Anyone who has played Dear Esther has certainly reached the part of the game where the character being controlled by the player must jump into a small pool in the caves. This moment is unique for a few different reasons. Firstly, it is the only moment in the game where the game denies the player’s common sense. Throughout most of the narrative, the character wanders on predetermined paths that are arranged so that players will eventually end up walking in the correct direction if they make sensible decisions. In real life, I would never jump from such a high ledge into a pool of uncertain depth, but the game forces you to do so—it’s the only way forward. The jump also leads to one of the few places in the game where the path is temporarily uncertain. The player may see the passage to the side of the cliff as the camera moves toward the water, but once the character is underwater, the path is unclear and must be found through trial and error. Most importantly, the jump and subsequent underwater experience serves to separate the player from the character in a way that is unparalleled by the rest of the game up until the very end. Throughout the majority of the game’s first-person experience, the character’s actions are completely controlled by the player, so long as the player does not try to move past the boundaries of the paths. At the cliff, however, the game essentially forces the player to make an irrational decision.
The question that I would like to consider is why this part of the game was not only included but made crucial to the progression of the narrative. It seems like keeping the player as connected to the character as possible would make more sense so as to increase the impact of the ending. The scenery in the caves is enough to keep players interested in the game without having to make decisions like whether to jump off a high ledge into a tiny pool.
Up until this point, walking on the paths seems to be meaningful. The player initially thinks that the paths lead somewhere, that seemingly random narrative segments will later make sense, that the character being controlled is travelling somewhere for a reason. This moment forces the player to reconsider that idea. If the objective is to reach a particular location, then this moment doesn’t make any sense at all—why is the character now allowed to jump off a cliff when he or she hasn’t been able to stray from the paths for the whole game?
I believe that the meaning that is created through this action is the same as that which is conveyed through the drawings on the walls, which go from simple diagrams to unintelligable nonsense over the course of the game. The paths and the drawings aren’t meant to be strung together into any kind of coherent structure. The same is true of the narration—neither ending sequence gives the player any useful information, and the referential, symbolic dialogue doesn’t necessarily form a coherent story. Instead, the game makes us question why we expect to receive a sensible, complete, chronological storyline.
The moment where the character must jump off the cliff defies the player’s expectations for the game. This is also done visually through the drawings on the walls and audibly through the narration, but the most interesting variation in my mind is the cliff. At that moment, gamic action is used to make the player think about and question the game and thus think about the meaning that it may be reaching for. The player has to make the character jump off the cliff to move forward, making the player question their assumption that there will always be paths through the island as well as their role as a player. This feeling could not be replicated through any other form of media because the meaning of this moment is reliant on action.