charity. This display of utter selflessness is truly amazing, and what is especially surprising is that Alice made this decision without the player’s input.

Much of her life is dedicated to feigning off hunger and exhaustion and avoiding her abusive father. She sleeps wherever she can for as long as she can, which is usually way too short. A few people are nice to her, allowing her to sleep on their couches or beds for a while. This niceness rarely lasts, but even just a token gesture of niceness is enough to raise her spirits. One day she gets a promotion at work, and she becomes ecstatic! Never before has something unambiguously good happened to her, and it made me intensely happy to see her so happy.

One day, Kev finally opens up to Alice. They have a real talk for what is perhaps the first time. They talk about their lives and each other. Alice feels for him, but still can’t bring herself to forgive him. Nonetheless she stays by his side for the rest of the night. The next morning, Kev has passed away. Even though she hated him, he was the only family she had and now she has no one left.

Alive and Kev

Alice and Kev (1)

The story ends with her contemplating the loss of her father, but the beginning of her adult life. She is finally starting to succeed. She is no longer the helpless little girl she once was, and, although her life is still hard, there is hope.

Alice

Alice (1)

What really strikes me about this story is that it was created using a simulation game, The Sims 3. This is a game that is unscripted, and contains no real dialogue. Players have some control over the characters in the game, but it’s not direct control like in most games. Sometimes the characters just do what they want to do. It leads to an interesting situation where the player is both the artist and the audience. Robin was creating the story as he was experiencing it. In an interview with GameSetWatch (2), he talks about this phenomenon:

“I was trying to help and guide them, but I also wanted to see the effect of the personality traits I chose for them. So if they started to do something on their own, I would let them finish, even if I was about to command them to do something else. Sometimes I would guide them towards a situation, then let them take care of the details. Other times, they would set something in motion, then I would start giving commands to carry things on along the same lines.”

I think that this dual role of creator/observer is something that is, for the most part, unique to video games. While yes, there is some modern art pieces that rely on audience involvement, it’s pretty niche and just not quite the same. The interactive nature of gaming engages the player in ways that other art forms simply cannot do. This is what gives them their immediacy, and are why stories and concepts that would be simplistic or dull in other mediums, such as film, are so engaging in games. This topic was recently covered by the video blog Extra Credits at The Escapist (3), and I highly recommend watching it. Gaming has just recently started exploring more serious issues, and the “drama” genre is very nascent. A game that has the subtly and complexity of some of the great films could be a truly ground-breaking experience, and it’s something that I think will happen within our lifetimes. I, for one, can’t wait.

(1) Burkinshaw, Robin. “Alice and Kev.” 2009. Available: http://aliceandkev.wordpress.com/
(2) Denby, Lewis and Robin Burkinshaw. “Column: ‘The Magic Resolution’: Hope Through Homelessness.” GameSetWatch. 24th October, 2011. Available: http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2009/10/column_the_magic_resolution_ho.php
(3) Portnow, James, Daniel Floyd, and Allison Theus. “The Role of the Player.” The Escapist. 16th June, 2011. Available: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/3555-The-Role-of-the-Player