I don’t think Dear Esther defies classification… We’re not claiming to be redefining the FP (First-Person) genre, we’re just presenting an alternative to the standard FP game… The problem is, when you think of FP games, your first thought will be of a gun and war. The perspective has become so interwoven with war, that it has become difficult for people to see beyond that convention. –Robert Briscoe, Dear Esther Artist and Level Designer 1
Everything we’ve done is inspired by FPS games… FPS games have an amazing history and there’s a ton of really incredible ideas about design, storytelling and worlds just there even at the most casual glance, going right back to very early days. So a lot of what ended up in Esther draws from this history. –Daniel Pinchbeck, Dear Esther Writer and Producer 2
The remarkable thing about Dear Esther is that both of these apparently contradictory remarks from its makers are true. Dear Esther is a game that leverages our experiences with first-person games dating back to Doom and simultaneously refutes those conventional expectations, paring down the player experience to its bare interactive essentials. It forces the player to construct meaning by interpreting images and audio/text juxtaposed on the fly.
A common refrain in reviews of Dear Esther is an assertion that the game offers an uncommon experience to players patient enough to appreciate its unorthodox design. No guns; no clock; no inventory; no quests - heck, you can’t even run, jump, or pick up anything - just an open world to explore and a series of audio diary/letter entries delivered at various points along the way.
Walk around, trigger an audio clip, walk farther, trigger more clips. Repeat until the game ends. That’s it. That’s the Dear Esther experience in a nutshell. We can fairly describe Dear Esther as different, if by ‘different’ we mean “less stuff to do” than in other games.
Not so different
This is, of course, intentional. As game design, Dear Esther isn’t really so different at all. Its roots as a Half-Life 2 mod are well known, and its new visual makeover owes much to Stalker’s gritty/lush aesthetic. We’ve stumbled upon audio logs for years - Bioshock, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Dead Space recently; but earlier in the original Metal Gear, System Shock 2, and the Fatal Frame series.
We also know what it’s like to feel alone in a big ominous world (Metroid, Portal, Shadow of the Colossus, etc.), and we’re immediately at home with Dear Esther’s familiar WASD control system. In other words, we know what to do here. In terms of narrative game design and mechanics, Dear Esther doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
On the contrary, Dear Esther is most notable for how it clears the table, merging minimalist gameplay with a decidedly non-minimalist visual landscape. In terms of player agency, it ventures a step beyond Tale of Tale’s game-poem The Graveyard, but barely more than a step.
Dear Esther is a strange bird: a closed, open-ended game. It is tightly authored environmental design - the player may wander, but there is a single path through the game - coupled with oblique, open-ended (and occasionally strained) literary passages that provoke the player to reflect and construct meaning herself. Open meets closed to enlarge the possibility space for meaning.
Dear Esther’s open-closed quality relies on a system of meaning-making that predates video games by fifty years. Dear Esther is a modern repurposing of montage theory, transposed for an interactive medium. Put simply, montage theory suggests that an image (a shot in film) has two values: 1) that which it inherently contains by itself; 2) that which it acquires in relationship to another image. Montage’s primary claim is that the second value is greater than the first.
The validity of montage was proved by prompting test subjects with a series of unrelated images (e.g. a picture of a mouth followed by a picture of food), which resulted in viewers linking and ascribing meaning to those images (e.g. a man is hungry). The ramifications of montage are profound because it establishes a dialectical relationship between artist and audience that assumes the viewer will construct meaning on her own, transcending simple sender-receiver communication.
If Dear Esther’s authors had wished to deliver a tightly authored linear story, they would have devised voiceover segments to be triggered at set locations in the world, gradually revealing what happened to whom. Instead, they chose to randomize these clips, handing off the job of assembling coherency to the player. A cryptic drawing in the sand is preceded by an audio clip about an explorer named Donnelly, so we may assume the sand drawing was left behind by Donnelly. A warning? A makeshift memorial of auto parts connects to a letter about a crash. A memorial to Esther?
All games are interactive, but Dear Esther’s creators are clearly grappling with how this relationship between game and player works. They’re trying something new without reinventing the wheel. As Pinchbeck explains, Dear Esther stands on the shoulders of previous games that have pushed game narrative in new directions:
The games we are making are rooted in the history of FPS design particularly… with Esther, we are extending design ideas that have been tried and tested in a number of very successful games, like System Shock, STALKER, Marathon. We just pushed them further, into a new design space.
More recently…you’ve got games like Metro, where you NEVER find out the reality of a lot of the situations… They just dumped you into this world and said ‘you’ll never understand most of it’, but the reality they put forwards is so engaging, so immersive, you just don’t care. Games are getting better at avoiding the mistake of feeling like they have to tell the player everything. 3.
Pioneering filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein described montage as “an idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts.” Dear Esther is an interactive laboratory for provoking such thoughts, with meaning assembled by the player. If you’re curious about games and their capacity to host a powerful interplay among designer, player, game world, and story, Dear Esther deserves your attention.