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!
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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**Spoilers for The Stanley Parable**
Let me begin this by asking the question that we are all wondering: why trust me? I am not a professional game analyst, I have never made a game myself, nor have I gone to college to study video game analysis. However, that is exactly the reason why my analysis is as valid as the next person’s; there are no real game analysts up to this point. So, this game has already stepped leaps and bounds in front of all of its competition. In the mere act of delving deeper into this game than people have with games before, we are validating its purpose.
If you have read other analyses of The Stanley Parable, it is no secret that the game left many dissatisfied. An analyst from Destructoid claims that “the game offers no answers,” but I disagree. The issue with many of these analyses is that they all try to pick apart each of eight or so possible endings separately. However, as far as my knowledge goes, there is no way to play the game without going through multiple endings. Most of them only last 15-30 minutes on their own, and by opening on a pair of two open doors, it is made clear that there is more than one possible path. As if this wasn’t enough to convince us that the game is in the multiple endings, the loading screen boldly states in repeated text that “the end is never.” So, what does it mean? Let’s first look at a few of the individual endings so that we can analyze them as a whole.
The most straightforward ending—the one in which the player follows all of the narrators commands—leads us to the ironically named “freedom” ending. But, is it really freedom? Of course not. We didn’t act on any pretense of free will to get there, and we didn’t solve the mystery of the absent members. As if it wasn’t clear enough that this ending shouldn’t give us any satisfaction, the player enters the blatantly named “Mind Control Facility” to shut it down even though, by doing this, the player is subjected to the same mind control as Stanley. Think about it: Stanley starts out by only following commands and pressing buttons on a computer. Furthermore, the character—not the player—is in control as he steps out into the free world in a cutscene.
In the “confusion ending,” the player and narrator team up to break away from the broken narrative and make their own story. As the narrator claims in what is later referred to as the “nonsense theory,” perhaps it is about the journey and not the ending. Nevertheless, it is a disappointment to discover in a room where the player’s previous actions have been outlined that the whole ending was predetermined; there is no escaping the narrative.
Another ending establishes the dependence between player and narrator as the player must grimly jump from a ledge over and over as the only way out while the narrator begs Stanley not to.
In yet another ending, Stanley destroys the narrator’s story by going against all his wishes. However, this leaves the player literally caged into the cargo lift—no doubt, a symbol for yet another predetermined path which leads the player into a dead end, a room crumbling apart.
The clear, underlying theme of all of the possible paths is that there is no true freedom among the predetermined possibilities. It is all a carefully controlled experience by the game developers with only the illusion of free will, but, in that case, is this game really just about the semblance of choice in videogames? Is it nothing more than a parody that offers “no solutions to the gaming tropes it comments upon” as the analyst from Destructoid says? I believe the answer is no. While it points out in several endings that all the player is doing is pushing buttons, the same can be said for book and movies in which the audience just sits silently and stares. Moreover, such a claim is not substantiated when we consider that the developers put a lot of time into creating the game—a sure sign that they are not condemning playing games as a whole.
Instead, I believe that the purpose of the game is to break out from the linear, one dimensional storytelling by analyzing the games we play. The player takes control of the narrative by giving meaning to it and thinking about it on his or her own.
The Stanley Parable is not a mere criticism of videogames; it is a carefully crafted work of art intending to inspire players to give more meaning to the games that they play. As the game points out, the player needs the narrator (and, therefore, the game developer), but the narrator also needs the player. Just as Don Quixote did for popular knight errant stories, The Stanley Parable asks the player to demand more intellect from their entertainment and help the game developer in turn by bringing intellect to their games. You may be left unsatisfied by The Stanley Parable, but few great works of art will perfectly satisfy its audience. Amazing authors from Cervantes to Virginia Woolf (and countless artistic films) leave the audience upset and maybe even confused, but they are nonetheless beautifully construed and great advancements in art.
If you liked this and would like to read more, I post criticisms of everything from Dear Esther to Portal. Check it out!