The wonderful accessibility of Dear Esther

It’s the final year of college, and I’m writing a book on videogames. It’s one of the loneliest projects of my life.

I don’t just mean the regular cycle of locking myself in my room to play a game and take notes on it, followed by locking myself in the library to write about the damn thing. That’s how senior theses go. But there is a cultural isolation to my work, best summed up in variants of a conversation that happens on a weekly basis:

Classmate: “So, what are you working on?”
Me: “I’m writing a history of storytelling in videogames.”
Classmate: “Oh…interesting.”

As soon as I say “videogames,” my classmate’s eyes glaze over, and they make a mental note not to ask me again.

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of gamers at my school; but, by and large, they exist in a tight-knit social circle that doesn’t overlap with mine. My friends’ disinterest is more than simple apathy; they have no experience that shows the medium as something more than a mass of abstract game logic and excessive violence. There’s nothing wrong with abstaining from games, of course; but the academic isolation is starting to get to me, and I decide to introduce my friends to the game I deem most accessible to them, a game that would challenge their preconceptions of what a videogame could be.

The penultimate chapter of my book is on 2008’s Dear Esther, a then little-known Source engine experiment to see what happens when you take the shooting out of the first-person shooter (keep in mind that the 2012 remake was a few years out at this point). I’ve played this little mod countless times, so much that it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. My solution: invite the one close friend I have who’s actually interested in the subject matter, and watch him play through it.

It’s a fruitful exercise, and both the notes I take while he plays and the discussion we have afterwards gives me new insights into the game. I could stop here, but sharing the game is strangely satisfying, so I set up other play sessions.

The one that most sticks in my mind is with two first-year students, Alex and Maddy, that I had met as a TA. Neither had played any videogames outside of Mario Kart.  Once we get settled, Alex volunteers to take the helm, with Maddy watching over her shoulder. Booting up Dear Esther, I tell Alex only what she needed to know: the controls.

It isn’t long till Alex falls off a cliff and becomes trapped in a crevice. She’s encountered the brick wall of controls and virtual navigation that discourage so many who try to get into the hobby, a problem particulary present in first-person games.

I hesitantly volunteer to take the controls, having them tell me where they should the character should walk, which works out; after all, Dear Esther’s value lies mostly in its aesthetic and narration, not its interactive elements. Alex and Maddy stare in rapt attention, occasionally providing a verbal reaction or question to a particular segment, but it’s the discussion afterwards that sticks most in my memory.

Who was the narrator? What is his relationship to Paul, Donnely, and Jakobson? Is the island an actual place, or is the entire game a fever dream? These are questions that any player engrossed by the game’s narrative must confront, but my companions do so with the gusto they normally reserve for literature, and we talk for close to an hour about the experience.

We gave up on reading all of the writing from this vantage point.

What we didn’t address was Dear Esther’s nebulous status as a videogame. This has dominated discussion of both releases, given that the player’s power in the game-world is limited to moving across a linear set of spaces. Sometimes the comment is addressed academically, but in comment threads across the internet I’ve generally seen this used as a derogatory dismissal of the game. If Dear Esther doesn’t carry forward the core values of the medium, why should we give it the time of day?

Yet I consider Dear Esther to be a valuable emissary for gaming. It sits alongside games like Galatea, Façade, and To t­he Moon as interactive experiences that eschew the challenges and contests that typically define a game in order to focus on evoking a powerful narrative experience. A technical definition could exclude any of these from the medium of videogames, but a social definition inevitably includes them; anyone looking over my shoulder would identify these programs as videogames. This can only be a good thing.

When we finished Dear Esther, Maddy and Alex found that they had enjoyed a videogame. A switch was flipped. This seeming impossibility suggested another: if they could like one videogame, why couldn’t they like another?

There’s no grand finale here. Neither of them became dedicated to the hobby. But in future conversations, there was an interest in my work and a willingness to take recommendations. They had found a frame of reference and discovered a personal stake in the wider world of videogames. I think of this often, because Dear Esther gets a lot of crap (and has received even more as it’s racked up a few end-of-year awards). I understand this; it’s an odd game with a limited scope, targeted to a niche audience that the creator Dan Pinchbeck wasn’t even sure existed.  But whenever I hear someone arguing that Dear Esther should never have been made, or that it presents some nefarious threat to all that is good and pure in videogames, my skin bristles. I have seen the game open doors, expanding not only the reach of the medium I love, but leaving me a little less lonely in the process.


  1. Dylan,

    I like this post, I just started writing about video games and art, and am getting lots of similar blank stares when I try to explain it. Dear Esther was a beautiful, eye opening experience for me too:

    I wonder though, if it isn’t better to start new players off with something like “Dys4ia” or “Unmanned”. The controls are much less technically complicated than trying to coordinate WASD+Mouse, and they can be completed in 15 or 20 minutes. For new players already turned off by a perceived difficulty in games, completion can be a good motivator. And both games overtly challenge the idea of normal games and act as strong starting points for discussion of what video games can do.

    • I general, I totally agree, and it’s something that made me hesitate to write this piece. Neither of those games were our when I wrote this, but there were similar ones. But in a sense the accessibility of those is often taken for granted; they’re created outside the normal video game space. What makes Dear Esther unusual – and, I think, what’s behind a lot of the pushback – is that it uses the tools of AAA game development (Source engine) and the controls of a traditional FPS, and molds it into something much more accessible. Those controls are still an issue – but if you’re actually going to enter the world of wider first-person gaming it’s probably the best place to start (that or Portal, probably).

  2. Derek Gildea

    Hi Dylan.

    “Dear Esther” was a wonderful experience for me as well. Good luck with your book. Is there a way I can follow you and learn about your progress?

  3. Zachary Spector

    I think that visual novel games offer much the same benefit. Many of them even have a similar structure to Dear Esther, with options provided to look closer at one detail or another, linger and move on as you please, but a story that overall does not vary.

    There’s an indie scene for these games in the US (see Analogue: A Hate Story) but the nearest to a triple-A release in this genre here is the Dead or Alive Xtreme series.

    • I have never, ever connected these games to Dead or Alive Xtreme…but you’re absolutely right. Wow.

  4. Is it really necessary to proselytize for games? I’ve often wondered about that impulse and why it seems so important for gamers to convince non-gamers of their hobby’s legitimacy when the same isn’t said of hobbyists for other mediums. Is it a sort of insecurity that drives it, a need for validation by peers?

    Granted I’m sure buffs of say art history or local politics or transit issues (*cough*) have the same problem getting people interested, but again is it really necessary? Can’t games criticism stand on its own merits?

    • Jacob,

      Speaking for myself, I think it’s important to share my interests with the people around me. It makes me feel good.

      Speaking to the topic at large, I think that topics like art history, local politics and even transit issues already have a strong representation in terms of study and criticism. They’re taught in schools. funded by government grants, and already have enough cache to stand on their own merits.

      Games don’t have this privilege yet, so it’s important for us to invite a wider audience into the field. The image the general public gets is all Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Shooters, Action, etc. and these games are popular enough to survive without government support. But for the rest of the gaming industry to flourish it will need to reach a more diverse audience, and somebody will have to show that audience behind the curtain of shooters and action games.

      So it is a need for validation from peers in a sense, because for any expression to have meaning it needs to be heard and seen by an audience.

      • in order:

        There’s sharing your interests and there’s insisting that others share those interests. The distinction is lost on many gamers, like Mordecai Buckman’s gamer mom here:

        That’s entirely a perceptual thing, though. Local politics and transit issues are not actually broadly taught academically and art history is treated with a great deal of disdain. Games are taught in academia about as often as local politics and transit issues and have approximately the same cache. Assuming that games are a young people thing ignores the reality that they’ve been popularly around for more than thirty years now and that the same academics who dismiss games also dismiss other forms of pop media and vice versa.

        I’m not sure how to address this paragraph because you’ve indicated a few things to me, that you want games to have academic privilege (and thus the hierarchy that locks discussion out of those not academically inclined) and also government support but you also mention games as an industry and not as a medium. Do you want government subsidy of games? Because tech companies already reap significant tax benefits in most metropolitan areas.

        And what are we if not an audience? How few gamers do you think there are?

        • Jacob –

          It’s a fair question, and I think the answer (to your original post) is “all of the above.” As easy as it would be to deny it, I think there is an insecurity; but it’s not an insecurity about the value or greatness of the medium (something I have no doubts on) but about my own social standing as a gamer. It’s self-interested, as is the simple desire to share that Alexander mentioned (though it’s worth noting that I didn’t give anyone a hard sell to take part in these sessions).

          But outside of that, I think the people introduced benefit as much if not more than the established gamer. Love them or hate them, they’re becoming an ever-larger cultural force in our country, and I think (generally speaking) its better to have some sort of concrete, personal understanding of at least some small part of these forces rather than ignorance or only abstracted knowledge. I realize that sounds a little hoity-toity, but at the very least it lessons the chances of feeling alienation from this force.

          • I just can’t help but think about movies here and the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who consume movies know nothing about them critically. And it works for them just fine.

            But then maybe it’s just a community thing and over in indie movie blogs there’s a ton of people dedicated to dragging new people into 48 hour film fests and things.

  5. I wonder what would happen in Dear Esther was released on the Wii. I feel like, for many people, the Wii is the emissary between the worlds of twin stick confusion and relatively intuitive control schemes, something that you can easily teach your grandparents and non-gaming friends without the learning curve of a toddler.

    This came to mind for me recently when I finished Journey and immediately wanted to pass it on to everybody I knew, especially some of the older people in my life. I wanted to see what their relationship to the game would be as someone who is at a very different point in their own journey than me, how the impact differed. Then I immediately realized that the simple act of having to jump from platform to platform or understanding the concept of holding the jump button to glide would erect a massive barrier to entry for them. I considered playing it for them, but in doing so the joyousness of the final scene would be all but lost. The pure game-ness of the thing just seems too daunting.

    It makes me wonder how games like Dear Esther and Journey might’ve been different if they were never even considered games, if they were developed outside the space of assumed control schemes and genre understandings. Would Dear Esther have been a better “thing” if it were in a museum with just a single trackball for controls?

    • This is so spot in (you basically have an article here). I think that the Wii would be well suited for the likes of Dear Esther, but it wouldn’t do very well simply because the huge word-of-mouth marketing apparatus that exists in the indie PC space doesn’t really have an equivalent on the Wii. There is some precedent here; the first Endless Ocean game has a lot in common with Dear Esther, but I don’t think it sold a ton (though it clearly sold enough to warrant a sequel).

      The Dear Esther as Museum Piece question has come up a lot of times, and I really wish someone would just install it in MOMA and record visitors reactions to it.