Dear Esther as an RPG?
The Oxford-English dictionary defines a videogame as: “a game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.” This definition gives us a rather vague definition of what a video game is. Since their inception, videogames come in all different flavors: you have your shooters, action adventure, role-playing game, sports, and driving games to name a few. Dear Esther most resembles the role-playing game or RPG; in which, the player takes on the role of a character, or characters, within the context of the game. As an avid gamer I have come to expect a few things from this type of game: physical player interaction, thought invocation, relatable characters and storyline, and a degree of graphics and realism. Examining Dear Esther we will explore how well it lives up to each of these expectations as a true RPG video game.
The first necessity of any good role-playing game is the overall physical player interaction; this can be anything from interacting with the environment, picking up items, moving obstacles, running, jumping, and the list goes on. Unfortunately that list barely starts for Dear Esther. The only interaction with the environment is simply that the main character exists in it; he can only look around and move in three dimensions. He cannot pick up or move objects, there is no other physical motion besides walking; the character automatically turns on his on flashlight when it is dark and crouches in tight spaces, taking even the simplest physical interactions away from the gamer. In this aspect is this the game is more related to a movie or short story with its operational progression through the narrative (Pinsof).
What Dear Esther lacks in physical interaction it makes up for in mental interaction. In the typical RPG solving puzzles or figuring out different approaches to solve problems tests mental intellectual prowess. However in Dear Esther the path of the character is basically laid out like a red carpet, or beacon, in front of the character. What is thought promoting is what that character encounters along that path as well as the characters fractured retelling of past events through letters to Esther. As he travels the character encounters complex chemical, biological, and electrical drawing on the cave walls. Also the way the narrative is broken and changes with each new attempt causes the gamer to have to draw their own conclusions. This is an artistic though provocation that Marcuse would be proud of when referring to art and literature: “Their truth was in the illusion evoked, in the insistence on creating a world in which the terror of life was called up and suspended--mastered by recognition (Marcuse Ch3).”
A good RPG must also have characters and a storyline; the character should be relatable and the storyline convincing. The narrator of the game introduces characters such as Esther, Donnelly, Paul, and Jakobson. These characters are everyday people mentioned numerous times throughout the narrator’s fractured retelling of the story. As mentioned above the gamer is left to piece together the narrative from bits and pieces based off of letters that the narrator had written. The relatable storyline seems to follow one man’s decent into madness through the loss of a loved one. This story while brief keeps the gamer engaged throughout the brief final day of the narrator on the island and at times often leaves the gamer emotionally moved (McDonald). Not only is the story relatable, but the narrator’s mental state is also relatable to the gamer; on multiple occasions the gamer sees what appear to be ghosts that quickly vanish when they are investigated further. This causes the gamer to question to his mental state as they continually look for that figure they saw standing up on the hill. This mental frailty is in direct correlation to the mental degradation that the narrator experiences as the game progresses.
Lastly the role-playing game should have degree of graphics and realism. The graphics of Dear Esther are slightly above average for games of this time, and what really sets the game apart is the cave sequence and the vivid luminescent visual representation of the underground world. The underground beauty can be seen as a symbol for the beauty the narrator sees in his eventual death and reunion with his lost love. Throughout the island the graphics are well done, from the running water of the many streams, to the rays of light peeking through the clouds. The game play is based in reality, however as stated the lack of abilities such as running, jumping and climbing certain terrain are less than realistic.
Overall, while falling short in the physical interaction aspect of what is needed to be a true RPG video game Dear Esther makes up for that deficiency with a thought provoking story, and relatable characters that, would work as a movie or short story, but works equally as well as a videogame.
MacDonald, K. (2012, Feb 13). Dear Esther Review. Retrieved 2013, from IGN: http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/02/13/dear-esther-review
Pinsof, A. (2012, 2 13). Dear Esther Revier. Retrieved 2013, from destructoid: http://www.destructoid.com/review-dear-esther-221082.phtml