How Ambiguity Helps Make “Dear Esther” a Game

“I find myself increasingly unable to find that point where the hermit ends and Paul and I begin. We are woven into a sodden blanket, stuffed into the bottom of a boat to stop the leak and hold back the ocean. My neck aches from staring up at the aerial; it mirrors the dull throb in my gut where I am sure I have begun to form another stone. In my dreams, it forms into a perfect representation of Lot’s wife, head over her shoulder, staring along the motorway at the approaching traffic, in a vacuum of fatalistic calm.”

Character ambiguity is a part of what makes “Dear Esther” a game as well as a story. The act of discerning who is who is a part of the challenge. While it is true that many other works of fiction are intentionally ambiguous and require readers to strive to figure things out, in “Dear Esther” this added challenge helps the experience feel more like playing a game than just following a semi-interactive text. In every text that I’ve every encountered, the reader has been able to be certain of the identity of at least one of the characters. This is not the case with “Dear Esther.” Because so many different interpretations are possible, there is an added element of individuality.

The fact that it is pretty much impossible to determine the true identity of the characters helps to form a sort of flexible allegory for St. Paul’s journey. In this allegory, the only thing that is not ambiguous is that the crash and Saul’s divine intervention are analogous peripeteia. Both occur along a journey; both involve personal transformation brought about through injury. That is as much as we can say without knowing which character represents St. Paul. The player is supposed to give consideration to the possibility that any or all of these characters could be Paul in this allegory, as well as to the possibility that either or both of the roads game’s two journeys (the one from Bristol to Exeter or the one that the player walks) could be analogous to St. Paul’s route. Consider the above passage. The first sentence of this note plays directly into this character ambiguity. “Paul and I begin” further suggests that Paul and the narrator could be the same person. But they are still referred to separately. The choice to name this character Paul is meant to form an obvious association between Paul of Damascus and Paul Jacobson. But this is complicated by the fact that it is hinted elsewhere that the narrator himself, and the driver who collided with Esther could all possibly be Paul.

What is even more puzzling in this passage is the association between the hermit, Paul and the narrator. The metaphor in this second sentence (“we are woven into a sodden blanket”) implies that the hermit, the narrator and the Pauls are somehow united in a struggle against an unstoppable force. It is hard to imagine that the unstoppable force, analogous here to the ocean, could be anything but death. Both are constant, inevitable antagonists of humanity. The invocation of death calls into question the teachings of the New Testament, if we are referring to St. Paul. The New Testament preaches the idea that death is not something to be feared, as there is hope of salvation for those who have been good. To suggest that such an important New Testament figure as St. Paul (who is surely guaranteed a spot in heaven) is “woven into” the struggle against death along with the rest of humanity is a subtle humanist jab at the Christian idea of the afterlife. But the ambiguity makes this inference optional, depending on whether we choose to assume he is referring to St. Paul or Paul Jacobson, as well as whether we choose to believe that the ocean represents the force of death.

The blasphemy is more obvious in the two following lines of the passage. Here, the player’s focus shifts from our ambiguous allegory to an unambiguous metaphor. No inference need be made: the player is told specifically that the aerial “forms into a perfect representation of Lot’s wife.” The phrase “head over her shoulder” assigns the aerial both a gender and an action. In this personification, the aerial is doing exactly what Lot’s wife did to get herself smited: watching an inevitable disaster. The aerial is continuously “staring along the motorway at the approaching traffic, in a vacuum of fatalistic calm,” much the way we might imagine Lot’s wife would have watched the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The fact that the aerial is depicted as able to carry out the same human action God tried to prevent Lot’s wife from doing, despite the fact that it is just as inanimate as a pillar of salt, implies that perhaps god’s punishment was ineffective.

Thus, in this passage, we have an ambiguous allegory and an unambiguous metaphor, both with possible blasphemous implications. The comparison between Lot’s wife and the aerial provides us with enough information to conclude that the game’s writers are trying to create a reinterpretation of the New and Old Testaments. But it is up to the players how much they want to buy into this. The highly ambiguous and unpredictable nature of the text, as well as the random generation of notes, allows players to walk away with different experiences.

This potential for individuality is typical of video games, but not of books and movies. A part of the gaming experience is the idea that the choices players make can influence the outcome of the game. What happens in other forms of storytelling will remain constant each time the book is read or the story is told. “Dear Esther” may not seem like a game, but that is only because the choices the player makes do not manifest on screen, they occur in her head. My opinion that the makers of the game are trying to impose a humanist criticism of the New and Old Testaments is supported by my decision to assume that St. Paul is woven into that sodden blanket. With limited information, we are free to assume as we please. Although by this measure, “Rashomon” would also be considered a game. However, the difference between “Rashomon” and “Dear Esther,” is that “Rashomon” will play the same way each time for each viewer. Still, ambiguity is a device used to make the text of “Dear Esther” playable.

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