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 http://pitt-narr-and-tech.blogspot.com/2014/02/commentsquestions-on-portal-marcuse.html
MacDonald, K. (2012). IGN. Retrieved from http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/02/13/dear-esther-review
Pinsof, A. (2012). Destructoid. Retrieved from http://www.destructoid.com/review-dear-esther-221082.phtml
Pivec, M. (2006). Affective and Emotional Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction. Amsterdam: IOS Press.