The Dear Esther Interlard
You are on a macadam jetty — ostensibly shipwrecked — looking out over a briny shoreline that snakes its way out into the distance before disappearing behind a limestone cliff face. Even further stands a radio tower on which a pair of nictitant red lights burn through the seaside fog in equal parts beacon and warning. You turn to your right and are confronted by the crepuscular candy cane husk of a long-forgotten lighthouse, by all accounts abandoned and forgotten. The seaside wind chills you to your waterlogged bones, and to escape the howling wind, you retreat into the abandoned lighthouse.That is, you thought it was abandoned. But out of the corner of your eye, you swear you saw a figure of a woman. Was it real? Your mind is awash with fright, yet you are also tired. So tired. What is and isn’t real is certainly up for debate, and so, reassuring yourself in your sleepy stupor, you clutch your arms around yourself, steel your resolve, and press onward, alone.
Dear Esther reminds me of the Irish literary tradition of taking long morose looks at something beautifully dreadful. What makes this game tick is its incessant willingness to go at its own pace — to be comfortable enough within its prolixity to create it’s world without pandering to preconceived notions of what it should be. The story is heart-breaking, catching the player in its sorrowful intransigent wendings by way of unsettling audio and lush visuals. This is a headphone game in its most immediate sense. What makes Esther so fascinating is that, more than in other games, in order to play it, you must to give yourself to it.
All throughout my journey, I came across evidence of humanity just missed: burning candles, patterns in sand, and cave drawings all summoned up a crushing sense of loneliness. If I was quicker, even by minutes, my God, maybe then I could have caught those elusive specters that tormented me with their distance.
You are in a wide gully of dried grass, surrounded on all sides by rocky hills. Ahead of you, the dirt path that runs through the gully splits with one direction leading left up a small cliff, and another heading to the right and around, straddling the wrecked remains of an ocean frigate. You take the path to the left, leading you up an incline, traced with a make-shift wire fence. While you’re looking at the ship, you make out movement out of the corner of your eye. You turn just quick enough to get one good look at the image that has disappeared once again. It looked like the same woman as before. Is she following you?
Shaken, you make your way to where she disappeared. There is only sheer cliff face. If there was a woman there, she must have jumped onto the whetted rocks below. You look down the cliff. There is no body.
Dear Esther supplants the usual narratological sticks for carrots — making the ghost sightings the reward instead of the fear. Where I spend the majority of time in other games running from ghosts, here I ran towards them. I am compelled to see where they go. They light candles and paint on walls; yet they also fall off cliff faces, dissolve into birds, and disappear into nothing. They are a maddening convolution of ideas, challenging my traditional notion of antagonist by giving me shy specters that watch from a distance. In Dear Esther, I get the feeling the ghosts are running from me. In Dear Esther, I feel that I am the monster.
Over a rift of cliff, you see another figure, holding a candle. When you first see him, you wave, hoping for a response, yet he only moves away and into the inky blackness. You stand there for a moment just outside Jacobson’s bothy, eyes fixed on the spot of rock the man disappeared behind, hoping beyond hope that the figure will return, if only to acknowledge that, yes, he is real. Maybe he is coming back around and will meet you on the other side. The idea of seeing him again is both exciting and terrifying. You work your way down the path, onto the beach on which you bisect the loam-ridden ribcage of another, older shipwreck that lays sullen in shallows.You trudge through a sad rivulet and into the cave. Looking up, you see where the man stood only minutes before. There is no way down. As you are peering up, trying to piece together where the man could have gone, you lose track of where you are stepping, and suddenly your right foot shoots out under you, sending you hurtling down into the blackness.
Dear Esther is a story of regret — of drowsy drivers, crashing; of insurmountable grief, raging — caught in a ghost story. The logical part of my brain attempted to connect these incidents by filling out spreadsheets in order to discover who’s who, but to do so, I realized, misses the point. In true Kant-onese, Dear Esther is a thing unto itself: a truth, without deigning itself into didactics or prescriptiveness. It lives amongst the dead. To attempt to make sense of the story is like using science to explain away Paul’s revelation on the biblical journey to Damascus as “an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy”: it misses the point. But where the bible attempts to teach, Dear Esther attempts only to show. It is art for art’s sake. It is in equal parts love letter and lamentation to both Esther and videogames. It is an autotelic totem of uncompromising vision, stranded on an island, chiseling grim lines into itself to dissuade passing ships from landing on its coast. This land is still under quarantine.
You emerge from the caves on a beach, riddled with lost remnants of humanity. All of this deformed and lost markings read like waterlogged pages of a diary — smudged, smeared, forgotten, and destroyed — telling the story of a thing and place. Above, a gibbous moon hangs drearily, showering the scene in a milky lunar light.The journey weighs heavier on you now after your slog through the dark caverns that seemed to double back on themselves over and over. Once, when you submerged your head in an underground pool, you swore you saw a hatchback on a desolate stretch of road. Things have begun to make less sense.There have been no people skirting from your periphery since you fell down into the belly of the island, and a sense of resolved calm has begun to insinuate itself upon you. A dread pervasive enough is no longer dreadful; instead, it becomes the norm.When you turn the corner on the small path over top of the beach-proper, you are confronted with a weathered artificial dune, pocked with the same burning candles that have become your constant companions.Perched on a small overlook above you, a man supports himself with a cane, looking lazily down at you through the obfuscating fog. In fact, he seems to follow you wherever you go on this small stretch of land, though his exact direction is unknowable. When you lose sight of the man for a moment while climbing, you expect him to dissipate, yet when the path is followed, he still stands there, looking at you — unmoving and unflinching — and the gaze is unbearable, yet incredibly alluring. You dash onward, using the last reserves of your strength, giddy in morbid fascination. You have so much to ask.When you finally reach the precipice on which the man stood, he is gone. Leaving only the puckish yowl of wind in his wake. He watched you the whole time you slogged through the sand, yet retreated in a final act of treason. Ahead of you is the path that leads to stairs that leads to the tower where this will all end — where loneliness will become a tawdry nuisance. The tower, you realize now, is where you will free yourself.
The creator of Johann Sebastian Joust, Doug Wilson, explained his game design philosophy as “Games that are intentionally designed to be ambiguous, abusive, broken, or otherwise ‘incomplete’ can help shift the focus from winning to a decidedly festive, collaborative, and intrinsically motivated kind of play.” Esther (as well as Joust) is this type of game. It is an experience where the end doesn’t feel like “winning;” it feels like it is just that: the end. What we see in Dear Esther is one example of a game that gropes in the darkness for those boundaries that limn the term “game” and, in a way, seem to dissolve the discussion all together. In the end, it doesn’t quite matter whether Dear Esther is a game or not; instead it only matters that it exists as a marker in its own right — as both a beacon and a warning — to show its audience the power of inference and suggestion.
You reach the creaking metalloid gate of Damascus. Strong winds buffet with greater force here atop this mountain, climbing up the side of the line-shorn cliff face that tells of a just missed calamity. The scrawlings get more belligerent at this point, suffused with biblical allusion.
Soon, you make your way to the final clime, where all will be revealed — where you will fly. The limestone underfoot is slick with the constant berating of the briny sea water and rain. You walk underneath the large smear of paint, signifying this mountain top as DAMASCUS, and the air becomes thinner, somehow colder, as you finally take that last double back, where all there is is gray water and gray sky, chain link fence, the tower, and her.
Hello, old friend. I have been looking for you. I have so much to ask.
You begin your ascension. “I will look to my left and see Esther Donnelly flying beside me.” Metal girders groan under your alien weight. “I will look to my right and see Paul Jacobsen flying beside me.” The red lights you saw from the jetty now pulse their radiant heat signatures against your left side. “They will leave white lines carved into the air to reach the mainland where help will be sent.” You look out and see the the barely visible line where gray water meets purple sky. Your journey is over. The pain is over, and you will never be lonely again. You give yourself to the gravity, letting the whetted rocks of the Hebridean coast rush up to meet you at terminal velocity, and then the most miraculous thing happens: you begin to fly.