Dear Esther; this is not a game. Spoilers ahoy! On the recent occasion of celebrating the anniversary of my birth, my wonderful fiancée bought me a gift. She is not a video gamer, but set up a Steam account so that she could conveniently browse my wishlist as well as those of our friends. Yuletide gift shopping can be rather simple and convenient for people who like PC games. However, the item on my list she picked is something that people struggle to define. Is Dear Esther a game? Interactive fiction? A walking simulator? What is it? The best short answer I can come up with is “it is hauntingly beautiful.” It is a psychologically dense fictional story. But it’s not a game.
If the words “graphic novel” didn’t already refer to a specific kind of printed book, I might have considered using those words. It is not a finite game because there are no objectives to be met, titles to be won; with its boundaries it is finite but the essence of the game is missing. It is therefore as far from an infinite game as I can imagine, being decisively neither of those things. It is not interactive fiction, because although the viewer/listener controls the pace and direction of the camera, there is almost nothing to interact with. It’s not a simulator because it didn’t try to replicate a real world process or operation. It’s not a book or a movie. It comes in the form of a video game, but does not function as a video game. It’s just… a story. One I can more easily recommend than describe.
When I said “almost” nothing to interact with, I was referring to one critical moment in my experience where I actually felt like I made a choice that affected how my experience was to play out. Ian Danskin, in his video Story Beats: Dear Esther, identifies the scene at the bottom of the pool as the critical part of the story where the viewer/listener experiences doubt over what is real and what is not. I don’t disagree with this, though I don’t think I found it as jarring as he did. In assuming the persona of the narrator, I immediately worried about my sanity and ability to perceive reality in about the first minute of play. It was when I saw the structural formula for ethanol scrawled in luminescent paint on the inside of a ruined shed. That’s just not normal. The picture above? That’s mostly normal for an abandoned island, save for the seemingly eternal candles that I certainly didn’t light. I was wondering what was real and what was not right from the start.
The scene at the bottom of the pool was, for me, the critical point because that is where I made the choice that mattered. Throughout the rest of the story I could choose which way to walk and what to look at, and indeed I ended up doing some unnecessary and unintentional backtracking when I missed where the path ahead is. I could loiter as long as I liked, but there was only one path for me to go forward on. Except at the bottom of the pool. I didn’t linger at the bottom, even for a minute. In-character as the narrator, I was still trying to piece together my own story. Yes, there was a lot of doubt over my grasp on reality, but even in the craziest parts I still felt somehow tethered to reality as I understood it. Finding the accident scene at the bottom of a pool in a cave was just too much for me. Too unreal. As soon as I saw what it was, my in-character reaction was along these lines. The first thing I did when I saw the scene of a street was swim right back up to the surface, which dropped me back into the relative reality of the island. I didn’t even bother to look at the car or anything else at the bottom of that pool. That is when Dear Esther felt most interactive, if not a game. This is where I wondered what this kind of storytelling medium could accomplish with something more interactive.
In the end, I enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone who likes thick psychological literature as well as people who are interested in storytelling itself. It is far from necessary to be a gamer to enjoy Dear Esther because it is not a game by any definition that I work with. As a lover of fiction, this is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy. I think my fiancée made a pretty good call on this one.