by Bob Reinhard
Over the last few days, I’ve played through Dear Esther twice. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with it’s abstract way of presenting itself. And it’s eternally-shrouded mystery remains one of the most engaging experiences I’ve ever had playing a game. But, as is the case with any game: Dear Esther isn’t for everyone. Not everyone is going to have a pleasant experience with a game that does things so completely against the norm. It’s a niche experience. However, in disliking the game itself, people have presented an argument that worries me.
“Dear Esther isn’t a game”
Setting aside the discussion of the limitations that the term “game” places on the medium, I’m going to instead attempt to make a case that Dear Esther is very much so a “game”. It’s just not a style of gameplay most gamers are used to or realize exists. And that’s a concept I call “Outside-Of-Game” Gameplay.
Dear Esther is based entirely around walking around an environment and progressing a randomized series of story pieces that don’t clearly define a plot. Instead of being left with conclusion, you’re instead left with a mystery. And this is where the gameplay itself actually lies.
Throughout the game, you’re given pieces. Much like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Your task as a player isn’t to simply hear the story, it’s to create the story. The gameplay doesn’t take place within the confines of the game itself, it instead takes place within your own internalized thoughts while playing. Instead of solving the puzzle within the game itself, you are left to solve the puzzle removed from the experience. Take the vague clues that you’re given and piece them together in your own mind. Speculate, hypothesize, and solve for X. That’s what makes up Dear Esther’s gameplay.
“But how is that separate from a movie?”
Taking this as I’ve stated it so far, this isn’t much different than trying to understand a complex film. Piecing together the clues left in a David Lynch movie acts the same way. And yet, we don’t call movies like that “games”.
But the thing that separates Dear Esther from a film, and my reason for saying it simply would not work as a movie, is that you choose what to focus on. A movie gives you all the clues in a clearly defined presentation. Every time you watch a movie, you’re given the same pieces of information in the same order. You can’t skip things, and outside of pausing the film, you can’t take time to absorb the details at a different pace. In Dear Esther, a bulk of the experience is using the game’s one action button, a zoom feature, to look at random things. Writings on a wall or a candle sitting by some used car parts. These are details that you can easily completely miss. In other words: you have to take the time to seek out the pieces of the puzzle.
Next, you cut in the randomization of Dear Esther. Each playthrough is unique because the narrative pieces and objects within the environment are random each time. As I played through the game my second time, two key pieces of the puzzle that I remembered from my first playthrough were completely absent. And things I hadn’t explored before presented themselves to me. This in turn gave me more reason to sift through the pieces and try to fit them together.
This form of “outside of game” gameplay is something that gamers may not be fully familiar with. We’re used to our goals being defined for us within the game itself. We’re given the pieces and the means to piece them together right there, inside the box. Dear Esther takes us outside it’s box and tells us to piece things together on our own. To play around with it as a sort of intellectual sandbox. To take time to walk through the game world and gather the breadcrumbs that will lead us down whatever path we interpret.
The game has no clear-cut plot. Any wikis or plot summaries you find are mostly ambiguous, left full of possibility and not definition. There is no “truth” but the ones we create for ourselves. Our speculation and processing of the jumble are what creates a player experience. We’re meant to play the game not as a physical thing, but as a mental thing with physical origins.
While this form of gameplay isn’t for most games, or for most gamers, it’s still very much an important niche for this medium to explore. Being able to stretch the limits of a definition and create completely unique experiences which couldn’t ever be made otherwise. Building a way to play outside the confines of digital space. By opening ourselves to solving the mysterious of the game without a tangible or visible indication of completion, we’re finding no limitation on where we can take the game. And we’re the ones that control how many of the pieces we decide to use to solve the puzzle for ourselves.
I don’t try to say that everyone will enjoy this game, or that this game exists as some intellectual peak. It’s simply a different way of looking at things. The challenge comes in breaking the confines of what we consider to be normal, and trying to find a more abstract way of “playing” a “game”. And that, in my mind, is pretty neat. And a hell of a lot of fun.