Avenues of Exploration P2 – Dear Esther

Hi guys! Welcome back to ModInformer’s “Avenues of Exploration”, A series of articles where we explore the rather recent beginnings of a new “Exploration” genre in gaming, or to be more precise: it’s early emergence in the modding scene. You don’t really have to, but for a better perspective, try starting out by reading the first article in this series for some better perspective.

I’d like to start out by apologizing to everyone for the lateness of this piece, allot of personal stuff got in the way, and I managed to inadvertently lose about three revisions of this article before finalizing it earlier this week.

Robert Briscoe‘s 2012 indie fund backed remastering of Dan Pinchbeck’s seminal 2008 sourcemod: Dear Esther is probably where the making of this little series of articles began.

It all started with its commercial release back in early 2012 – met with a general sense of critical acclaim – most critics praised most of the title’s merits except for one rather major caveat: most reviews referred to Dear Esther (2012) as a “non-game”, a sort of digital art gallery with emotional impact. Something that didn’t quite conform to the technical specifications of what we now consider video games, and as such deserved an unspecified but rather excluding moniker.

As I’ve stated in the past, my goal (among others) with this series was to create some sort of general bracket by which the “Exploration Genre” could be defined, to define the legitimacy of these titles as games of “a different kind” (as First Person Shooters are different from platformers, are different for jRPGs, are different from cRPGs ETC.) of game, rather than as Kotaku’s reviewer referred to Dear Esther as “Not a Game”.

Along with its studio thechineseroom, Dear Esther (circa 2007-8) was originally created on grant from the UK “Arts and Humanities Research Council” as part of a three title research project for the University of Portsmouth exploring the ideas and implementations of storytelling in the interactive medium.

And at its heart Dear Esther sets out to be a re-imagining of the archetypal ghost ghost story, a horror game very much focused on the unknown, suspenseful grief, and the looming arm and interpretations of death. The unknown specifically, or to be even more precise: the exploration born discovery of which, is more or less the game’s leading motivation for being seen through from beginning to end.

The game / mod is conveyed through the player character’s journey around and through a desolate Hebridean island off the west coast of Scotland, while a ambiguously disembodied voice-over narration plays at select times and places in accordance with the player’s progression.

In the last piece we discussed how THAT utilized a sort of “intellectual curiosity” to drive its players forward, how the abstract nature of its art drove the player to search for (to explore) new facets, angles, and areas through which to experience it, with held hopes to somehow understand it.

“Modern art” however is in many ways beyond single explanation, every piece takes new meaning from new angles, perspectives, and respective eyes of respective beholders, one can only be “done” with art temporarily when it seems new meaning no longer seems to stem from it, and yet although tougher and tougher to achieve – with increasing persistence – time will always return to give one new perspective.

In this way Dear Esther is allot like THAT.

It strives to mean something new every time it’s played.

And honestly, allot has been said about the meaning of Dear Esther‘s story, about the mystery surrounding identities of characters referred to via narration, and their various relations to each other and the player character.

Dear Esther‘s design drives the player through exploring this story, it makes him experience different parts, different narrations based on differing paths and random selection at different points of the playthrough  encourages him to explore every facet of the abandoned island in hopes of understanding the “whole story”.

And really, Dear Esther accomplishes this by working through two layers of curiosity feeding into each other: “Physical”, and “Emotional-Narrative”.

“Physical” curiosity initially drives the player in a somewhat superficial manner, the need to see new (although only slightly different and much less beautiful in the 2008 release) vistas, landmarks and habitats. To visually express progression.

On the narrative layer, the geography literally allows the player to walk through a silent “dialogue tree” of sorts, to trigger more plot by exploring more land.

As the mystery depends, as instability and grief begin to permeate through the narration, the player’s drive to experience the story rushes him to (at the game’s walking pace) explore more of the island, and eventually to correlate discoveries of buildings, writings, and general scientific graffiti on the physical layer, with revelations made in the emotional / narrative one.

It is this feedback relationship of layers that makes Dear Esther the unique game we consider it, it builds motivation to explore and rewards its application by providing more motivation, it’s also where Dear Esther‘s secret lies:

Dear Esther does not make sense. At least not completely.

In a 2008 report, Dan Pinchbeck describes the project as intentionally inconsistent, never intended to have one single, coherent solution:

“…the randomization of the narrative fragments and deliberate contradictions coded into the text means a closed reading, or understanding, of the events is impossible to ever reach.”

Although possibly off-putting, Dear Esther‘s artificially unattainable is what effectively elevates it to its greatness.

It has become un-understandable, like the modern art of THAT, a fragmented mystery, and a puzzle of meaning with infinite answers, constantly asking to be explored again and again, for just that one “last clue” that’ll make everything “make sense”.

That’s not to say Dear Esther does not have it’s flaws, It’s initial 2008 outing was defiantly marred by the art capabilities of a simple sourcemod, drowning out much of the impact “Physical curiosity” has in the later more artfully decorated re-mastering.

Additionally, finding one’s own way throughout the mod is on occasion disturbingly difficult, with directional clues hidden in piles of Dadaistic dialogue, “getting lost” often creates a disconnect between the mod’s two layers, dialogue does not sustain through repeated backtracking sometimes required to find the path forward, and effectively compounds the fading novelty of each environment and frustration in being unable to proceed.

Some of these problems were supposedly fixed in the 2012 re-release, physical novelty skyrocketed with Robert Briscoe’s fantastic art, and path finding was – perhaps overzealously – streamlined.

Where the original Dear Esther blocked the player’s path with physical barriers such as deep seas and cliffs, the re-mastering limits the player’s path to literal fenced passageways, taking away much of the freedom and (as endearingly falsely as possible) promise the one could “explore everything” in a single playthrough  exploration becomes somewhat stifled when the barriers to infinity become apparent and visible, and it becomes apparent that although still an exploration game, the re-mastering does not accept the posthumous title with the same vigor as its previous incarnation.

… *sigh*

These elements of exploration are really what cemented the original mods statuses a “game”, the risk / reward of discovery (so wonderfully interwoven with plot) against stagnation and the fear of becoming lost were to Dear Esther as the risk /reward of breaking cover is to the modern shooter, seeing them so “lobotomized” in the remastering takes away not only from the title’s superficial status as game (although without entirely killing it), but from the intricacy of it’s layered fabric.

The re-mastering also exponentially adds to the visual cues that defined the non-geographical aspects of the original’s sense of “Physical Curiosity”, that although beneficial to those trying to research and understand Dear Esther‘s meaning wholly, somewhat shift the scale between physical and emotional curiosity (in this gamer’s opinion) to heavily towards visual discovery.

If you have yet to play Dear Esther or plan to suggest it to a friend, it’s my suggestion you ask them to start out playing the older version first (at least for their first playthrough  weight the importance of exploration, and then try the newer version, better equipped to “answer” any question one might have to it’s many mysteries, although slightly less so to satisfy their senses of exploration.

-For ModInformer, I’m Sam Wagner

Join us (this time I promise!) next week as we explore what exploration means in non-traditional geography focused environments with an exploration focused analysis of “The Stanley Parable”.

Images taken from Dear Esther‘s respective Mod/IndieDB pages, information on early development of Dear Esther‘s first incarnation can be found in this 2008 report by Dan Pinchbeck.

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