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February 2012

Dear Eisenstein


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 - BioshockBatman: Arkham Asylum, and Dead Space recently; but earlier in the original Metal GearSystem 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.

Interactive montage
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.

Easy does it harder


If you’ve played games for more than a decade, you’ve undoubtedly witnessed the ongoing evolution of the medium. Some see technology as the primary driver, and there’s no question games look and sound better than ever. The rising tide of tech has lifted all boats, making it possible for even a small team of developers to produce polished, sophisticated games indistinguishable from work produced by the big studios.

As a player, I appreciate HD, pixel shaders, and dynamic AI, but none has produced a major shift in my actual experience of playing games. While the impact of tech is undeniable, I see a far more consequential, and paradoxical, shift in my play experience: games are easier than ever to beat, but harder than ever to control.

Across consoles, genres, and mechanics, games have gone soft. With few exceptions, games offer less resistance to serious players and are more welcoming to casual newcomers. I’m not suggesting this is necessarily a bad thing. Nintendo has recently incorporated “bail me out” features into nearly all its games, making it possible for less-skilled players to move past difficult levels. The evolution of this player-assist system illustrates the trajectory I’m describing.


Nintendo introduced the “P-Wing” in Super Mario Bros 3, which allows Mario to fly for an unlimited amount of time, overcoming tough levels. If, however, Mario is hit while flying, he loses the power of the P-Wing. The player must still complete the level. In New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo offered an even easier path with the “Super Guide” - if a player dies eight times in a row, a green “!” block appears, and a system-controlled Luigi arrives to escort the player through the level. The Super Guide reappears in Donkey Kong Country Returns and also in Super Mario Galaxy 2 (where it’s called the “Cosmic Guide”).

Finally, in Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo takes it one step easier with “Assist Blocks” containing either an Invincibility Leaf or a P-wing. The Invincibility Leaf appears after Mario loses five lives in a single stage, rendering Mario invincible for the entire stage. If he loses 10 lives in a level, a P-Wing block appears, teleporting the player to the end of the level. Importantly, these items go into Mario’s inventory to be used when and where the player chooses.

Of course, these are optional, and players are free to ignore them. But it’s fair to say that recent Mario games, especially 3D Land, offer fewer stiff challenges to players than earlier SMB games, while still remaining fun to play. Other games in other genres illustrate a similar trajectory.

Among RPGs, two recent games employ different approaches to making things easier. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning (which I’m playing now) can be seen as a noob-friendly introduction to console RPGs. It’s got all the formulaic pieces in place, but offers them up with glowing “look here!” and “do this” hints, friendly AI, auto-targeting, and an accessible level-up system. Amalur is an action-RPG purposefully designed to welcome newcomers, but still deliver an expansive world, storyline, and dozens of sub-quests. Even its color palette seems to suggest, “Come on in, you’ll have fun!”


Skyrim, on the other hand, eases the player’s experience through refinement of existing systems. Gameplay and progression may not be easier than in Oblivon (though I think they are), but everything, including combat, feels more fluid and easier to manage.

The attribute system, for example, has been overhauled. In Oblivion, points could be allocated to boost stats, but the benefits of this process were difficult to discern. Skyrim translates points into perks, which can be allocated to any attribute, and the outcomes of your choices are far more clear. Better maps, improved quest management, individualized skills - all refine Skyrim and make for a better and, yes, easier (defined here as less frustrating) experience.

Even the hardest of hard have gotten easier. Some may disagree, but I say Dark Souls is easier than its predecessor Demon’s Souls. More items, more spells, more gear don’t just mean “more stuff,” they also make it easier to progress. Black Phantoms drop better items, decreasing the need for grind to acquire rare gear. Elemental effects for weapons and upgradeable armor help too, and the game’s many shortcuts ease navigation. Dark Souls is still a tough game, but even this game isn’t exempt from the broad trajectory to easy. Or at least easier.

Even as games have gotten easier to beat or manage on a challenge level, they’ve also become more difficult to control. Experienced players tend not to see this because we’re accustomed to dealing with what games ask us to do. Complexity arrives incrementally, and veteran players accommodate additional elements of intricacy, barely noticing the changes.

Robert Boyd’s recent “The Complification of Zelda” illustrates how complexity creep has made its way into a series once lauded for its elegant controls. He states the problem clearly:

Some time ago, I played an indie…shooter with an obtuse control scheme. To mitigate the complexity of their controls, they displayed a picture of the controller on the screen...with information on what each button did. “How ridiculous is this!” I thought to myself... Zelda: Skyward Sword does the exact same thing in the default UI… If your game’s controls are so complicated that you feel the need to display the controller on screen at all times for fear of players forgetting how to play your game, YOU’RE DOING SOMETHING WRONG!

Boyd goes on to demonstrate Skyward Sword’s use of nine individual buttons to control:

  • Confirm/Run/Pick Up
  • Use Item (Select Item when the button is held)
  • Items Menu
  • Pouch Use (Select Pouch Item when the button is held)
  • Map
  • Lock camera
  • First person mode/Divining
  • Help Button
  • Call Sword Spirit/Resynch controller/Call bird

And these are in addition to the motion controls requiring individual moves for:

  • Slice sword (angle varies depending on how you wave the controller)
  • Thrust sword
  • Charge Sword with sky power
  • Sword Spin attack
  • Sword finishing move
  • Draw shield/Shield Bash
  • Roll

As a developer who introduced a new system (Wii) with the expressed purpose of easing player interaction with games and enabling more natural, intuitive control, it would seem they have lost their way.

Other games using standard controllers rely on similarly labyrinthine control schemes, insisting on prior experience. I offered to give my casual-gamer wife a shot at Amalur, thinking it may offer a more welcoming path to RPG goodness. When she noticed an item on the menu screen devoted to “Moves,” full of options and sub-options for controlling combat maneuvers, she handed me the controller and left the room.

Last year the Entertainment Software Association published a document called “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” It presented sales, demographic, and usage data to suggest the game industry is vital to the overall economy. While it’s certainly true that more people are playing games than ever, including women and seniors, unit sales of traditional console and computer games has stagnated, with only a modest increase since 2002 (224 million in ‘02, 232 million in ‘10).

What role do accessibility and complexity play in these numbers? Are we making traditional games easier in hopes of attracting players that will never come? When we make these games more welcoming to newcomers by decreasing difficulty, adding help systems, etc., are we focusing on the wrong things? Can a game like Amalur be too easy and too difficult at the same time? Does it make sense to design “easier games" if we aren’t really making them easier to play?

About the podcast...

PodcastBefore discussing my own show, a quick heads-up on a couple of other ‘casts I enjoy. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the erudite gents over at A Jumps B Shoots. They host one of my favorite games-focused podcasts, so I was delighted to join them for TWO shows. We discuss authorship, auteurism, aspirational play, and aesthetics broadly defined. In other words, we dig pretty deep, but Matt, Steve, and Rich keep it accessible and entertaining from beginning to end. You can listen to the first show here and the second show here.

I also made a guest appearance on the GameCritics After Dark show along with my friend Jeffrey Matulef discussing Skyward Sword and the Zelda franchise generally. It’s a lively conversation, and I thank Richard and Mike (both decidedly not fans of the latest Zelda game) for giving Jeffrey and me a chance to have our say. You can download the episode here.

So, on to my own show, the Brainy Gamer Podcast. If you’re a listener you’ve probably noticed that I haven’t released an episode lately, so I thought I’d offer an explanation and share a few things I’ve been thinking about.

A funny thing happened on my way to recording an end-of-year favorites of 2011 show. I took a look around the games podcast space and noticed that everybody and his brother, sister, mother-in-law, and second-cousin had released a best-of-2011 show. Recently I’ve harbored a concern about my show, and it’s this: I don’t think I’m adding enough value to the general conversation about games to make my show worth doing, at least as it’s currently configured. Given that I could listen to, literally, a dozen good podcasts with smart people (and, frankly, three times as many mediocre shows) all rounding up the best games of ‘11, why throw another me-too show onto the pile?

This connects to my larger concern that games podcasts mostly all sound the same: a few knowledgeable folks engaging in friendly banter about games. A “whatcha been playin’” segment is typically followed by a more focused segment on a particular game or two. A gaming-related issue may be explored. A special guest may appear. But basically - and I include my own show - it often seems like we’re all producing variations of the same format.

When I launched my podcast back in ‘07, I saw a need for a show devoted to “thoughtful conversation” about games. When I look around me now, I see many podcasts doing just that, and doing it well. The two I mentioned above, of course, but also Big Red Potion, Experience Points, Gamers With Jobs, Three Moves Ahead, and others I follow regularly.

I want to continue producing my show, but I think it’s time to reformat it. I’m drawn to the idea of a podcast that focuses each episode on a single person (or occasionally a creative duo) and explores his or her work, ideas, influences, etc. I can imagine a fascinating gallery of designers, composers, animators, writers, actors, critics, producers, etc. - each person a collection of experiences worth exploring in depth. I’m imagining a one-on-one Charlie Rose-style interview format that gives me time to discuss a wide range of topics with guests, but remain focused on the work, the unique personalities, and the individual stories of each.

I’d love some constructive feedback on this idea. If you like it, dislike it, or have suggestions for refinement, please leave a comment and let me know. I’ve always enjoyed recording my podcasts, even when my schedule makes it difficult to produce them. I’m eager to continue, but I need a stronger sense that they’re worthwhile and add value to the broader conversation about games. I think it’s time for a reboot. What do you think?