Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dear Esther as a Deconstruction

            In asking us to define what Dear Esther is – a video game? A work of art? Both? Neither? – the prompt for this essay is inherently asking us to exclude Dear Esther from all definitions and readings that do not fit with whichever definition we choose to define it as. If it is a video game, we must read it as one. We cannot analyze a video game as we would a movie or book; similarly (and obviously), we cannot analyze a work of art as a non-work-of-art (whatever that may be). This prompt brings up a few questions implicit to the larger scope of the question – namely why we want to define Dear Esther as a point on both the video-game-continuum and the art-continuum.
The nature of defining something then, involves taking a physical object – something that exists outside of language – and then using language to not only describe it, but to make assumptions and generate expectations based on the canon of what we define it as. This is quite useful in gaining an understanding of the thing we are examining – whether it is a video game, a book, song or painting. Knowing that Suffocation’s Blood Oath is ‘defined’ as being in the ‘death-metal’ genre gives a certain amount of expectations to a person who never heard the song before – namely gravely, unintelligible lyrics, heavily distorted guitars and a reliance on blast-beats by the drummer. Similarly, if we were to define Dear Esther as a video game, people would have a certain set of expectations – interactivity, puzzles, a plot-based (rather than character-based [we will return to this]), and varied gameplay (in a re-playability sense [again, this will be returned to])[1].
Placing ‘objects’ into definitions or categories often has a disproportionate effect on the users understanding of that object – refer back to the Suffocation example: if instead of those attributes listed, the song was a melodic symphony similar to something Mozart might have written, people would think you are an idiot for referring to it as death metal. This is an important distinction when referring to definitions: they are almost exclusively arbitrary[2]. In fact, a principle aspect of language is the knowledge that words chosen as signifiers must be arbitrary[3].
To answer that first question – why we want to define it – we can answer with ‘to better understand the game[4], using the implicit expectations of the definition we choose.
Now that we know why we define things, generally, and this piece, specifically, we can move onto how we define it based on the prompt[5]. This question, however, involves two main sub-questions. This arises because of the ambiguous nature of the word how. This question can be seen to ask us how we define it – what steps do we take, what is the process? In other words, it is similar to asking the method of ‘how
Text Box: Figure 1: Opening shot of Dear Esther we [verb] a [noun]’. The other question, of course, refers to the end product of that process – ‘how would you categorize this [noun]’. In regards to Dear Esther, the first question seems to be answered easily enough – we would simply play the game, just as we would watch a movie or listen to a song.
Dear Esther starts with the unnamed, un-shown protagonist standing on a launch-ramp on the coast of some unnamed island[6], bleak skies above, with no HUD or anything else superimposed over the background. With no guidance, and only a disjointed narration, the player is given no hints at what they are supposed to do next.
            Throughout the course of the game, the player’s only interaction with the game is via walking through the world – there are no actual actions the player can control other than where the character looks (including being able to zoom in), what direction the character walks and the ability to swim upwards. You cannot jump or pick anything up, and you do not have an inventory. When the character enters a dark area, a flashlight turns on automatically. The game strips the ‘video game experience’ down to its barest possible permutation, and at the conclusion, takes away all player control by ending with an extended cut-scene starting at the base of the beacon. The only incentive the player has to keep exploring (besides the fact that they are trying to get their money’s worth) is stumbling upon an area that cues another fragmented narration. Interweaving three distinct (though in all honesty they may very well be quite closely related[7]) personal histories, these narrations are the exclusive means through which exposition is given.
            Knowing why we want to try to define the game and now knowing how we go about defining it, we are finally able to answer the main question. Dear Esther must be considered a video game. This statement, however, is like saying Die Hard is a movie – it gives no further description other than a very general set of expectations. To truly understand Dear Esther, we must look at it as both game and art.
            Historically, art and the world of aesthetics have been subdivided into countless genres, philosophies, groups, eras, and any other myriad of sorting words we can use. To continue our fascination with defining things into ever-smaller groupings, we can look at Dear Esther through several lenses, studying everything from the pure, isolated aesthetics of the in-game world, to analyzing the story through any number of literary critiques. The most useful lens to apply in this paper however deals with the games relation to video games as a whole. Taking the experience of Dear Esther as a deconstruction of the traditional video game format, we can gain a better understanding of both the aforementioned game and the industry.
            First, a very brief history/definition[8] of what deconstruction is. In the world of philosophy, the term is most closely associated with the works of Jacques Derrida, and is most often used in literary theory, language theory and, more generally, semiotic fields – those dealing with signs and their signifiers – as a whole. Briefly put, it is an important aspect of the post-structuralism school of thought[9], and so it rejects, or rather, it attempts to argue against such ‘structures’ as ‘binary opposites’ (good and bad, male and female etc.[10]) among others. Additionally, because of the problems we have with language (touched upon earlier), mostly the fact that words are imprecise, it becomes difficult or impossible to understand exactly what an author intends to say. This philosophy offers us an interesting framework in which to view Dear Esther. Though it is primarily used for literary works, and so it might be better suited to analyzing[11] the narrator’s story, we can use the fundamentals of deconstruction – examining what we know about something based on what it says it is – to study aspects of video games as a whole[12].
The question now becomes – how does Dear Esther represent a deconstruction of the video game? As discussed above, the game is incredibly minimalist in its gameplay. The fact remains that there are no puzzles anywhere in the game. You do not need to push buttons, collect objects, defeat bosses or traverse dangerous dungeons to reach the next area. Often, there is an explicit path laid down in the ground for you to follow. By stripping down the ‘interactive’ aspect of video games, Dear Esther is able to make the player aware of what is missing. In much the same way that some things are not noticed until they are not there (a concrete, real-world example would be an end-table by a couch – if nothing important is placed on it, it is very likely that you would stop actively recognizing it every time you entered the room; only when the table is removed, and thus preventing you from putting the remote on it, would you notice its absence), the game forces you to be subconsciously aware of the fact that there are no puzzles. Often, I would find writing on the walls of the cave level, or the ‘golden ratio’ diagram carved into the beach and think what does the game want me to do with this? How am I going to solve this puzzle? Almost immediately after this, I would remember that there are no puzzles, and the figures are simply there to add to the atmosphere and story in an abstract, symbolic way[13]. Dear Esther can be thought of the answer to the question of how much of a game can we remove while still being able to call our creation a video game.
As for the story, in another twist on the typical video game norm of plot-based stories (this happens, then this happens followed by this which results in that etc. – character development is used to enhance the events of the story, not vice versa), the story is almost entirely character-based. There is no direct plot to the surface of the game bedsides ‘a character walks around an island learning the history of an event in his or her life’. The real story is based on the narrator’s fragmented, unreliable telling of a car crash that, presumably, killed someone named Esther. This is unusual for games because it is much easier to write interactive fiction about events and your character’s response to those events (kill this boss, find the key etc.) than it is to write a story revolving around characters[14] and their relationships.
Another way of viewing this game is to see the fragmented story as a ‘deconstruction’ of story-telling itself. This game uses the brief narrations of an unseen narrator to tell its story. The narrator is quite unreliable, though this is only evident in second and third playthroughs. Each time you play the game, the narrator tells different aspects of the story at different areas – it is actually impossible to actually get the full story in one playthrough. The problem with this, however, is that this game has incredibly low re-playablity. Throughout the game, there are times when you only get the next piece of story when you find an area off of the main paths the game gives you. In this sense, there is strong incentive to explore the entire world that the game inhabits. The problem, however, is that often these explorations do not lead to new information. There will be times when you go to explore a non-path area, only to find either nothing important to the story of Esther or just a closed area of the map.
Text Box: Figure 3: One of the many 'dead-end' areas of the map in Dear Esther side-trips are time-consuming ventures, and because the only action you get to control is the direction of the character, they become tedious after a while. Towards the end of the game, I was sticking almost exclusively to the paths because I did not want to waste any more time walking to a dead end. This ultimately results in a game that both relies on multiple playthroughs while simultaneously discouraging them. The root of this problem can be traced back to the idea of ‘deconstructing the video game’. By taking away the interactivity gamers are used to, the writers and developers of the game sought to make us aware of their (the interactive elements) absence. This has the unintended consequence, however, of distancing those who are used to more-thoroughly interacting with a game’s environment[15].
After declaring Dear Esther a video game, it is admittedly odd to dedicate so many pages to discussing how the game does not include the many attributes we take for granted in modern games. The truth is, however, that the aspects that are missing were never originally incorporated into video games.
It is common knowledge that Pong and Tetris are some of the first video games. As anyone can tell you, these games do not even remotely resemble the games that current systems are running. Both games lack any narrative elements, and are comprised solely of a challenge to the player – beat the computer at Ping-Pong or fill the board horizontally for as long as you can. There is no plot, characters or exploration. In fact, the games we are used to playing more closely resemble table-top games than they do original video games[16]. Despite the lack of any semblance to modern video games, it is common knowledge that these two games are in fact video games. The only gameplay difference[17] then between the atypical-ness of Tetris and the atypical-ness of Dear Esther is the fact that Tetris is, quite literally, endlessly replayable. The greatest problem Dear Esther has in regards to modern video games is the fact that it might seem boring to those unwilling to put in the effort to understand it.
Text Box: Figure 4: The red beacon far off in the distanceDear Esther serves to further our understanding of video games by breaking the field down into its smallest possible part, and yet, it does retain many of the aspects found in other contemporary video games. The most important aspect that Dear Esther shares with other video games is that fact that it is a work of interactive fiction. No matter how minimal the interactions are, Dear Esther’s story is only realized upon a human player’s playing of the game[18]. The story relies on the player discovering areas of the island and ultimately ascending the beacon – the only true ‘objective’ of the game. Throughout the game, the narrative builds and swells, culminating in the decision of the player’s character to jump from the beacon[19]. For all of the differences and distortions of the idea of ‘video games’, Dear Esther is still unmistakably a work of interactive fiction – arguably the larger category that video games fall under.
Throughout this paper, I have attempted to show that the structure and gameplay of Dear Esther serve to illustrate the fact that it is a work of art aimed at disorienting the average video game player and getting them to acknowledge the fact that they rely on heavily-used tropes and attributes that repeat themselves throughout the industry (one only has to look at the near endless number of first-person shooters that are released each year to see the derivative effects that major blockbusters have on the industry). The reason for this argument is to disprove the idea that Dear Esther would work better in a medium that is not a video game. In a purely isolated sense, the story of the game may very well work better as a short film[20]. This fact, however, undermines the main theme of the game – namely that Dear Esther is not so much focused on the story, but is instead used as a device to get the industry thinking about the stereotypes it uses on a daily basis. Without the interaction that video games bring, the story would be a rather derivative ‘lost-love’/unreliable narrator ghost story. Dear Esther’s lasting contribution to the video game industry will be based around the fact that it stripped the medium down to its most basic elements and succeeded in creating a moving story without relying on those standard tropes.

[1] This list is neither fully-inclusive nor universally applicable. Tetris is most certainly a video game, but lacks almost every aspect mentioned. In fact, Tetris could be seen as the opposite of Dear Esther in many ways. Again, the similarities and differences will be highlighted later in this essay.
[2] This also brings up an important note – language must be agreed upon. If I referred to this color xxxxx as ‘blue’, I would not be able to communicate very easily with a society that refers to it as ‘red’.
[3] The reasons for this are unnecessary for this paper.
[4] For the sake of clarity, I am using the word ‘game’ more as a pronoun than a description.
[5] This prompt deals primarily with the ‘text’ as a concept, and so detailed analysis of the game’s story is not as relevant to the prompt. Because of this, I am going to focus primarily on the gameplay and the game as a whole. Story aspects will be brought up only when they offer clues to the game as a whole
[6] Officially, the character is on one of the Hebridean islands, but this is never alluded to, referenced or even implied by the game.
[7] Again, the stories of Jacobson, Esther, and Donnely do not bear as much importance to defining the game yet, and so we will skip over the details of their lives for now.
[8] There is an irony here that perhaps a smarter person than I can figure out
[9] Like with all philosophers, Derrida did not like to classify deconstruction as either dealing entirely in structuralism, or post-structuralism; see the above footnote.
[10] To sum this up: ‘good’ is only good in relation to ‘bad’. These words can really be seen as the two sides of the same idea – they cannot exist independently of each other.
[11] It should be noted that Derrida also rejected deconstruction as a method, analysis and critique
[12] All information in this passage gathered from, with help from the simple English page, Derrida’s page and post-structuralism’s page. Although not the most scholarly of sources, it was able to offer the cursory understanding of the topic needed for this paper. Naturally, the above summation is incredibly over-simplified and is probably missing nuances.
[13] This of course would lend itself to the literary aspects of deconstruction quite well – unfortunately, this is outside the scope of this paper.
[14] This is a changing trend, with games like Mass Effect, Fallout 3, Skyrim and The Last of Us utilizing story lines that change depending on how you interact with other characters. That being said, these games still revolve around events – planetary war, nuclear wasteland survival, dragon-slaying and zombie survival respectively – using the character developments as a way to enhance the events you go through.
[15] To incorporate Marcuse: this can be related to one-dimensional society no longer having the ability to create (and by extension, recognize) ‘real’ art – art that serves to illustrate truths in our world. Using this idea, we can hypothesize that current ‘gamers’ (used in a very broad sense) are unable to come to grips with the inherent truths that the game shows about video games as a whole. This inability leads to boredom and a desire to skip through the purely aesthetic exploration of the island.
[16] It would not be a stretch to compare World of Warcraft to dungeons and dragons.
[17] Again, this is an essay concerned mostly with gameplay – there are obviously many differences between these two games besides this.
[18] Not to go on too large a tangent, but this can be applied to almost any work of art – a book needs a reader, just like a song needs a listener. In this way, all video games require an audience, and Dear Esther is no exception.
[19] This object serves as the only true ‘goal’ of the game. From the beginning chapter, the red-tipped beacon is visible, drawing the player’s attention to itself with a large flashing red light see figure 4
[20] See the Destructoid review:


Adam said...

Part of me thinks the introductory paragraphs are too wordy. Parts of me think they're setting the stage of an interesting work of (in part) theory. The footnote about tetris is very good - there's probably an essay there.

I think you get a little tangle when discussing definitions. The Death Metal vs. Mozart thing, if anything, illustrates that definitions are *not* arbitrary, at least not fully so - I feel like you're in danger of losing yourself in a problematic (not useless or bad, but problematic) theoretical discussion.

How disjointed is the narrative, really? I also think that your ostensible emphasis on gameplay vs. text is initially undermined by your first image, which contains a important piece of text in it...

I'm not convinced that "the stories of Jacobson, Esther, and Donnely" don't impact how we define the game. I'm just saying that we might understand the definition of the game to be more intertwined with the nature of its narrative (if any - going back to your footnote about tetris) than you assume.

I'm not sure why you define DE as a video game in the paragraph beginning "knowing." I mean, I agree that it is, and I can understand simply saying that it's viscerally obvious (if it quacks like a duck) - I just don't understand why you talked so long about definitions if it's so obvious. I also think that we might ask whether the DE is a game vs. Die Hard is a movie is really productive; Die Hard is a very particular *type* of movie (it fits very neatly into genre categories), and asking whether DE does (or does not) do the same might be the productive direction to take here.

I am 100% fine with an essay about Derrida and Dear Esther. I have mixed feelings about how you approached that, though - that seems like a good thing to begin on, say, page 1.

"By stripping down the ‘interactive’ aspect of video games, Dear Esther is able to make the player aware of what is missing." - I love this sentence. This would be a great idea around which to organize the first page of the essay before launching into Derrida.

I don't feel comfortable saying that there is no plot. My point of view is that the narrator walks from the sea to the top of a mountain, in the process passing through a kind of underworld, literally walking beside biblical quotations en route to what is both a suicide and an apotheosis. I'm not saying that you're insane for seeing it as more plotless - I just would like to see you engage with the details of the game more in order to make a claim like this. The passage through the caves sure feels like a plot to me!

"his ultimately results in a game that both relies on multiple playthroughs while simultaneously discouraging them. " - very clever

Your closing discussion of the game vs. his filmic possibilities is very good - probably the best response (albeit an indirect one) to the destructoid review from anyone in this class.

Adam said...


You do a lot well here. You think about the philosophy of language, the importance of definitions, how some objects push against definitions, how DE is a video game, and a deconstruction of a video game, and what that means. While I'm a little nauseated that you use Wikipedia rather than reading a little Derrida, I still think you *perform* perfectly well when discussing what is absent in DE as a special form of presence.

So there is honestly a lot to like. What is absent, though, is glaringly important, too: a discussion of actual details of the game and how they support or challenge your reading. It bothers me, for instance, that you don't engage *at all* with what to me is almost the hegemony that the story of Saul becoming Paul has over this game. To my mind, this is the trap that "deconstructionists" fall into with depressing regularity - failing to engage with the particulars of a given artistic object.

If you were to turn this into a final project, I would want you to foreground an actual "reading" (playing, if you prefer) of the game, and to do *something* directly with Derrida if he is really important here. Also, despite some good writing, there is a ton of material that could easily be cut from the start of the essay.