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!

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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 Death of Intellectualism in Dear Esther

Much has been said of the fragmented narration and ambiguity in Dear Esther.  Traditionally, this has been taken for a more surface-level understand that the narrator’s mind is similarly fragmented.  However, there is more to it than that.  The inherent contradictions in the narrator’s speech and visual metaphors show that Pinchbeck may have had more in mind than just character depth and ambience while writing in these details.  Rather, he presents the player with the existential story of an intellectual discovering the lack of meaning in the world and the uselessness of his own intelligence.

The narrator’s voice is notably flowery.  In fact, I have seen many complaints about Dear Esther as being written in a style that is too “pompous”, “cryptic”, and—yes—even “intellectual”.  In one opening monologue, the narrator describes the island as “a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis” (jetty-a).  Using a word like hypothesis in common speech suggests that the narrator is in a field that involves some kind of academic pursuits—a place where “hypothesis” would be commonly used.  References to “singularity” and “alpha point”, which are fairly complex scientific and religious theories respectively, immediately immerse the player in the narrator’s intellectual speech.  Furthermore, the narrator continually cites Donnelly as if he were writing an academic paper and not a letter to a loved one.  In one of the first triggers, the narrator says “Donnelly reports the legend of the hermit” (first climb).  The narrator describes Donnelly’s material as “obscure, the writer’s literary style… even more so” (cliff path-b) which leads the player to believe that Donnelly’s book is a pursuit only an intellectual would take on.

With this understanding, the fragmented narrative and contradictions within the narrator’s own speech give the player a whole new lens through which to look at the story.  As an intellectual man who cannot even make sense of his own words and thoughts, the narrator transforms into a symbol of the failures and inherent contradictions in all pursuits of knowledge.  The narrator even goes as far as to describe “ascribing purpose, deliberate motive to everything” as “delusional” (cliff path-c) which hints at the same existentialist thoughts in the narrator himself.

10-Cave drawing 2

Perhaps most convincingly, the visual metaphor of complex ideas painted onto ancient ruins and cave walls reduce the greatest achievements and advancements in human history, what the narrator calls “the last vestiges of [his] civilisation” (lower valley #2), to no more than cave paintings.  Not only does this image undermine their value to society, but it has also noted that these drawings relate to Esther’s death as one of the images is of an alcohol molecule—a possible cause of the crash. In this case, the player could interpret these paintings as the narrators frustration; we know all of these things and yet none of it could save Esther.

Damascus

In the second two chapters, the player sees hints that the narrator associates religion and science as both having forsaken him. The majority of the cave paintings are scientific, but in chapter 4, these images climax with a long and large biblical quote.  Taking this in the same light as the scientific drawings, the narrator sees religion as similarly useless in finding answers in the world.  Further evidence of abandonment by all human rationality can be seen in a cave in chapter 4 in which the player finds a boat constructed of car parts and surrounded by candles.  The boat has a notable resemblance to the one the narrator used to wreck himself onto the island.  In this case, the car parts refer not only to the accident but technological advancement whereas the candles give a ceremonial feel to the image.  By using these pieces to create the boat that the narrator used to strand himself on the island, it would seem that the narrator feels that all deeper thought has abandoned him on the island.

carpart-boat

*At a better angle this looks significantly more boat-like.  I would encourage you to check it out in-game.

If these visual metaphors aren’t convincing enough, the narrator specifically notes contradictions in different pursuits of knowledge in the script.  At the “Valley top” in script A, the narrator asks if previous island inhabitants could “walk the bible and inhabit its contradictions”.  This suggests that the narrator has already turned to religion and was disappointed in its inability to lead him to any real answers.  The opening monologue—as previously cited—juxtaposes science and religion in a similar way.  He references “a singularity” and “an alpha point” which are both ideas that theorize that there is a certain point at which human consciousness is not capable of understanding any more than it already does.

Between the narrator’s monologues and the visual metaphors, there is significant proof that the inability to truly understand the world plagues the narrator.  With this in mind, the story transforms into one that is not only about the death of the narrator’s wife but rather the death of intellectualism, reason, and all meaning in the narrator’s life.

*Quotes taken from the full script as released by the Chinese Room.

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If you want to read more about Dear Esther, check out some of my other posts: Island of isolation and the Narrator as a Christ-figure.