Does Overjustification Hurt Games?
Ed Key on Proteus

The Thin Play of Dear Esther

Dear Esther Much has been written about Dear Esther, alas little of it useful. Too much noise has been generated by people objecting to the idea that thechineseroom’s title qualifies as a game – some, like Tadhg Kelly, insist that it is worthy as a piece of modern art, but it isn’t a game because there is no agency. In Implicit Game Aesthetics, this aesthetic judgement  is termed the agency aesthetic, a way of enjoying play that focuses on the player’s ability to enact meaningful change in the fictional world of the game as the sine qua non of game aesthetics and hence a necessary condition of ‘gamehood’. Others object on grounds based directly on the addictive dopamine-hit of winning expressed by the victory aesthetic or the problem aesthetic. But none of these objections help people to understand the play of Dear Esther.

I disavow the term ‘game’ if it is going to get in the way of understanding games, and Dear Esther is a game worthy of study. Both my colleague Ernest Adams and I have long wanted games to be less obsessed with giving players fictional guns to wield and more willing to allow players to enjoy the environment. In a GDC talk, Ernest singled out Far Cry as an excellent example of a virtual world sadly closed to tourists because there is a perpetual gunfight going on inside. I share this sentiment. I have spent many happy hours crafting wonderful environments inside Far Cry’s first-rate level editor that alas fell flat because most were ill-suited for gun violence. Still, I have enjoyed roaming their virtual hillsides and shorelines for hours at an end. How sad that I was the only person who was enabled to do so – especially since examining Dear Esther practically shows how pathetically simple it would have been to have games/art of this kind available for play years before if only the development community hadn’t been so busy with its primary preoccupations.

At its heart, Dear Esther isn’t just built with an FPS engine, it is built as an FPS. Players who have now racked up hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours in control of a disembodied gun-graphic forget that just moving around in these worlds in first person perspective is a skill that has to be learned. For many of us, it has become second nature – the fact that my gaming group has played Counter-Strike for so long has made these controls natural even to me, a player of very few such games. Those who object to Dear Esther on victory or problem grounds should reflect that there are players for whom negotiating the entire island with this set of controls would be a significant challenge. The objection cannot, therefore, be that there is no challenge or goal, only that it is too easy to be a game (which says a lot about the kind of players who would raise such an objection!). In fact, I would say it is still not easy enough, but that is merely my preference for games/art that can reach everyone, not merely every gamer.

The FPS influences of the game run deeper than the controls, though: the level design is written in the language of the first person shooter throughout. That the fictional world of games have a language, a semiotic dimension that communicates, is one of the most interesting things about them – players of Assassin’s Creed, for instance, learned to associate a cluster of birds as a signal to jump from the rooftops, one of many well-formed aspects in this game’s visual language. For Dear Esther, the familiar branching-path layout introduces itself immediately and remains throughout, offering the traditional decision: players try to establish which is the dead-end so they can explore that first (since this is the most efficient method of exploration, and most gamers have explored a great many fictional worlds). Instead of a power up or heatlh, however, they find a part of the story – a different kind of reward, but a reward nonetheless.

However, the game also takes some of its signals from other places – the ever-blinking red light from the antenna in the distance is a classic weenie, Walt Disney’s terms for giant landmarks that guide people precisely because they’re taller than everything else around them. There are also berms, the Imagineer’s term for earthworks that block line of sight, but these are more common in games than weenies for the most part. The mountain in Journey is an obvious exception, a weenie serving the same role as the antenna light – structuring the play of the game towards a signalled goal. Both titles conspicuously borrow successful theme park concepts, gainfully learning from playful architecture how to guide-without-pointing – what is called telegraphing or landmarking in game level design.

The confluence of the weenie (the antenna light high in the centre of the mountain) and the traditional FPS branching path structure creates unusual decisions for the player, ones low in overt reward but high in expressive value. The way forward is seldom unclear, except perhaps for a few moments in the underground caves if the player gets turned around. This leaves them sometimes facing a path split that would put them back to where they have been before. There is no new voice to be heard for retreading old ground, so making this choice is solely an aesthetic decision on the part of the player, to lengthen their path, to see the island differently. I myself could not resist walking back on the sandy shore to view the lighthouse in full, even though doing so did nothing but lengthen my game. Therefore it would be wrong to claim that there is no agency in Dear Esther, it is just incredibly thin.

This thin play is precisely the game’s strength, since it allows the fictional elements more focus. Walking around the island is, many people have commented, meditative. It is strongly reminiscent of the early sections of Silent Hill 2, which also focus more on evoking atmosphere and experience, with challenges and puzzles deferred to later. In Dear Esther, however, those victories-to-come never emerge, and the game seldom uses fear or anxiety to raise the level of excitement. It aims for a much calmer state-of-being, one that I am tempted to compare to the also-meditative play of William A. Romanowski’s tranquility, although the games have very little in common representationally.

Conversely, the mainstream videogames industry specialises in very thick play – the thick cumulative goal challenges of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer mode, the bountiful, overlapping tasks of a Zelda game, or the shop-driven cornucopia of many economic social games. These games are, in the psychological sense, overjustified – the player’s actions are strongly conditioned by goals and rewards, and these determine what the player can and will do at any given time (as discussed last week in Does Overjustification Hurt Games?). Agency in these games seems to be present in abundance, but what the player will be doing at any given time has been specified in advance. At best, they get to work their way through the chocolate box in the order of their choosing, but mostly any sense of agency in these games comes solely from what Espen Aarseth has called transgressive play – finding the unexpected corners of what has been set in advance for the ideal player to do.

Against the overjustification that is necessarily abundant in the commercial mainstream of games, Dear Esther is a welcome offering of thin play, albeit not so thin that you cannot spot its first person shooter pedigree (although it has clearly bred with some mongrel offspring of the adventure game). One of the most stunning things about it is that the game asks you to conduct all the pathfinding of an FPS but without any killing on the way, as if the form of the gun game is now so codified that developers cannot help but use its tropes. Then again, perhaps (as Ian Bogost suggests) the engine itself cannot help but extrude the echoes of its first person shooter heritage.

However you look at it, though, Dear Esther is worth looking at. Provided you are not seeking the addictive fun associated with the thicker offerings in the marketplace, you will find something very different and quite unique here. A beautiful fictional world has been dressed with a brooding backstory, exposed simply by traversing its spaces. It’s a kind of game/art I’ve been waiting a long time for, and that there have been absolutely no good reasons for the industry not to be making. The technology has been around for years, but no-one thought to look at what could be done with those toy-view worlds when you finally silenced the guns. I can but hope that the success of Dear Esther makes it easier to create this kind of thin play in the future.


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A lot of thinking about games is grounded in the idea that games are fundamentally interactive. This idea has very deep roots. The fact that that it's embedded in the names of some of our institutions -- "The Interactive Achievement Awards", for example -- show how thoroughly internalized this aesthetic has become.

The thing is, I think our critical assumptions about interactivity often warp our ability to understand place spaces. A lot of times, the interesting part of a play experience involves long contemplative chains. The interactive bit is limited to a minor bit of business to keep the contemplative play ticking along. When I was designing tactical shooters we'd often create levels with safe observation points, locations where the player could pause and observe and think about what lay ahead and what he was going to do. The play that took place at these moments wasn't interactive, but it was definitely engaging.

When a play space is packed with lots of immediate opportunities to act (or interact) there's no room left for contemplative play. The cognitive load is too great. If you're always worrying about tactics, there's no room to think about strategy, or more importantly, meaning.

That's what I think is so interesting about Dear Esther. By stripping out the tactical challenges entirely, it creates a space where there's room for long loops of contemplative play. There's room to think about what you're doing and why you're doing it and what it means and how it relates to your life.

The trade-offs between thin and thick play that you mention are pure fiction. A thick play can still have everything thin play does. In other words, a thin play is a retrogression; it's an inferior game.

For example, a game such as GTA 3 has a thick play but still allows you all of the time in the world to pay attention to the environments.

Oh, and yes, there is a challenge in Dear Esther. However, it's horribly awful one; not simply because it's easy, but because it's a bad sort of difficulty.

Brian: wonderful commentary here. I am particularly in support of your comments about cognitive load - creating the opportunities for the player to reflect on the play space is a doorway to a completely different style of play.

Mirosurabu: It is true that an open world game like a GTA can support both thin and thick play, but the thick play overjustifies the thin play for many players, and it can also interfere with the opportunities for thin experience because the world has been expressly designed for a different kind of experience.

I appreciate that a player such as yourself finds no value in the thin play of Dear Esther - what you will have to accept is that there are other players for whom that thin experience is deeply liberating.

Thanks for the comments!

It is true that some players are ignoring everything that is not explicitly rewarded by the game, but that's THEIR fault. It's not something they cannot change. It's not something they have absolutely no control over.

Simply because they end up choosing thin play over thick play doesn't mean that thick play ISN'T superior to thin play. It absolutely is.

Besides, this isn't the question of what *I* prefer, it's simply a question of what is the relationship between complex and simple games. For example, there are many complex games I don't like, but that doesn't mean complexity is not better than simplicity.

Mirosurabu: You couch your argument in terms of universals, but you possibly can't ground those claims in anything objective! :) For instance, when you say:

"Simply because they end up choosing thin play over thick play doesn't mean that thick play ISN'T superior to thin play. It absolutely is."

What could possibly ground a claim that thick play is absolutely superior to thin play? Making a claim like this is simultaneously saying that players who enjoy a game with thin play are "playing wrongly".

If I prefer Proteus to Modern Warfare (and I do, by a vast degree), and Proteus has play that is incredibly thinner than MW (and it does), your position has to be that I am *wrong* to enjoy that one game more than the other. I find this kind of position rather odd, and very difficult to defend. How can you hope to be an authority on how *I* enjoy playing, especially when your claims don't match how I actually *do* play?

I think you're misunderstanding what the thin experience delivers for those players looking to go into that kind of space - the very play experiences that the thick games tend to obscure or obliterate. Surely this reflects the way you play more than anything universal?

Best wishes!

As I've said, thick play does not necessarily obfuscate the kind of joy you can get from thin play. Yes, sometimes it is the case, but a lot of the time it isn't. GTA 3 is a good example.

The fact that some people can't appreciate GTA 3 due to "overjustification" is missing the point because to those who can properly appreciate both GTA 3 and Proteus it's pretty clear that GTA 3 is much more pleasurable. In short, those who cannot appreciate GTA 3 due to "overjustification" are handicapping themselves from higher pleasure.

The reason why thick play is superior to thin play is simply because it's everything thin play is but more. This is pure math a.k.a. you don't have to conduct rigorous scientific experiments to test this claim.

In essence, you're trying to validate simplicity by giving it fictional exclusivity in terms of quality. The only exclusivity simplicity has is accessibility i.e. it's what beginners prefer. And there is nothing wrong with that. Before one can enjoy complexity one has to enjoy simplicity. In other words, we all love simplicity, it's just that as we get older and more experienced, we ask for more and more complexity to sustain our interest.

That's how real progress is made in any art.

However, that does not mean that we all have to enjoy the same games! After all, there are all sorts of bizarre confounding factors when it comes to individual preferences. But one thing is sure -- we all move towards complexity.

Mirosurabu: thanks for returning to defend your views, although I remain unconvinced. Your claim that "thick play is superior to thin play... because it's everything thin play is but more" suggests to me you haven't really appreciated the experiences that thin play facilitates for the players who want it.

I doubt further discussion will resolve this, but as one final offering I'll suggest that the way your claim reads to me is that adding a chase scene, explosions and a gunfight to and Ingmar Bergman movie would be to improve it because it would be all the movie was before "and more". Aesthetic experience is not additive in this way - you can easily ruin it by adding the wrong things.

All the best!

"you haven't really appreciated the experiences that thin play facilitates for the players who want it."

Easy cover-up. (:

Adding a chase scene to a film would work well only if it's integrated well with the rest of the elements. That's given. That said, it probably won't fit Ingmar's films.

I never said that there is no such thing as good thick play and bad thick play. In fact, this was implied when I said "thick play does not *necessarily* obfuscate the kind of joy you can get from thin play. [..] *sometimes* it is the case".

As Aristotle is often quoted -- the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, beside actual parts of a whole, there is also an assembly of these parts.

If a game is made of excellent elements (and many such elements, for after all, that's the very definition of a thick play, right?) but their assembly is bad, then that would lead to an inferior thick play, obviously.

Your argument is that thin play has something exclusive to it. You have yet to provide a convincing argument! (:

Mirosurabu: It is not so much that I have failed to convince you, it is that neither of us accept the other's position as convincing. :)

My argument here is simply that thick play drowns out the thin play, making it harder, sometimes impossible, to access this more subtle dimension of the fictional worlds of games. The fact that there are people who appreciate Dear Esther's thin play (such as myself) is evidence to support this claim. The fact that you can enjoy thin play even in worlds with thicker play layered on top has no bearing on my argument.

But I have no expectation that our discussion is going to sway you. Whatever you say, I shall continue to seek thinner playing experiences, and be happy that these are finally being made.

Thanks for the chat!

I'm afraid you simply don't want to consider a possibility that people who enjoy thin play are those with a handicap. ;)

Enjoy -- that is to say prefer over thick play.

*grins* If it is a handicap, it is one I have acquired from playing challenge-focused games for thirty years and thus getting sick of them. :p

Thanks for the discussion! I'm sure this topic will reoccur in another context in the not-too-distant future.

Chris, I admire your graceful diplomacy. You accept the other's forceful energy, while staying on your center and maintaining a strong expression of your own energy back to the other person. It is like watching a good martial artist practice Aikido. :)

Also, I share your appreciation for the kinds of play experiences that can be drowned out by more intense elements. Maybe a useful way to explain the difference to those who are unfamiliar could be McLuhan's concepts of "hot" and "cold" media, or in general, of over-stimulated (hyper-sensitive) and under-stimulated personalities.

axcho: thanks for the kind words! I've never been compared to a verbal Aikido practitioner before, and I find the allusion quite flattering! :) From my own perspective, I engage in discussion on the assumption there are multiple valid viewpoints to be squared against each other, never on the assumption that there are right or wrong positions.

Also, many thanks for suggesting McLuhan's "hot" and "cool" media in connection with the 'thin play' concept - I was aware of the terms, but hadn't thought of them in this context, which they are perfect for! Definitely something to reference going forward with this.

Best wishes!

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