Dear Esther and Assassin's Creed DLC use similar tricks to create tension even when there’s no danger of failure, since the stories revolve around stuff that's already happened.
Dear Esther is an unsettling game. It’s not violent or disturbing but eerie in a very memorable way. The Lost Archive DLC for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is, to my surprise, similarly unsettling. The DLC continues that game’s odd first person puzzles with narration, but this time the narrated story isn’t Desmond’s story and that completely changes the tone. Both games revolve around the same concept: reliving someone else's memories. And both games use similar tricks to create a sense of unease and tension even when there’s no danger of failure, since the entire story revolves around stuff that's already happened.
The level design is particularly clever, especially in Dear Esther. You’ll commonly follow a path to a dead end, and it’ll seem like there’s nowhere else to go. When you turn around (because where else would you go?), you then see another, very obvious path that was blocked from your view when you first entered the dead end.
This is naturally unnerving level design. The game establishes itself as a liner experience very early on and sets us up to expect the kind of linear game that we’ve played before: a game that constantly telegraphs where we’re supposed to go. With these expectations set, when we then encounter the dead end it creates confusion since the game seems to break its established rules. We feel lost, and we feel uncomfortable because we feel lost. We’re forced to do the one thing normally associated with bad level design -- go back and look for what we missed -- but at the last second, the game reveals the path forward. Dear Esther is able to evoke the confusion and unease of bad level design without the frustration; it puts us on a path and then removes that path. It’s a subtle trick that only works a few times, so it’s smart that Dear Esther stops doing it once you reach the third area.
Dear Esther adds to its eerie atmosphere by creating a direct connection between the environment and the narration. We hear about an odd old man living in a shack while we explore a (the?) shack. We hear how he died from sickness, and the mournful narration turns the game into a ghost story -- of sorts. Like an abandoned prison or an old rickety house, a place that you’d see on a ghost hunting television show, the environment becomes frightening because of its history. There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous about the shack, but you feel as if you’re not supposed to be there.
It’s smart that Dear Esther doesn’t allow you to run, even when covering large distances. The game sets a slow pace that builds, like a horror movie. We climb a hill while hearing the sad history of this island, and it sets our expectations of what may lie ahead. While there’s never any actual danger, there’s always something just odd enough to be unsettling: a crashed car, a wrecked ship, a cave, a bunch of paper boats floating on the shore -- things that add to the surreal atmosphere.
Despite the excellent level design, it’s the story being told that’s the most important tool here. Both stories are rather tragic. The specifics of the Lost Archive are more easily pieced together, but even if you don’t know the exact details of what happens in Dear Esther, it’s still clearly a tragic story. Since these stories play out through narration without any input from the player, they become even more tragic because we hear about horrible events and have no way to stop them. The stories are at least partly interactive since we initiate the narration by walking over a certain section of land, but once initiated, the story is beyond our control. When things go bad for the characters involved, it’s partly our fault, yet we can’t affect anything in any way. We’re completely helpless, even more so than we would be in a survival-horror game.
This lack of agency is more important in the Lost Archive since its story is easier to follow. The danger facing the protagonist is more direct, so our helplessness is more pronounced. It’s less ethereal than Dear Esther, the story is more of a standard conspiracy thriller, but it is effective for the same reasons.
In Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, these first-person puzzle platformer levels were used to fill in Desmond’s past. That worked fine for character development, but Desmond’s past is not as interesting as his present or his future. For one, his past doesn’t involve aliens, artifacts, and doomsday prophecies. Two, we know how that story ends, and it doesn’t have an interesting ending (we know he ends up at Abstergo, and that is when his story gets interesting). The Lost Archive works because it tells the story of Subject 16. Again, we know how his story ends -- with him dead and trapped in the Animus -- but that ending is interesting and makes the journey more worth telling. Since this story ends tragically, it creates tension as we hear about his entire life and his multiple near misses with Abstergo. Each time we’re left wondering if this is the mistake that kills him.
While the environment doesn’t relate directly to the story as it does in Dear Esther, the world does mirror the story in an abstract, dreamy sort of way. When Subject 16 tells us about the time he snuck into an Abstergo facility, we have to puzzle our way down and around various obstacles. When an alarm goes off in his story, we find ourselves platforming over speedy blocks that simulate running. Every now and then the normal world seeps in: a efuneral, a tree, a lake, a coronation room. But these "locations" ar always surrounded by the white blocks of this digital world.
This abstraction gives the Lost Archive its own kind of ethereal quality. Whereas Dear Esther was just plain narration overlaid on a detailed word, the Assassin’s Creed DLC explores what it would be like to physically interact with someone else’s memories. The abstract nature of these memories is an interesting counter to the rest of the franchise -- one that revolves around detailed reenactments of memories. The contrast highlights the tragic end of Subject 16 -- the betrayal he experienced was so severe it even corrupted his memory -- while also highlighting Desmond’s similarly precarious situation. It’s a stylistic choice that turns the Animus into something ominous if not dangerous, and certainly not inviting, unpending the entire foundation of the franchise’s fiction.
These games make good use of narration as a storytelling device. It’s smart that the stories are personal, which justifies the use of just one voice actor, and both games use the environment to effectively supplement the narration in their own ways. Story doesn’t have to be relegated to cut scenes or even scripted sequences. Sometimes all we need to hear is one man reminiscing.