Dear Esther seemed to have ushered in a new genre of game last year: the First Person Walker. In its wake followed other notable games like Thirty Flights of Loving, Proteus, and the upcoming HD release of The Stanley Parable. Also, are the entries of its sister genre the Third Person Walker with Journey and Bientot l’ete. Much has been written on whether or not it and its brethren are games or not, but not a lot on what the game actually accomplishes.
Dan Pinchbeck, Dear Esther’s creator and a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, set out to see what would happen if you stripped everything possible out of a game and left only the bare bones of interactivity behind. It was an experiment to explore the intersection and interrelation between gameplay and storytelling. The result is a game that strips out any ability to interact with the world other than observing it. Many have dismissed it by calling it a guided tour of an island, but really it is an apt description of, if not what it’s about, the player’s behavior in the game.
Paradoxically, by doing less, the game immediately garners more of the player’s attention. In that way, it reminds me of Andy Warhol’s films. In particular Empire and Vinyl come to mind. Empire, the 8-hour static shot of the Empire State Building has prompted an entire critical essay devoted to the minute details, such as when they changed the real of film and when you could see the ghosts of people’s hands as they did so. Vinyl is a static shot of a crowded room as the “actors” perform an adaptation of the book A Clockwork Orange. The performers are half stoned and hung over, and Warhol leaves everything in, including the wrap party at the end until someone remembers that the camera is still rolling and turns it off. Here, because of the banality and the fact that the only cut in the entire film occurs as a result the finite amount of film stock that a single reel can hold, criticism around Vinyl has revolved around the tiniest of details in any hope to parse out meaning from that banality of the action.
Actually, the same could be said of nearly all of Warhol’s films. The point isn’t the worthiness of the works themselves, but rather what the works do to those that watch them. The audience, if they’re still watching (or playing), becomes hyper focused on the mundane details that in other works would be ignored or edited out. Mistakes in Warhol films become lifelines to the critics that watch them.
In the same respect, the first thing that stripping out extraneous interaction accomplishes is that the player becomes far more focused on what they can do to a greater degree. What the player can do in Dear Esther is look and move. In any first person game, or rather in any game really, these are things that are a means to an end. Long time players don’t think about how they look around or how they move about. The very center of an entire genre of games is pushed aside in service to the other mechanics of the game they are in, mostly shooting. By removing any other abilities from the player, the game refocuses them on the very act of traveling as a centerpiece of the game.
The walking speed is better described as trudging. The player isn’t a superhuman rushing about a complex. The character doesn’t even seem capable of (or perhaps he is apathetic towards) running. To many, the slow speed is frustrating, even annoying, leaving them wishing that the avatar would get on with it — as if they were stuck behind the slowest person in the world in a narrow office hallway. They become anxious, wishing they were already at the destination instead of focusing on the journey. I attribute this more to expectation than to what is inherently in the game. Up until now in most games, the player could only commit to such slow walking speeds on purpose — either through a button press that toggled or maintained the slow movement or via the degree to which the player pushed forward on the controller’s right analog stick — and only in cases where it would seem necessary to move slowly, such as in stealth sections. Unlike Dear Esther those moments in games had their own tension built up through the threats of the game and such things as the fear of being caught. Dear Esther removes all such threats against the player.
Once acclimated to the deliberate walking speed, the player finds a need to pay attention to where they are instead of where they are going. Without enemies shooting at them, the player isn’t focusing only on the next safe cover spot from which to shoot from. In fact, there’s no need to narrow focus on a destination at all, which brings me to the other action that the player can take in Dear Esther: looking. The island then becomes a space for the most pure form of environmental storytelling in gaming. Previously, games would have to be super obvious if the player was going to pay attention to details to get the story from just the environment. Messages painted in blood on the walls, in-your-face ghostly hallucinations, overly dramatic and directly to the point overheard dialogue or dialogue activated by the player through audio logs and the like. Subtlety and nuance are lost in such an environment.
With regard to environmental storytelling, Bioshock and Dear Esther are not so different from one another. Both have messages and symbols scrawled on the walls. Both have ghostly figures scattered about. And both have audio diaries read aloud to the player. The difference is in the content and the degree of intensity regarding the delivery of their messages. Dear Esther’s writings on the walls are cryptic if not downright obtuse. Most of them aren’t even words, but simply circuitry blueprints and neuron maps. The ghosts in Dear Esther are easily missed and often seen only in the distance. They fade and merge into the discolored background or are so hidden away that you could rush right past one without ever being the wiser. Nothing draws attention to them, and they are simply there. And then there are the audio diaries. They have to be the most picked apart element of the game. Entries are disconnected from one another as times and people merge or change identities, meaning that their significance is not obvious, nor is their purpose or even their origin. In Bioshock, an audio diary details who, what, when, where, and why within the first sentence or two and quickly delivers details about the world. They are straightforward, and there is no mistaking anything about them. Dear Esther is allowed far more latitude, thanks to the hyper-focus that the game creates.
There is little else to grasp, so the details become much more obvious and little tics or possible glitches are brought to the forefront of the player’s attention. More complexly delivered material is allowed to breathe and is absorbed more easily. More is added to the game by removing elements than could have been achieved by adding them.