Friday, May 31, 2013

"Dear Esther": Initial Speculation, and the Importance of Perception

Sorry for the extended silence from this, my corner of the Internet. This play I was in happened, then final exams happened, then I put on a robe and sat in the Sun for four hours before getting handed a nice piece of paper bound loosely in cardboard and leather, saying I was now something called a "Bachelor of Arts." It was all very hectic, very blurry, and I remember feeling the rush of a mixture of some very powerful emotions, then I guess I moved into an apartment. Anyway...

I recently played through a so-called "Half-Life 2" mod, "Dear Esther", which is and should rightfully be called a game in and of itself, rather than "a mod."

Creepy lighthouses are a hallmark of good storytelling.

This will be part review, part speculation about the game's notoriously ambiguous ending, so if you don't want the ending spoiled (and you don't), you'd best heed the warning sign I'll give just before I dredge into spoiler territory. By clear and obvious, I mean that which is pictured below: the face of the man who is himself a walking, talking spoiler: the former star of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, Sean Bean. Once again, if I'm going into spoiler territory, you will see the face of Sean Bean. You have Bean warned.

The Starks of Winterfel are not known for their sense of humor,
nor their tolerance for contrived puns.

The Review
(NOTE: The above picture is an example. No spoilers exist herein.)

"Dear Esther" is an entirely first-person game, meaning that the player's perception and that of the Protagonist  exist at a 1:1 ratio. Because we see what the Protagonist sees, and only what they see, we share their experience. The story is not spoon-fed to the player through exposition, but given to the player in bits and pieces. If you rush through the game, you may miss key details to understanding the plot. 

There are two mechanics besides the "Pause" menu in the game: "Look" and "Walk." You cannot run, jump, pick up items, punch, or shoot anything. You can only walk, listen, and see the story unfold before you. It's a different kind of first-person video game, one that primarily involves the player using two of their five senses and their frontal lobe to gather and process information, rather than basing the experience around the boilerplate "run-jump-shoot" rigmarole. 

What fascinates me about this game is not just the simplicity of its design, nor the beauty of its story, but the artfulness of its presentation. "Dear Esther" is a story told only partially with words. Through necessity, it compels you to live the experience of the storyteller. 

There is a motif of parallel lines addressed a couple of times over the course of the game, which spans about 60-90 minutes on one's first playthrough. Simple depictions of parallel lines show up on walls in the form of graffiti in areas throughout the game. We are given the testimony of someone's experience on an unnamed Hebridean island (one of a cluster within an archipelago off the coast of Scotland) via letters written aloud by a character whose identity is kept ambiguous, at the same time that we are seeing the island firsthand. If one is compelled to look closely, listen closely, the player starts to see similarities and discrepancies, implicit and explicit, between the Narrator's testimony and the player’s firsthand- to "read between the lines." The challenge of the game comes in synthesizing a plot from the data we are given, all of which seems disjointed, incomplete, even superfluous at times.

The soundtrack is fantastic as well, and is available for digital download. If you have the extra cash (neither the soundtrack nor the game are expensive as games and soundtracks go) I highly recommend, nay, demand that you download and play it.

Right. Now that that's done...


You have been warned.

At the end of the game, the Protagonist follows a ghostly figure up to a radio broadcast tower, or an "aerial" as the Narrator refers to it. The man's clearly British, if nothing else. Not unlike our friend Sean.

If he's the same person as the Narrator, he's a gibbering madman with a diseased, gimp leg at this point. If not, he does what he does for even more enigmatic reasons.

The Protagonist, or whoever's eyes and ears the player has been borrowing throughout the game, climbs to the top of the radio tower whose ominous red light the player has been following since the first chapter. He looks down, then jumps as some unsettlingly mellow piano music plays. The Protagonist's body passes the face of a great rock covered in cryptic graffiti slathered on with luminescent paint, which can clearly be seen at the beginning of the chapter. 

Rocks and waves get closer and closer, and it becomes apparent that your character is about to die. Only, they don’t. For much of the chapter, the Narrator has gone on about feeling that he wants to leap off of a cliff and fly to safety. Just before he hits the rocks, the Protagonist pulls up, and then soars across the beach like a bird. The player has gone the whole game walking in, around, and out of water, yet for the first time what seems to be the reflection of the player-character can be seen: a seagull.

The Protagonist soars over to a little corner of the beach, where the Narrator mentioned he'd taken all the letters he'd written to an unseen character, Esther, and folded them into little sailboats, pushing them out to the sea. The Protagonist stops right at the furthest sailboat, and the game fades to black. After a few seconds, the Narrator's voice is heard for a final time: "Come back.


Obviously this can be taken in a few directions, but there's something important to consider when interpreting the ending: time.

Time is an utterly subjective concept. If you've ever stared at an analog clock to see how long it takes for the "seconds" hand to make a full circle, you know that a minute seems a lot longer when it's measured objectively, with something like a clock. Or a chronoscope, if you're an old-timey psychologist.

The time it would take for the Protagonist to fall from the top of the aerial to the rocks below is obviously much shorter than the amount of time it would take for him to turn into a seagull and fly across the beach. Therefore, it must be one or the either, right? He couldn't have died and flown to safety, could he?

He could, actually. If you believe that one’s perception of reality and objective reality are separate, but equal realities. I don't.

There are two ways one learns the story of "Dear Esther": through the Narrator, and the experience of the Protagonist. Neither can be trusted as totally reliable. There are discrepancies between what the Protagonist can see and what the Narrator tells us, such as a book he claims to have burnt, yet can be found unburnt in the fireplace of the hermit Jakobson's house in the second chapter, where the Narrator claims to have set up camp. 

Sometimes the two experiences intersect in unexpected ways. The Narrator mentions he's hurt his leg badly on a fall, and that it's become infected. "Pain flows through me like an underground river" he says, just as the player crosses an underground river in real time. The Narrator mentions time and again a car crash, a drunk driver. After a particularly deep fall, the Protagonist undergoes a sequence where he crosses a highway on foot, his whole world immersed in water. There is a hospital bed, and just past it, broken car parts and skid marks. The Protagonist then wakes up underwater.

The Narrator's descriptions of his journey become increasingly deranged and nonsensical as the Protagonist reaches the game's conclusion. However, in addition to many of his narrations seeming to coincide with what the player experiences in real time, even the Protagonist's perception comes into question with the aforementioned sequence, as well as other moments dotted throughout the game in which a shadowy, ghostly figure appears, constantly watching the player’s progress with an ominous stillness.

I think it's reasonable to conclude that the Narrator and Protagonist are the same person. If that's true, then his perception cannot be trusted, because A) he's clearly become unstable due to the grief stemming from, possibly, a drunk driving accident, B) he's dying of infection, and C) the only thing he's eaten or drunk for at least three days, as he says, are painkillers and saltwater. 

The difference between the scenario of hitting the ground (which seems the more logical result) and flying to safety (which suggests a more mystical resolution), can be explained thusly: the Protagonist has been breaking down physiologically and psychologically for days...both of which tend to affect one's perception, including one's perception of time. The Protagonist's body could have hit the rocks in the same amount of time that he experienced turning into a seagull and flying away, particularly if he's psychotic.

Which he absolutely was.


Have you ever had a friend get really upset and emotional, then try to explain why they were feeling that way, only to leave you flummoxed by their explanation? Alternatively, have you ever been upset and emotional, only to be frustrated by the inability of others to comprehend the reason for your distress? That's what "Dear Esther" is like. The player simultaneously lives the experience of a madman while listening to his own account of it.

Despite this, the world we see in "Dear Esther" is not inhabited by nightmares and demons. It's a world of mystery, solitude, and beauty. The journey through the island is one well worth making, even if it is not clear why, or how, or even when whatever it is we are experiencing is taking place. In a world that views insanity with fear and contempt, the Protagonist's journey in "Dear Esther" shines its brightest lights on the spots of the Protagonist which demonstrate that, although he is indisputably cracked up, he is also indisputably human.