This is the sixth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.
So this game. It had a dreadful. Slow. Pace. And it wouldn't let me participate or edit its story in any way. Yet, the confident, rambling narrative and superb voice acting worked some sort of mad magic.
I wasn't exactly onside with Lewis Denby when he suffered a life-threatening attack of hyperbole and said Dear Esther changed his outlook on games forever but, yeah, it was definitely interesting.
A Prose Poem
Back in 2009, Dear Esther was known only as a free, experimental Half-Life 2 mod created by Dan Pinchbeck's studio thechineseroom. The studio had been formed to showcase experimental FPS designs relating to storytelling and had received a grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council to create three mods; Dear Esther was the third of these. (The other two were Antlion Soccer and Conscientious Objector.)
Pinchbeck, working towards a PhD, had been analysing a decade of FPS titles in an attempt to identify techniques of meshing game and story together. What Dear Esther did was drop all of the FPS game mechanics and leave the player with nothing but an island to wander. And a story told through semi-randomised audio clips.
A successful FPS is like poetry with a rhythm of action; heavy combat is punctuated with pauses for exploration or story. The metre is well-defined and, although most players don't articulate its presence, they sense it. Dear Esther has no action and thus no mechanical rhythm; it becomes the FPS equivalent of a prose poem.
This concept – a game of narrative exploration eschewing agency – was a surprise success although it wasn't obvious that it should be remade as a high-fidelity commercial title. Pinchbeck wrote about the project then moved onto something new. Something called Korsakovia.
If It Ain't Broke, You Ain't Tried Hard Enough
Because you can’t make new memories, because you can’t remember about the events prior to, to this, you are creating this to fill in the blanks. What I’m concerned about is that this new memory you are trying to make, or what you remember, this is just not real Christopher, it didn’t happen and this, what you remember, this is really worrying. So we’re going to try and go further back, before the world ended. Do you think we can do that?
Dr. Grayson, Korsakovia (Scene Three)
According to thechineseroom, Korsakovia asks “what happens when normal expectations of play are subverted and destroyed, so the player cannot rely on the normal cues or understanding of typical FPS play.” The answer – perhaps too obviously – was a lot of frustrated players.
Korsakovia appears to place you in the mental world of “Christopher” who is suffering from Korsakoff's Syndrome which prevents an individual creating memories. The action is sprinkled with snippets of conversation with his neurologist Dr. Grayson. Throughout these exchanges, Christopher is always calm and helpful as if what he says makes sense; his word are mad, but his manner is not. The game is on Christopher's side and reinforces his world more than Grayson's; what you are participating in is Christopher's exit from reality. Which makes it all the more interesting that much of the narration is delivered from Grayson's perspective.
The game uses all sorts of tricks to mess with the player, to connect the unreliable narrator with unreliable gameplay. Some of this works brilliantly: the only nemesis in the game – monsters made of black smoke – are unreadable and terrifying. They also leap. But it goes too far: the levels become saturated with these monsters which are hard to eliminate and some are invisible; there are jumping puzzles; signposting is minimal.
Korsakovia is another Cryostasis. It delivers a brilliant and ambiguous story but burdens it with disastrous game design, although in Korsakovia's case, this is deliberate. The result is that many players abort the game and don't go back. I made it to the fifth or sixth scene and decided to throw in the towel; the time-consuming frustration of the game was too much for me. Which is a shame because Korsakovia's storytelling is delicious and, like Dear Esther, fleshed out with excellent voice acting.
Sadly, Korsakovia is no longer playable as it was broken by a recent Source update. I consider this to be a grave loss.
Robert Briscoe, a level designer who had previously worked on projects such as Mirror's Edge, decided to overhaul Dear Esther to improve both its visuals and design. This Dear Esther remake became thechineseroom's first commercial project and is now the talk of the town.
Dear Esther is spawning more conversations about what constitutes a game today than it did first time around, simply because it's reaching so many more players. Its commercial success has provided thechineseroom with the reputation to take on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs.
The new version is a definite improvement on the original for all sorts of reasons – map traversal is more classically linear now, preventing the player from missing chunks of narrative and the plodding nature of exploration doesn't seem as pronounced as the original. And the submerged memory is simply incredible.
But what is Dear Esther's thing? Much is made of it being a journey through a story, using environmental narrative to enhance that journey. That path is, more or less, linear and there's nothing you can do to change that. But the story isn't as “linear” as the virtual topography. Random chunks of narrative are hurled at the player at key spots and the purpose of the randomisation is not to provide alternative stories for different players or sessions but to contradict and undermine interpretation. I actually don't know what I feel about that. It's almost as if the game is coaxing me into making a story when one doesn't actually exist.
There are times when ambiguity works and times when it does not. I enjoyed Lost Highway, Serial Experiments Lain and also the story of Korsakovia - yet in each case I couldn't tell you what I had witnessed. Despite this, part of me wonders if Dear Esther is too abusive in its broken randomness; this is not a random story generator, but a program that attempts to destroy meaning. A narrative that commits suicide. Maybe learning what went on backstage is my actual problem, as all games suffer when you've figured out how they work.
Let's just chalk it up as a weird one that is both loved and condemned. I just hope Dear Esther's success doesn't mean we have to forget Korsakovia's failure.
Dan Pinchbeck talks to Electron Dance in two weeks' time about both the significance and peril of academic game development.
- Dan Pinchbeck's 300-page thesis: "Story as a function of gameplay in First Person Shooters: an analysis of FPS diegetic content 1998-2007"
- Robert Yang's takeaways from the thesis (go here for a quick introduction to "ludodiegesis")
- All of Dan Pinchbeck's academic papers
- Tommy Rousse's critical take "On Ruining Dear Esther"
- Steerpike's view on Tap-Repeatedly