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!
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
*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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Dear Esther takes place on a Hebridean Island which depending on the interpretation is either metaphorical or a place the narrator strands himself with the intention of committing suicide following the death of his wife. The player traverses this island and never comes in contact with another human (despite references to other inhabitants). Furthermore, these inhabitants are referred to as hermits, lonely (like Jacobson), and out of touch (like the shepherds). The visual text also shows the island’s isolation (and desolation) with crashed and decaying ships surrounding the island. Thus, the player receives the same sense of isolation that the narrator feels due to the loss of his wife. These are all things that could likely go unnoticed but, upon further inspection, show brilliance in artistic design.
What did you feel about the isolation in Dear Esther? What other aspects of this game do you think The Chinese Room did well? Leave a comment in the section below!
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Dear Esther (created by The Chinese Room) is a critically-acclaimed game that has redefined the idea of art in video games. It is adeptly written and contains the same complex literary devices and themes as we see in canon literature such as Hamlet and To the Lighthouse. The story is about a man who maroons himself on a Hebridean island after the death of his wife in a car crash; however, this seemingly simple story evolves into a much more complex story thematically and psychologically as the game progresses. It later seems that the island is not truly there but rather a projection of narrator’s conscience*, while exploring the theme of religion. One interpretation of religion in Dear Esther is centered around the narrator seeing himself as a Christ figure.
It is quite clear to many critics that references to the shepherds, Paul, and Damascus are biblical, but not many have been able to their finger on what they are supposed to mean. I believe this is due to the shifting metaphors and unreliable narrative. The first references to religion are originally fairly straightforward and align themselves more closely to the religious understanding that ends the story as well. The narrator seems to be a Jesus-like character, not—in any sense—related to importance or benign nature but rather in reference to his self-sacrifice. The idea of the narrator as a Christ figure could even be interpreted as the self-righteous importance the narrator puts in his own suicide. With this understanding, the rest of the references neatly fall into place. Paul is the man responsible for the death of the narrator’s wife, Esther, and therefore has persecuted the story’s Jesus figure, perhaps analogous to Saul’s persecution of Christians before Jesus’s death.
One of the first references to religion is Donnelly’s report of the island’s shepherds as “forsaken by God,”* which seems be a self-pitiful reflection rather than an insight into the island’s historical inhabitants—the narrator is the shepherd “forsaken by god”. Taken in this sense, “forsaken by god” quotes Jesus in the book of Matthew, aligning itself with the view that the narrator’s sacrifice is akin to Jesus’s death.
The shepherd, Jacobson, like Donnelly* is yet another foil for the narrator. Notably, all three of these characters are isolated on this island while dying of a disease. Needless to say, “shepherd” is another reference to the narrator as a Jesus figure. Jacobson’s syphilis (which “tore through his system like a drunk driver”) is said to be caught from his “malcontented goats”, analogous to Paul who gave this psychological, or metaphorical, disease to the narrator by killing Esther.
In chapter four, however, the narrator reveals that Paul was not drunk as he initially claims. In fact, the narrator seems to describe the event as an act of fate, as “inevitable.” The narrator kills himself at the point marked on the Cliffside as “Damascus.” This seems to denote that the narrator is killing himself to make a point to Paul, since while on the road to Damascus after Jesus’s death, Paul converted to one of his followers.
Dear Esther explores religion in a very complicated fashion, and so as not to make this a novel, I will leave this analysis with this one interpretation. However, there are quite clearly—and intentionally—many ways to interpret the religious references in Dear Esther. What do you think about religion in Dear Esther? Leave a comment in the section below.
*The Chinese Room has stated that there are multiple interpretations of the same elements in Dear Esther and that these interpretations are intentionally conflicting.
*Quotes taken from The Chinese Room’s officially released script of Dear Esther.
*Donnelly himself is a foil for our narrator. He is a dying man who writes a book about the island our narrator traverses. In the interpretation of the island as only a metaphor, he is in fact the narrator, as suggested by the mention of “Esther Donnelly”.
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