Draw Pinchbeck pretty, Dear Esther's got grass
The syndicated remake of 2008’s Dear Esther is out in a day and there’s hubbub. People seem to think that something wonderful is just breaching the horizon. And they’ve been talking – everyone has – about the life-changing power they’ll be imbued with. By the time this is published, thousands of people will have already drunk themselves into a Dear Esther paralysis. Just a taste and they’ll have grown feeble from the knees down, just like that.
I have no doubts that the game will be good. It’ll be better than that, probably, and then some. Like clockwork it’ll happen: top scores piling up, whitewashing the floor of every game-related site for a few hours. The praise will be a full-up foamy pit with good things and great things about Dear Esther and the criticisms will be a pathetic snake ditch, sandy, and boon to plague. There’s got to be something to say – something big – that slanders, slurs, smears.
There’s no shame in admitting defeat. What I wrote before was ill-informed debauchery and I should be riled up with incontinence from all the stupid in my diet. It was silly. Somewhere between the asterisks above, I played the new Dear Esther and I loved it. Of course I loved it. It’s a brilliant remake of a brilliant game. Numbers don’t mean anything here, but it’s up there, way up.
When Dan Pinchbeck, developer of Dear Esther, said that he’d finally be able to bring his artistic vision to fruition with level designer Robert Briscoe (of Mirror’s Edge fame) and Jessica Curry (music, sound effects), I was confused. The game was already perfect in my eyes. It needed nothing and should be left alone, high and sacred in its own league.
A few days ago, I was desperate for alleviation. I needed to understand why Dear Esther could be considered a subject for sprucing up.
I’ve got this aching in my heels, begging me to run away with an old copy of Dear Esther and an older laptop, begging me to live and play in a straw-topped cabin fitted with a shitty generator and a putty scale model of Dear Esther’s bleak world. I’m scared of change! It’s a conservative ache! It means I’m supposed to hold the old relics of the past as immutable forever and hope that they’ll remain relevant until I’m gone.
The same struggle for relevance is at heart in all the tampering we see in film (Star Wars, Titanic, Spiderman) and in videogames (Halo, Team Ico). It’s fashionable now to double-back and pick away at the things that no longer fit right in this time and with these modern feelings. The context is no longer “back when it was made,” but “now.”
Someone’s struggling to keep their darling things relevant. I wonder if Pinchbeck is doing the same.
Those few days ago, I was confused. I lost my head, blew the lid, and generalized too much. Remaking Dear Esther was never about ripping people off or confusing them into thinking that things of the past ineluctably fade away. We all know that’s not true when we go to the library or pull up some black and white film or find inspiration in retro art. Why should it be true for videogames?
Dear Esther is not mine to care so much about. It’s Pinchbeck’s and Curry’s and now Briscoe’s precious, darling little thing, not mine, not ours. To me – rationally now – the old Dear Esther is just a game that I invested a fraction of my time into playing and a fraction more into thinking that it was all for me. Clearly, that’s not true. I just had the eyes and ears and fingers to find it worthwhile. Dear Esther was always an experiment riddled with flaws that never bothered me much.
It doesn’t matter that the grass isn’t on the ground all the time, or that the beach has unjust triangles leaping forward into the black, black sea. I can fill all that in, all those gaps, just fine however I want to. I’ve got imagination. A British man tells me a great story with cathartic appeal and my heels comply with forward motion. Because why not? Dear Esther is an adventure, a true pouring of the soul into a medium most people shit on constantly.
I use Dear Esther to affirm, in others, the greatness of this medium; I say that graphics don’t matter and that mechanics could be tossed aside and something beautiful could still emerge with hard work and dedication. I say that it doesn’t matter how far below the bar anything is so long as it tries something new, so long as it isn’t some run of the mill millet. Now, I can’t keep Dear Esther in my arsenal. It’s inching ever forward, clammy hands in pace with broad shoulders, to the larger realm of videogames boxed up at Gamestop. Meanwhile, I’m staying behind, reliving the moment when they decided the grass in my head wasn’t pretty enough.
I played Dear Esther – the new one – and during all the narrative and exploring and listening, I tried my best to hold onto my memory of the one that came before. It wasn’t easy. I went in afraid that there wouldn’t be room for both – one, so critical to my taste in videogames and the other, attempting to revamp the first. I figured that I would miss a few things along the way, backtrack, and realize that “this thing” fell short and “that thing” was overdone. I was over my own head and wrong.
Well, I think I understand the relationship between the two versions now. The logical beginning was never the 2008 mod with the scrappy, yet endearing mock island. That seems like a preview for something greater now and I finally get the itch Pinchbeck felt; it was one of incompleteness, not money-grubbing.
The logical beginning was always the part after the somber, pleading “Dear Esther…” and before the first few steps on dry land. The only difference is that, now, the ground’s got real grass and not that Astroturf from before.
It’s finally finished.