Since this is the first of what will hopefully be a series of videogame posts on this blog, I’ll make a short mission statement. Feel free to skip it, after the first break.
Basically I’m writing this for two reasons. One is, I like videogames a lot and I don’t really know what to do with that enjoyment in terms of productivity. Since I’m completely brain-damaged by being in school forever, I always have to have some justification, and this seems as good as any — reviews of games I play done in my own inimitable academic style. No wait where are you going?
The second reason is more directly academic. Writing about videogames isn’t particularly easy, at least in terms of literary analysis. Probably people like Espen Aarseth would tell me that’s because videogames aren’t objects of literary analysis, and honestly there’s an argument there. But I think videogames are (not necessarily art but) objects of aesthetic critique. Some games (like Dear Esther) are going to be more amenable to this analysis than others, but I think trying the method on all kinds of games will make me better at doing this overall.
So basically, this is going to be one part review, one part literary critique. I promise it won’t be too jargony, but there will be particularized aspects of my work that make it in, so you’ve been warned.
Also, I’m offering to write on any game — say 2000–5000 words — that anyone buys or acquires for me. I can’t promise I’ll beat them all (how do you, like, beat Counterstrike) but I’ll log hours in and write about them. For some extra cash, I’ll write more; how that’ll work seems like something to work out if/when I find out anyone gives a care about this stuff. If you’re at all interested, shoot me a DM at hegelbon on twitter or at my email trevor dot strunk at gmail dot com. Thanks!
Dear Esther is a game in probably the loosest possible sense of the word. Outside of literal nature simulators like Vermilion Lake or Flower, Dear Esther most fully disregards any sort of challenge, obstacle, or outcome for its player. The game definitely has an endpoint, and it is extremely linear in its way, but DE openly rejects typical player expectations for a videogame: you get to walk on a very clearly marked path, through a totally uninhabited (well probably) island, hearing the diary of a man slowly losing his mind with grief. At the end (uh, spoilers I guess), you leap from a tall beacon and turn into a bird, and then the game turns to a black screen. And you can’t die — leaping from the cliffs of the island on the Hebrides you’re exploring or wandering into the ocean like a bad Kate Chopin reenactor just causes you to black out and return to your original spot on the beach, cliff, cave, etc. So you just keep following the path.
Are there powerups? Nah. Secrets? Kind of — you can find the urn of the diarist’s wife, blowing ash, or the frame of a car echoing the drunk driving accident that killed said wife. But nothing like, collectible. No inventory, no health, no objective — if Gone Home was a “walking simulator” because the only obstacles are non-lethal, this is something even further. Even the diary entries you get to hear are totally randomized, which rewards multiple playthroughs (more on this later), but doesn’t exactly reward thorough searching in the way that most games do. In essence, the game has you pursue the same path over and over again, with no guarantee of new material, cogent narrative, etc. It’s not a walking simulator so much as an existing simulator.
And I guess I can see the thematic point there, honestly. The game is about this strange island in the Hebrides that has a buoy and a radio beacon, but is so uninhabited as to be ghostly. There’s a corpse hole (no corpses, natch); there’s crumbling cottages; there’s deep caves with phosphorescent mushrooms. In short, there’s everything you could possibly want if you were writing a long-ish poem by Keats, Shelley, or Byron. And maybe mostly Keats, since the story we’re told is of a drunk, distraught husband coming to this island, burning his boats, getting a leg infection, and dying as he scrawls mad, religious statements on the cliffs around him. And why is he so distraught? His wife has been killed in a drunk driving accident, by a driver named Paul, who is often associated with the Road to Damascus. And your avatar in all of this? Basically you don’t have a personality as such. I played the game thinking I was the diarist’s wife, Esther, for most of it, but based on the grunts the character makes, it’s more likely you’re playing as some third, later explorer. But the game confuses the persons in the game as the narrative continues and the diarist becomes more deranged by his infection: Paul, Esther, the diarist, the player all merge and get conflated.
And of course, there we start to get the more deliberate Biblical imagery which is worth unpacking. Esther, in the Bible, is (to give the Cliffs Notes) wife to Xerxes I, a king who marries her after deposing his previous, unruly wife (like you do when you’re a pre-modern king). Esther, in her time as his wife, uncovers a plot by Xerxes’ grand vizier to exterminate her (by way of exterminating the Jews; a plan Xerxes was okay with on its face). She also saves her uncle Mordecai, so we get the demurring but also unruly woman in Esther, but one that motivates from the background. That our Esther never appears in game — thanks to her being dead mainly — while still motivating the whole plot and structure of the game suggests the same passivity/assertiveness divide and dialectic we see in the Biblical Esther.
Meanwhile, Paul on the road to Damascus — the conflation of the diarists’ ramblings and the name of the drunk driver we get at the end of the game’s rambling diary — is a reference to Paul the Apostle’s conversion to Christianity. Before he’s Paul, and while he’s still Saul of Tarsus, Paul hears the voice of Christ on the road to Damascus, where’s he’s going in order to better persecute Christians. Christ, surprisingly, isn’t all that interested in this, so he spurs on Paul’s conversion. Paul’s the real garden path here — though Esther is no slouch as an early female heroine — and instead of delving into the Badiouian thinking on Pauline speech, et al, let’s just take this literally. We get a conversion story in this text as well, though not of forgiveness of the drunk driver. Rather, Dear Esther presents a literal conversion — of physical to spiritual or earthly material. The diarist becomes, he notes, the island itself in the following passage.
So we get the literal road to Damascus in Dear Esther, a path forward that can’t be renegotiated through death or dalliance. It can be stretched out with exploration, and the vistas and various sights you can see in the game encourage it. There’s continual visual reference to the old-world rustic quality of the island’s surface as well as the haunting glow of its caves, and the game is preoccupied with paper boats, waxing and waning moons, as well as broken things and lines of communication. Again, this is Gothic Novel territory if ever there was any. And so, there’s the simple reading: conversion here is the giving up of the material world, becoming the bird at the end of the game, being forced to repeat the cycle as you discover more of the game’s hidden narrative, a kind of Buddhist-Christian mashup.
Or not. Inded, the whole aesthetic of return assumes the player is going to return to the island again, and again, and again. Some people if their online accounts are to be believed — and really why would you lie about playing this game that much? — have played Dear Esther for 72 hours. 72 hours! If you haven’t played this game, here’s some context: I explored every inch of the island assuming that’s how the dialogue was unlocked, and took copious screenshots (which I’m probably not using enough), and the whole game took me 3.3 hours. Three point three hours. If I played the game 23 more times, under the same basic rigor I did the first playthrough, I’d get to around 72 hours. But assuming I just speedran it trying to get the “random” audio, you’re talking probably 50, 60 times. I liked Dear Esther, really; I thought it was smart and subtle and intriguing. Thinking through it on Biblical or eschatological lines makes me like it even more. But I do not think it rewards that much repetition.
In fact, when I learned that there were random audio sequences, I just looked up the rest. Did I betray the game in some way? Yeah, absolutely. I got all that without any work; I didn’t see the strange ghostly figure that’s supposed to be just ahead of you at points in the game; I didn’t internalize the island nor the mad scrabble for knowledge or coherence. Part of this was that the game’s narrative didn’t really push me to do so. I go pretty in depth exploring the plots of games; I’ll spend ages trying to unpack lore or find a clue to a mystery. And Dear Esther, it seemed to me, didn’t really want me to. That’s probably one of its strengths, that it is so uninterested in appealing to coherence. The story is the story regardless of how you get the written statements. But on some level I suppose there was supposed to be that urging of mystery there too. I didn’t really feel it.
Part of the reason I might not have is because the island felt unreal to me. Well, obviously it was because it was a simulacrum of an island produced in a videogame engine. It’s not supposed to be real. But when a game self-consciously sets itself up to reject all aspects of simulation outside of aesthetic and setting, then the setting becomes front and center. Put differently, I care that the Hebrides of Dear Esther aren’t tactile, under my feet, in a way that I don’t care at all about the Lordran of Dark Souls or even the Washington of Gone Home. As I walked the cliffs, caves, and beaches of Dear Esther, all I could think was that if this place were real, I’d enjoy it quite a bit. I’d be drawn into it. But, of course, it wasn’t real. It was a simulacrum, it was representative.
Tony Smith, American minimalist, famously took a drive with three students from Cooper Union on the New Jersey Turnpike in 1951, before it was officially opened. In an interview with Artforum 15 years later, Smith described the trip as eye-opening. From David Salomon’s account:
“The road and much of the landscape was artificial,” he said, “and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there that had not had any expression in art.”
The fact that Smith distinguishes art from experience here is no small thing. The experience of driving on the NJTP before it was opened must have indeed been something — a good friend of mine, @nicktaxidermy used to play a game on dark nights and imagine he was the last man alive; this would be a pretty wild intensification. But Smith’s desire to put this into his art somehow, to make experience art and vice versa, howsoever implied and unstated here seems off-base to me. It isn’t as if art is an experience, necessarily — art is a representation of an experience. It’s an aesthetic. It happens the same way again and again. Some art pushes against this requirement of art, like situationist happenings, performance art, video installation, minimalism, even videogames, but like Freud’s repressed, the fact that art and experience are different returns.
If I’m not making this clear, let me try this way: I feel a particular way when I walk along the streets of Paris. I feel this way in my memory largely because of the context of my visit: with my wife, enjoying food, enjoying the neighborhoods, exploring, etc. This is what Roland Barthes might call the punctum of the trip: the part that matters most to me but really couldn’t possibly matter at all to everyone else out there in the world. I can try to take this experience and make art out of it, but it will either be self-indulgent or abstract. If self-indulgent it’s, at best, bad art, and at worst, not really art at all. If it’s abstract, it might contain serious aesthetic merit — consider Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal — but that aesthetic merit is going to be disconnected from my personal experience. Experience can inform art (by biography, or by the space in which art is displayed, or by viewer context) and art can inform experience (for many of the same reasons), but rarely do the two end up as homologies. Smith could never make the Jersey Turnpike real in his art as he experienced it, revelatory or no. And Dear Esther cannot make its island real.
And maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to feel the distance, and indeed, that distance is fascinating aesthetically. Videogames are supposed to make the player feel a part of their world, ostensibly, and Dear Esther refuses to do this at every level. If videogames are meant to be novels-plus, Dear Esther is something like the novel-plus-distance. No embodiment of character, no fantasy of narrative, just old stories and a dead island. The religious narrative of the game undercuts this a bit, as does the new agey rebirth and death of the player and the diarist and Esther, so perhaps we ought not to give it too much weight. But Dear Esther opens the question through dissatisfaction, at least through my dissatisfaction: if the videogame isn’t meant to replicate experience, is it meant to be art? Or is it meant to overcome the condition of non-homologous experience? I’m not entirely sure, and I can’t be totally confident in what Dear Esther would say. But it raises the questions, which I think is fairly important as we begin to unpack the aesthetic conditions of the medium.