Transcript — Dear Esther: The Poem That Was Mistaken for a Game
“Every island is a prison, Strongly guarded by the sea; Kings and princes, for that reason, Prisoners are, as well as we.” Recorded in “The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides” by James Boswell
I want to talk about a game that came out in the early 2010’s and instantly delighted and alienated a lot of people. This game wasn’t like anything else on the shelves at the time. It didn’t involve jumping out of helicopters or launching rockets into crowds of armoured goons. The gameplay was slow — painfully slow. There was almost no story, or at least, the story wasn’t handed to you through a series of flashy cut scenes. To piece the story together you had to explore, to observe, to think. Players flocked to online forums to puzzle over scraps of information and share theories about what it all meant. I am, of course, talking about a game called…
…. Dark Souls?
Wait…no, this video isn’t about Dark Souls, but we will return to it. This video is about Dear Esther — an extremely divisive game which birthed a whole new genre of “walking simulators”. A game that had the entire industry asking “is this a game?” and “what are games?” and “why are games?” and “if a game fell in the forest and a bunch of dudes on the internet called it pretentious would hipsters still pay $10 for it?” Now before we go any further down this path, I want to assure you that I am not going to re-tread these same debates here or I would have to throw myself off an aerial tower into the ocean as penance. Instead I’m going to explore why I think Dear Esther was considered by many to be ‘a bad game’, and why the very label ‘bad game’ missed the point entirely.
First off, if you haven’t experienced Dear Esther and you find the idea of a melancholic interactive poem interesting then I strongly recommend you pause this video right now and go play it before I spoil it for you completely.
For the uninitiated, Dear Esther is a semi-interactive story in which the player has only one control available to them — walk. As you follow the island path, a disembodied narrator reads a series of letters he has written to a woman named Esther.
The player is left to figure out much of the story, but by the end of the game this much is fairly clear, at least if one follows a literal interpretation — the narrator has come to a deserted island in the Scottish Hebridean archipelago following a car crash in which he survived, but his wife Esther died. Having contracted a leg infection, he begins to hallucinate and lose his grip on reality. He decides to make a final ‘pilgrimage’ across the island before he dramatically throws himself off the highest point on the island — an abandoned radio tower. But of course, there’s a bit more to it than that.
In Part 1 of this video, I’m going to try and convince you to appreciate Dear Esther not as a game, but as a work of literature, by doing a literary analysis of the text. Watch this part if you’re interested in a deep-dive into the hidden meanings of this game — or if you need to be convinced that there are meanings to this game and that it’s not just a vacuous piece of wank that only exists to make liberal arts tossers feel smart. But feel free to skip ahead to Part 2 if you want to hear me talk about how this game was received, and what so many people got so wrong about it.
Part 1: “Indulging in Contradictions”
To work through the story of Dear Esther and make some sense of it, you have to appreciate it as a poem, by paying attention to the language, symbolism, and references to other literary works. Let’s take a close look at the text — the letters to Esther — and see what themes emerge.
Streams of Consciousness
The very first passage (or at least, one version of the first passage), begins, appropriately enough, with a contradiction.
“Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here.”
Already the opening lines cast doubt on not only the literal existence of the island, but our perception of the narrator as a reliable source of truth. We are further discouraged from looking for certainties by the narrator’s strange use of language. His grammar is disjointed, he talks in circles and returns compulsively to the same symbols and phrases — the number 21, bottomless boats, parallel lines. His statements contradict each other and he doesn’t relay events in a linear fashion, at one point referring to his final ascent in the past tense even though it hasn’t happened yet. All of which gives the impression of a mind fragmented, obsessive, and trapped in the perpetual now.
The contents of these letters are clearly meant to be understood as a stream of consciousness that will afford us glimpses into the mind of the narrator, rather than as a factual account of events.
The Undiscovered Country
If the narrator’s linguistic mannerisms disrupt our sense of time, the island itself likewise seems to transcend the constraints of space. The narrator observes that “this place is always half-imagined”, describing how the lights from the distant ships “fugue into ambiguity”, and elements of the landscape seem to shimmer and blur (“the caves seem to shimmer and blur”). Like a mirage or a dream, the island never feels quite real. This is reinforced by the randomization in the game design, whereby objects might appear or disappear on different playthroughs.
Yet, despite its surrealness, aspects of the landscape that have special significance to the narrator are described as seeming almost too real. The narrator observes that the tower at the island peak “almost appears so well placed as to be artificial”. His bothy strangely shows no signs of erosion despite having been built hundreds of years ago (“erosion seems to have evaded it completely”). The landscape itself shimmers and blurs, but these few elements are conspicuously unwavering.
A metaphorical interpretation begins to suggest itself. This is a journey into a tormented psyche.
No Man Is an Island
The island is given yet another dimension with numerous references to the narrator’s body and the island as inseparable (“Dear Esther, I have found myself to be as featureless as this ocean, as shallow and unoccupied as this bay.”) Soon metaphor and reality blur together as he starts describing himself as becoming fused with the island. His kidney stones mirror the rocky island landscape (“stones in my belly”) and then become part of it (“now my stones have grown into an island”). The narrator and the island blend into one other until it’s not clear where one ends and the other begins.
If the narrator is the island then he is traversing himself. How can we make sense of this? As a journey of self-exploration of course. Early in the game the narrator divulges that his aim is to achieve some sort of “fresh insight” — but into what? As he becomes more tormented and we come to suspect that he blames himself for the car accident, his journey of reflection starts to look more like a search for redemption. Each stage of his journey represents a point on the road to enlightenment: the first steps (the path), the struggle toward meaning (the climb), the plunge into the dark (the caves), and emergence into a new way of being (the peak).
So then, this journey is the redemption story of a man seeking peace and closure over the tragic death of his wife, in which he must struggle and confront the deepest, darkest parts of his psyche in order to reach the light of hope and rebirth (“there is some form of rebirth waiting for me there”).
The Road to Damascus
Biblical references are scattered throughout the text and underscore its themes (“I would leave you loaves and fishes”; “the sea… beckons you to walk upon its surface”). The idea of redemption is common in Christianity and the use of the word “mount” to describe the island peak imbues the narrator’s journey with a Biblical significance. His final, tortured struggle to the top of a hill where he knows he will perish is not a dissimilar image to Jesus’s final ascent to the site of his crucifixion.
The Road to Damascus is repeatedly mentioned and the name of the other driver in the car accident is Paul. In the Bible, Paul is an Apostle of Jesus and it is commonly believed that his former name was Saul, whose travels on the road to Damascus are detailed in Acts 9. In this story, Saul is on the road from Jerusalem when Jesus suddenly appears and strikes him down. Saul is blinded for three days and upon regaining his sight, he becomes a devoted disciple of Jesus. The relevance to Saul’s story here is three-fold. First, the image of Saul being struck down on the road echoes the narrator’s car accident. Second, his story mirrors the narrator’s literal journey across the island — through darkness and blindness, into light. Finally, it has symbolic relevance for the narrator — Saul’s conversion from ignorance to enlightenment reflects the narrator’s journey toward insight and rebirth. This becomes even more apt when considering the possibility that the narrator and Paul are the same person.
Repeated references are also made to the story of Lot’s wife. In the story, which can be found in Genesis, Lot’s family is told to flee Sodom to escape God’s wrath, but warned not to look back. Lot’s wife can’t help looking back and becomes a pillar of salt. The narrator himself can not seem to stop looking back, fixating upon the moment of the accident, even though he knows it dooms him.
Revolution and Permanence
In the opening lines, the narrator states “I have lost track of how long I have been here, and how many visits I have made overall”. The bothy has “an air of uneasy permanence”, as does the island itself. There is a sense that this island is a strangely permanent, perhaps infinite place, where the narrator must repeat his traumas again and again. At one point the narrator mentions finding a book which he seems to remember already having thrown into the ocean.
This concept of endless cyclical repetition fits very nicely with a Biblical interpretation of the events of the game. That is, the narrator is actually dead and is being forced to confront his sins in purgatory, over and over again until he is able to transcend them. Another interpretation is that the narrator is lying on a hospital bed somewhere and we are playing as the remnants of his consciousness, trying to make sense of the tragedy that has occurred. The thing I like about this interpretation is that it allows for the idea that the blinking lights of the aerial and the buoys are actually the blinkings of life support machines.
At the conclusion of the game, rather than plummet to a grisly end, he takes flight, and he leaves us with for once, unambiguously hopeful words: “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love”. This ending sequence could mean one of several things, depending on which interpretation you favour. Has he finally transcended the state of purgatory, free to ascend to a new phase of the afterlife? Or has his body succumbed to death, his soul now free to be reunited with his Esther?
After a close look at the text, we can understand what Dear Esther is really about. It’s the story of a man trying to come to terms with grief and guilt. It’s about what trauma does to us, how it shatters our lives and splinters our minds. How it traps us in time, like frozen statues, pillars of salt, unable to look anywhere but back. It’s about making the decision to try and find meaning, to make light out of the darkness, to tread the hard road of recovery not knowing if redemption will meet us on the other side. But making the journey is in itself an act of hope and so ultimately, Dear Esther is a life-affirming story even as it ends in a death.
Part 2: “The Inevitable Moment of Impact”
Much of what I covered in part one might be missed if you simply played Dear Esther as a game and didn’t appreciate it as a piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s time to take a stroll through the landscape of misguided criticism.
“It’s too obtuse”
We hardcore gamers don’t like it when games are obtuse. For example, we definitely do not enjoy games with mystifying stories that feature protagonists of unknown origin exploring desolate ruins to a sparse, mournful soundtrack, or ambiguous endings that are open to interpretation. We would never endorse a game that featured characters delivering such obtuse lines as this:
“Let these souls, withdrawn from their vessels, Manifestations of disparity, Elucidated by fire, Burrow deep within me, Retreating to a darkness beyond the reach of flame, Let them assume a new master, Inhabiting ash, casting themselves upon new forms.”
No, Dear Esther’s critics really don’t mind obtuse stories in games, as long as they’re presented alongside hours of clubbing demon skeletons to death and running away from dragons with far too many mouths. That makes it awesome, see? Obtuse story with no demon skeletons? Rubbish. Obtuse story with demon skeletons? That’s just a game.
“Pretentious” is an interesting word, isn’t it? It’s a highly subjective word. I think films by Andrei Tarkovsky are pretentious and I would like to get back the time I spent watching a man walking around a space station looking confused while nothing much happened for three hours but his fans consider him to be the greatest director of the last 50 years. “Pretentious” isn’t some objective quality of the thing itself, it’s a value judgment on the part of the observer. If you see meaning there, it’s a great work of art. If you don’t, it’s pretentious. When we say something is pretentious, then, what we’re actually saying is “I don’t find meaning in this, and therefore, there is none”.
And works of art can sometimes feel pretty inaccessible. Some films can’t be fully understood without an awareness of the visual and symbolic language of film. Dear Esther is part literature, and you can’t fully understand it without understanding how to decode the written language of literary texts. Many people were quick to label this game pretentious, and what I think they meant was, they couldn’t find meaning in it. But maybe when we find something pretentious, it’s because we lacked the framework to find meaning in it. Hm…maybe this goes for my irrational hatred of Tarkovsky too (nah I’m pretty sure Tarkovsky is pretentious ….moving on now).
“There’s nothing to do!”
Would Dear Esther be a better game if the landscape was littered with collectibles? What about unlockables? What if instead of being haunted by distant ghostly apparitions, you could fight and kill them, perhaps with some sort of club? Would it be a better game if it let players run and jump, so they could compete to set speedrun records? Would any of that more effectively communicate the story? Would it help to convey the emotions of grief and sorrow?
Come to think of it, doesn’t the fact that you can’t interact with anything fit perfectly with the story? After all, you are, most likely, either a bodiless ghost roaming purgatory or the trace of consciousness in a comatose brain. On top of that, Dear Esther is a story about the futility of trying to revisit and change the past. What better way to convey that than to render the player literally powerless?
“But interactivity is what games do best!”
I do actually agree with this point, to an extent. But as we’ve seen, Dear Esther is more like an interactive poem than a game. And you wouldn’t complain about a lack of interactivity while reading a book (well hopefully you wouldn’t) because it’s clear that literature gives us its own set of “verbs” to perform (a million nerd points if you got that pun). There are clues to interpret, inconsistencies to reconcile, theories to construct, meaning to make. Like literature, the gameplay of Dear Esther is inside your mind.
And in trying to force rigid distinctions where none exist, I think some important points were missed. For example, the very ambiguity about what Dear Esther even is, complements the themes of the game. Dear Esther blurs the line between game and book, the island blurs the line between real and unreal, the narrator’s letters blur the lines between truth and lie. The island is a world between worlds, and Dear Esther is a space somewhere between visual and textual media. The game embraces its own ambiguous identity as it explores the futility of trying to resolve all of life’s contradictions, and it urges us to embrace uncertainty, to make our own meaning however incomplete it might be, and to reject easy answers.
And how did the community respond?
This isn’t strictly a game. I don’t like it.
“It’s not a game, therefore it’s a bad game!”
When Dear Esther came out, everyone realised that it wasn’t really a game, not in the traditional sense. But a lot of people didn’t seem to grasp the implications — that if it’s not a game then you can’t look at it as a game, you can’t review it as a game and you can’t enjoy it as a game. Tragically, the internet is clogged with failed attempts to do so.
What I find most baffling is the people who said it’s not a game, and then proceeded to declare it a shit game. Which is like saying “this book isn’t a film, therefore it’s a shit book”. You can’t evaluate something using the criteria of a category in which it doesn’t belong.
If you take the criteria we commonly use for evaluating games and apply them to Dear Esther, the result is an unmitigated disaster. It has no buttons to mash, no demon skeletons to bash, no control over the story, no explosions, and it affords you absolutely no ability to declare your superiority over most of the human race by having beaten the game on NG+++++ in one sitting while wearing a straitjacket and a blindfold.
But this was entirely the wrong set of criteria to apply. What Dear Esther achieves, being partly literature, is a set of things that literature typically aims to achieve.
It’s an emotional story that aims to move you.
It creates empathy by making you — literally — walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
It takes you on a journey to a different place.
And it challenges you to abandon black and white thinking.
But, it doesn’t have a jump button, so I guess it’s shit! So much for embracing ambiguity.
Conclusion: Goodbye Damascus…
When much of the gaming community played Dear Esther, all they saw was what was missing. It was a game, minus the game.
When I play Dear Esther, I see a poem come to life. A short story that you can walk through. A piece of literature you can inhabit.
That’s why calling Dear Esther a ‘bad game’ is missing the point. Dear Esther isn’t a bad game, it’s a great interactive poem.
And ultimately, it’s the simple story of a man who, grief-stricken by the tragic loss of his wife, is drawn to a distant, lonely place where the real blends into the metaphorical, and visions torment him with — wait a minute… (screenshot from Tarkovsky’s Solaris)
Oh you’ve gotta be f*cking kidding me.
They say that schools of fish once filled this bay. Now there’s little left for the fishermen, but to wait for the nylon filaments of life to unravel. They are relics of another time, a time before algorithms and sponsored content. I cast my net as always, but the subscribers do not bite. One day the hot takes will be gone, when we all belong to the sea once more. As I lie under the stars at night I ponder the legend of The Creator. They say he reached 5 billion subscribers, and at that moment, he threw his arms wide and was assimilated into the machine. A mere folk legend, no doubt. But sometimes I swear I can still hear his ghostly echoes:
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