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.
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.
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