Let’s Play–Dear Esther | Part 1: Designing Hopelessness (Critical Let’s Play)

Hey, everybody!  I’m trying out a new format for analyzing video games with this critical Let’s Play.  For a while now, I’ve felt that video is much more suited to analyzing games and I hope you all will agree!  I decided to return to the Chinese Room’s masterpiece, Dear Esther , because it’s so dense and there’s so much to say about it.  I’d love to take this as an opportunity to talk about the game with all of you, so feel free to leave a comment and start a discussion!

Atmosphere in Metro: Last Light

Atmospheric storytelling defines any immersive experience that allows one to feel enveloped by a world without necessarily being able to interact with it. Strong atmosphere typifies the Disney World experience as visitors walk and ride through convincing environments and narratives. Though Metro: Last Light takes a darker twist on the concept, its similarities to theme parks in this sense are notable. Metro repeatedly forces the player to walk through environments that show glimpses into daily life in this post-apocalyptic world.

Though every level in the game envelops the player in the story, the developers even include levels that contain little to no action and instead are entirely dedicated to immersing the player and delivering the story. These levels take players through Sparta—a lackadaisical military base, Teatr—the cultural epicenter of the post-apocalyptic world, Venice—the world’s crime-ridden underbelly, and a destroyed Moscow, in which every non-player character (NPC) is having a unique conversation. By giving such varied personalities to every character in a wide spectrum of communities, the game brilliantly incorporates its humanist themes into gameplay, revealing that every citizen and every country in the Metro has its own story, motivation, and goals; no one in the Metro is any more right than the next.

Metro-Sparta
Lounging soldiers in Spartan Station

In the opening level to Metro: Last Light, the player starts out in Spartan Station and must walk through a heavily detailed environment that sets the stage for much of the atmospheric experience to come. These traversable worlds consist of about two or three dozen NPCs going about their daily life. The attention to detail in these levels is admirable (to say the least) as each character has an interesting and unique story to tell. The Spartan station level bombards the player with conversations left and right which they can choose to listen to in full or quickly move through. Either way, the player receives a very believable experience of the player character’s home.

Stage show in Teatr
Stage show in Teatr

Later levels, Teater and Venice, show the good and bad sides of the average citizens of the Metro. Even though a lot has gone wrong in the world of the Metro, there are still people in Teatr devoting their lives to preserving culture. The player passes by a man relating stories of life before the war and has the opportunity to watch a show among other observable phenomena in the environment. However, at the same time Venice shows the underbelly of society in the Metro, adding to the long-list of crimes and atrocities committed in this post-apocalyptic universe.  The player witnesses shady dealings in the back alleys, hangs out in a bar, participates in gambling, and visits a strip club. While not necessarily critical of these activities, the game depicts this as the edgier and more morally corrupt part of the Metro.

The desperate hands of restless souls in the level, Dead City
The desperate hands of restless souls in the level, Dead City

In the level Dead City, the player gets to see first-hand the destruction that humanity caused. Dead City adopts a more horror-like tone to underscore the terrors of the war. Apparitions and shadows of the dead citizens of Moscow appear in the player’s path as they traverse the ruins of the once great city. The color scheme is notably very gray, the only exception being Artyom’s occasional visions of families living out their normal lives before the bomb was released on the city, and one unsettling, bright red table cloth. As in other parts of the game, these images along with the constant, distant whispers add a chilling note to the experience and remind the player that the area used to be a vibrant and densely populated city. Later, the player is forced to walk through a tunnel surrounded by ghostly bodies that reach out to them—a hellish image of tortured souls that serves as the strongest reminder of the horrors of war.

Even the enemy NPCs are given a semblance of individuality. Many games recycle dialogue for enemy NPCs; most notably, in Thief, enemies repeat the same five quotes at least a hundred times before completing the game. Contrastingly, in Metro: Last Light, while stealthily moving about enemy territory, interesting scenes and unique dialogue unfold before the player. This attention to detail allows for an even more immersive experience as repeated lines of dialogue often pull the player out of the game and make them realizes that it is a video game. Most importantly, by giving every NPC an individual personality, the game delivers its humanist philosophy that no person or country is any more good or evil than the next.

Metro: Last Light thoroughly taps into one of the most unique abilities of video games as an art form by delivering narrative and background through its atmospheric setting. Many games from Bioshock to Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons have similarly been lauded for atmospheric delivery of narrative, but no game has quite the same amount of detail and purpose behind their atmospheres as Metro.

While the game’s atmosphere is intricately designed and impressively executed, it’s important to note that the game is not a flawless work of art either as some of this imagery is extremely objectifying and demeaning towards women. I will return to Metro: Last Light in a later article to discuss its unfortunately misogynistic undertone.

While the game’s atmosphere is intricately designed and impressively executed, it’s important to note that the game is not a flawless work of art either as some of this imagery is extremely objectifying and demeaning towards women. I will return to Metro: Last Light in a later article to discuss its unfortunate misogynistic undertones.

The Modern Gaming View: Why Art Games Constitute Games

Though it is clear that the gaming community is growing more and more accepting of art games, it seems that there is still a pervasive view that their status as games is debatable. While they obviously break from a standard form in games, that does not change the fact that, of the main types of media (aesthetic art, theater, literature, music, movies, video games, etc.), they clearly fall under the category of video games. For all intents and purposes, they are merely Modernist games.

One of the main roots of this debates seems to be in a fundamental disagreement about what constitutes a video game. With the most avant-garde games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, and Dear Esther, the most overwhelming complaint seems to be that there are not enough buttons. The four arrow keys and an occasional click do not create a sufficiently interactive experience to call it a game. However, the major flaw in this logic is that interactivity is still heavily required. These are not movies in which you can only change the camera angle; the player must knowledgeably interact with their environment to move the narrative forward.

Dear Esther controls

A counterargument to this is that they should not be called games but rather “interactive narratives” or “interactive experience”, but this idea is flimsy at best. Where do we now draw the line between games and interactive narratives? Do not the majority of mainstream video games contain narratives that the player interacts with? Take Call of Duty for example. The game relies on a plot (albeit a weak one) to give the player’s actions meaning in all of the campaigns. If the player felt no sense of progression in story, they would quickly bore of the experience.

This line between “video game” and “interactive narrative” becomes even blurrier when accounting for a game like Amnesia. While I cannot find articles and discussion threads about games like Dear Esther that do not question their statuses as true games, I have never seen or heard such a complaint about Amnesia. However, if we decide to draw the line between “game” and “interactive narrative” by the number of buttons, Amnesia would fall on the side of “interactive narrative”, requiring the same number of buttons as a game like Gone Home (and, more subjectively, about the same level of interactivity).

What could differentiate these games so much that there is such a disparity in arguments over their statuses as games? The answer is simple; the average gamer likes Amnesia better. That is it. What Amnesia lacks in controls, it compensates for in a more appealing narrative to the majority of the gaming community. Other than the type of narrative (horror versus drama), there are effectively no differences between Amnesia and Gone Home. In fact, Gone Home seems to flaunt this by creating the same suspense and atmosphere as the average horror game.

Gone Home-Amnesia

Frictional Games has pointed out that Gone Home was even originally made in the Amnesia engine.

This is where the modern (or, if you prefer, “Stanleyist”) view on gaming comes in. The psychological concept that perception is reality is a well-known and commonly believed idea. The same holds true here; perception is everything in gaming. The perceived sense of danger in Slender seems to appeal more to the average gamer than the sense of irrationality in The Stanley Parable.

In fact, this is distinctively the “Stanleyist” view on games. The “Buttons” ending in The Stanley Parable is one of the most abrasive and harshly critical attacks against the gaming community that I have seen so far. This ending leaves the player in a heaven-like setting in which they are surrounded by buttons; the ending goes on indefinitely and pushing the buttons causes nothing to happen. The sarcastic setting points out that the gaming community seems to believe that pushing buttons is what is important rather than any narrative or artistic purpose. However, without any sense of accomplishment or narrative progression, player actions in video games quickly break down, losing meaning and appeal. Be assured that this is not just my subjective interpretation of The Stanley Parable, as this is what the rest of the game really gets to the heart of as well. The player needs a narrator to give their actions meaning, and the narrator needs the player to have their story heard.

Heaven

While this new wave of games push the boundaries of gaming and could certainly be considered a new genre or a new movement in gaming, the degree of difference between these games and any others when thought about a little more carefully hardly seems like a different form of media altogether. Remember that, though a game’s atmosphere might not enrapture you, there are plenty of people for which it does. Though a significant number of gamers prefer the atmosphere in Amnesia, I am not alone in finding the quirky nature of The Stanley Parable similarly appealing. And, although many love the interactivity of games like League of Legends, there are also people who prefer the game mechanic of exploration in a game like Dear Esther.

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If you want to read more, click here to read about The Stanley Parable and Religion or Existentialism in Dear Esther.