Mentally Interacting with Dear Esther

In Dear Esther the player walks through the landscape of an abandoned island, triggering monologue from the narrator. Who the player is in control of is never addressed, but the story seems to follow in the footsteps of a path previously taken by the narrator. The triggered monologue is selected randomly and the paths are fairly linear, leaving very few choices for the player. This lack of control is made most clear at the end of the game, where the player is forced to climb the aerial and jump. At this moment there is a disconnect between the player and the character. As the fall nears its end, the player turns into a bird, and it does not appear that there was ever a character to be controlled. This final sequence forces the player to let go of the little control they had, and shows that Dear Esther is meant to provoke mental interaction and reflection in a game. Dear Esther shows that games do not have to place their emphasis on the action of players.

The end of Dear Esther showcases an idea that permeates throughout the game; the player’s physical actions are largely insignificant. The only controls available are walking and looking, with very few paths to choose from. Monologue from the narrator is the only consequence for your actions, and even that is randomly selected by the game. Your character does not appear to be living, shown by the inability to drown, and being able to fall from great heights without hitting the ground. After the transition into a bird at the end, the player is forced to reconsider his or her role in the game. The ending solidifies the idea that the player is experiencing the story first-hand, but not physically a part of it. By taking away control, and presenting only part of the monologue in each play, Dear Esther forces the player to mentally interact with the game.

Some critics have claimed that Dear Esther is not a game due to the lack of player action, but I argue that it is broadening the scope of games. Dear Esther shows that players can interact with a game in ways beyond pressing buttons to create actions. It also shows that a game does not have to tell you what to do, or how to feel. The game is designed to be left up to interpretation, as different plays lead to different combinations of monologue. This is one of the developer Robert Briscoe’s favorite aspect of the game, who wrote “I love that it doesn’t spoon feed you anything, that it only gives you just enough info to allow your imagination can fill in the gaps, that every play-through gives a slightly different twist on the story allowing everyone to have their own unique interpretation of the the events, history and even the reality of the story itself.” (Briscoe) Dear Esther shows that games can create an experience unlike any other. The monologue is much like a narrative to be read or listened to, while the environment and ending sequence is similar to a film. Where the game really stands out is that the experience is different for every player. The monologue is selected randomly, items are placed differently, and each person will focus on different aspects of the game while progressing at their own pace. Dear Esther provides an experience different than that of any other form of media, and shows a very different direction that games can take.

As the player flies over the ocean and the screen fades to black, it is difficult not to reflect on the game. This mental interaction with the game, even after its conclusion, is what I find most powerful about Dear Esther. The story of the narrator and Esther focuses on topics including death, grief, regret, and forgiveness. Although the player may never make sense of all of the narrator’s letters, these themes are evident. The narrator has experienced the loss of Esther in a car crash, and the game follows his thoughts while dealing with this hard time. Whether the narrator’s jump from the aerial was physical or symbolic, the game ends by leaving the body controlled by the player and entering that of a flying bird. The ending transition suggests that the story continues, even after its most hopeless moment. Dear Esther pushes what it means to be a game, including an ending completely out of the control of the player. While having few actions, the game forces players to mentally experience a story, and reflect on their interpretation of it.

Briscoe, Robert. “Re: I am Robert Briscoe, the artist behind indie game Dear Esther AMA.”    Reddit. Web. 16 May 2012. <

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One Response to Mentally Interacting with Dear Esther

  1. mjp99 says:

    You point to a compelling strategy the game is utilizing to examine how video games choose to or allow meaning to be created through narrative and how an engagement with the narrative can go beyond enacting it. “Dear Esther” does a beautiful job of demonstrating how it’s no longer necessary to play through the story directly but instead play can be simply an experience or perspective on the story, and the mental interactivity of the text creates the meaning – drives the players to keep thinking about it and replaying for different pieces of the narrative – rather than trying to prop up the narrative (which is outside what a player can effect, it is already designed and coded into the machine) as something the player is creating through their actions, a tactic I would argue most video games (and novels and films, for that matter, when they utilize the interactivity of their medium to create meaning) depend on. A generic game does everything in its power to distract the player from how little effect s/he has on the design or course of the narrative, aside from following the path, or triggering the events of the story. In “Dear Esther” pieces of the narrative are revealed by choosing which path to explore, but there’s no actions (picking flowers, killing enemies, etc) to ground the narrative encountered. This opens a largely indefinite narrative space; the remarkable simplicity of action but complexity of narrative detail, and variety, allows a player to define the narrative role s/he acts, where the diegetic inconsistencies and gaps in the story encourage new and imaginative interpretations based on player choice.

    While the island of “Dear Esther” is static, and a mostly static action set defines the game, the story experienced is plastic and intentionally interpretable in a variety of different, inconsistent ways, valuing the player’s imagination rather than the storytelling abilities of the designers.The game performs an artful shift here, where, like you brought attention to, the majority of meaning and interaction comes from mentally creating potential stories that encapsulate what you actually play and do on the island, rather than that play or taking meaningful action (like defeating a boss) along a preset narrative – like those of less experimental games like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty. In my opinion the play of a game like “Dear Esther” happens conceptually, rather than physically, and understandably this underscores what we have discussed regarding the title being a video game but not a game like kickball or go.

    Liked by 1 person

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