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.