Dear Esther strays from traditional story telling in video games. The game isn’t so much playable as it is observable. Players do not create the action, but rather mull around an island and perceive pieces of a story that has already taken place. Throughout the game the narrator reads letters that were written to the unseen character Esther. Towards the end it is revealed that the letter writer has taken all of the letters he had written, has folded them into paper boats, and has set them in the water.
The text reads “From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”
This moment in the game serves as a metaphor for the mechanical sporadic method of storytelling within the game and provides insight into an overall message about both the evolution and permanency of story.
Periodically throughout the game the player is given bits of monologue, but that monologue is different each play through. The player never knows what bits of information will be provided, and what parts will be negated. Each piece of the monologue is supposedly written on one of the paper boats. On a literal level the boats are spread out, intermingled, and perhaps some of them are lost. Receiving information from the narrator is comparable to trying to decipher the story from picking through these paper boats. Of course, the game is structured enough that we don’t receive an ending monologue in the beginning of the game, but still the information is spread out, relatively random, and does not follow a linear, determined narrative. The game provides information with the same haphazardness that one would find trying to decipher a story through retrieving these paper boats. It is up to the player to make sense of the story, but there is no way to know for sure what order the letters were written in, and what information is missing. The act of letting the letters drift out to sea serves as a direct metaphor for the method of storytelling throughout the game.
In addition to referring the game’s method of storytelling, the paper boat scene provides insight into the significance and role of story as a whole. The game is saying that stories are simultaneously evolutionary and permanent.
Dear Esther demonstrates how stories evolve through both the mechanical randomness of the story as well as the reliance on player interpretation. Again, since each play through the game is different the game’s story is constantly changing. New information is provided each time, and consequently previous information is negated. This is representative of the fundamental, evolutionary nature of storytelling. History shows that stories are malleable, and are likely to change through each successive telling.
Since there are so many possibilities for what information will be revealed, there is even more potential for copious interpretations of the game. Since the story is never exactly the same, the meaning that a player can gather from the game has the potential to be different each time. Indeed, the Internet is rife with various interpretations of the game, and because there is no singular gaming experience it is unlikely that a particular conclusion will be reached. Again, this is reflective of the evolutionary nature of storytelling that the game presents. Not only can the narrative change, but also as a result the meaning extracted from the game has the potential to be constantly evolving. Both the narrative and extracted meaning from the story are continually changing, which is directly reflective of the nature of stories as a whole.
In addition to alluding to the evolutionary nature of story, Dear Esther simultaneously provides insight into the permanency of story. In the monologue describing the paper boats the narrator states: “Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.” It would seem that the story should be lost with these paper boats. Contradictory to the narrator’s telling, however, the boats are still there, and no matter how long the player watches them, they do not sink. We are still hearing this story, so even if a physical record of it was destroyed (which may or may not have been hyperbole, or a hallucination anyway) the story still exists. It may not be entirely in tact, but the game is still referring to the permanency of the story. Indeed, we can see through the final monologue that the narrator is incapable of destroying his story. The narrator states in the final monologue: “Dear Esther. I have burnt my belongings, my books, this death certificate. Mine will be written all across this island.” This passage refers to the fundamental perpetuity of story. Even though it is subject to change, it is difficult for story to be destroyed entirely.
The paper boat scene in Dear Esther serves as a metaphor for the type of storytelling found within the game, and illuminates the nature of storytelling as a whole. The way that the game presents the story demonstrates how stories are capable of evolving, and shows the permanent nature of story itself.