Thursday, February 27, 2014

Becoming A Character

Dennis Madden

Becoming A Character
Dear Esther is a breath of fresh air in a world populated with fast paced ‘twitch games’ and mentally taxing puzzlers. The unique presentation of a largely un-interactive world creates an environment in which we are not playing a game, but instead, one in which we are the game. By eliminating the reactionary overload imposed upon players by most video games, Dear Esther allows us a greater deal of mental freedom to make the game what we want it to be. When we are bogged down by an intricate story, complicated HUDs, objective lists, and fast paced high-stakes scenarios, we are forced to dedicate a large part of our cognition to simply fulfilling the game's ‘requirements’ instead of making it a personal experience. A quote from Courtney’s reaction to Portal prompted this analysis: I experienced having to take in a lot of first-time learning as well as analysis all at once. Even after getting somewhat used to the controls, I found myself getting sucked into the game and overlooking the actual analysis I had been intending to evaluate as I went along. Basically, I ended up playing most of it for fun without much thought as it being for a critical analysis, which maybe says something about the game itself or games in general” (Elvin).
 Dear Esther on the other hand, offers us essentially NO gameplay. Pinsof would even say “You better get used to it, because Dear Esther only has three things going for it: its writing, music, and visuals” (Pinsof). So then, if Dear Esther lacks gameplay, what is its purpose? I conclude that Dear Esther is less a ‘gaming’ experience, and more of a ‘personal’ experience. The simple familiarity of Dear Esther’s construction affords us the ability to seamlessly meld with our surroundings to become part of the whole that we are inexorably linked with: the environment.  “To summarize and elaborate: in a computer game we can have some object or objects that we are in control of as game players. We are agents acting upon them. There is a link between the game player and the controllable object. This means that there is a social and psychological link to this object that rest on motor activity. This link is often so strong that the object in control ceases to be understood as an external object to the game player but rather is understood as an integral part of him or her while playing the game. This is what I call the tactile motor/kinesthetic link. This link is the relation between perception, cognition and action. It is the foundation for my model of a Game Ego” (Pivec 51). Because Dear Esther utilizes such simple mechanics (walking), we can relate not only on a mental level, but a kinetic level as well. In Dear Esther, we are not subjected to alien worlds, physics defying machinery, or unrealistic superpowers, all of which are unable to be kinetically experienced by our human bodies in reality. Instead, we are given a setting where we can do exactly what a true explorer would do: walk, observe, and infer. This familiarity and believability is part of what makes it possible for players to ‘become’ the character in Dear Esther. MacDonald makes a great point: “If nothing else, Dear Esther presents one of the most absorbing and believable worlds in gaming”. Becoming part of a realistic environment is facilitated by the simple mundane mechanics of the human person. When Pinsof states “All you do in this game is walk. You literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes -- even ducking, the only other action, is automatic”, I beg to ask if he’s ever been on a backpacking trip, or even a hike for that matter. He clearly does not have the skills necessary to ‘experience’ his surroundings.
As I (notice I, not my character) wandered over the cliffs and through the caverns, I wrote a story, guided by the stunning visuals and inspiring music. Whilst completing Dear Esther, one is completely capable of composing their own somatosensory masterpiece. If time is taken to personally experience the environment, a vast amount of information can be ascertained. For example…
This image is just one of which could foster hours of analysis. When I walked through, I noticed that it contained no less than 5 distinct and morphologically distinct types of neurons: multipolar, unipolar, bipolar, pseudo unipolar and purkinje. On top of that, the electrical circuitry intricately represents neurophysiological membrane models to a scary degree. Dopamine, a reward related neuromodulator, was constructed with chemical accuracy and strewn across the walls, along with ethanol. This scene, coupled with my embodiment in the character, dropped my jaw in a way that might represent my reaction to this scene in real life. I felt the walls and the cool, damp atmosphere of the cave. The glowing symbols shone in my eyes, and when I plunged into a pool, I felt the cool water envelop me. This experience could only be supported by a program which does not demand me to utilize complicated mechanics or unrealistic concepts. I ‘felt’ Dear Esther, I was there, because all Dear Esther asked of me was to be myself.


Elvin, C. (2014). Narrative And Technology Blog. Retrieved from

MacDonald, K. (2012). IGN. Retrieved from

Pinsof, A. (2012). Destructoid. Retrieved from

Pivec, M. (2006). Affective and Emotional Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction. Amsterdam: IOS Press.


Adam said...

Although it's very much a draft, this is in some ways your best writing - you certainly do more in less space than you have elsewhere through the course of the semester, which is a very good thing.

You have some distinct but connected thoughts here. You are interested in the stripping-away of conventional video game elements; you are interested in the identification of the player with the character; you are interested in the idea that we *are* the game. While all three ideas are related, and you could certainly draw the connections more tightly than you have - and you could make any of them be very successful in a revision - let me briefly argue that the best of the three is the opening notion that *we* are the game.

Other people have been arguing in other essays that conventional video games are basically about goals and direction, and that therefore to various degrees and in various ways Dear Esther isn't a "real" game because it lacks that direction.

I think that you're on the brink of articulating the idea that the game does have a goal - but the goal is *to identify* with the narrator. Of your various formulations, that's the most interesting.

Beyond that, I'd be most interested in seeing you elaborate this set of interpretations through a more details "reading" of the game - especially through an analysis of its most relevant imagery.

Kristen Welsh said...


Not only do you make some truly effective points in order for your reader to see the true value of Dear Esther rests on beauty of the world in which the “game” is set and not on truly interactive gameplay, but your writing style is truly efficient and very beautiful. Your attention to detail helps further your points immensely, such as when you write, “As I (notice I, not my character) wandered over the cliffs and through the caverns” you are using the simple choice of one word to emphasize that Dear Esther’s world truly immerses the player in it, and thus that is where the strength of the game lies. You make a good point of how this lack of interactivity actually makes Dear Esther a step in the right direction for gaming, claiming we feel “bogged down” by more intricate and complicated games, and that Dear Esther allows us to be ourselves.

If you were to revise this essay, I would suggest that you maybe shorten your quotations. They are effective, but I feel like they almost take up the bulk of your essay, and can be shortened while still retaining the point they are trying to make. Also, I think that you could write a more definite conclusion. It seems to me that you go right from your last point immediately into your conclusion without summarizing what you have stated in your essay and why we should care about it. On a side note, I wouldn’t end your introduction with a quotation from a reviewer, but your own words, preferably in the form of a clear thesis statement. Overall, it was a very interesting and nice essay to read. Good work!