Dear Esther does for video games what Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man does for society, as each consciously acknowledges and challenges the norms of the respective field. Marcuse fundamentally questions the way the world thinks, and Dear Esther fundamentally questions what it means to tell a narrative through a video game. Marcuse’s line of questioning the idea of truth resonates tones found in Dear Esther. While Dear Esther is not a completely transcendent from one-dimensional thought, it approaches the notion of a less traditional story.
The appreciation of the choices in Dear Esther in the context of One-Dimensional Man first requires a fundamental understanding of Marcuse’s assertions on truth and its perceived limitations. He argues that the world as perceived by the individual necessitates interpretation and transformation to fully understand what it is (Marcuse 93). He asserts that the truth is assigned to a condition based on the term “‘intuition,’ i.e., a form of cognition in which the object of thought appears clearly as that which it really is (in its essential qualities).” as seen in Classic Greek philosophy. Marcuse goes on to say, “It is not a mysterious faculty of the mind, not a strange immediate experience, nor is it divorced from conceptual analysis. Intuition is rather the (preliminary) terminus of such an analysis -- the result of methodic intellectual mediation. As such, it is the mediation of concrete experience” (Marcuse 94-95). Essentially, to Marcuse, the truth is mental analysis and transformation of that which is experienced concretely.
As far as video games go, Dear Esther is a strong example of Marcuse’s idea of an unsure truth, or at least an interpretive truth. The music and the narration of the game is presented in a selective and semi-randomized way. While the monologues from the narrator are fixed to appear within one of four levels of the game, there are countless combinations of pieces of the story that the player could receive, leaving the others not to be presented during that gameplay at all. Game creator, Dan Pinchbeck, says, “I was really interested in what people made of it, how they joined up these dots that may not actually have any grand scheme behind them. How much they will create a story from all these pieces, where I only have limited control over how they fit together” (Pinchbeck). The entirety of the story is up for debate depending on how each individual playthrough is interpreted because of the distinctly fractured presentation of select pieces of information.
In that respect, Dear Esther is a conceptual example of Marcuse’s arguments on interpretation of concrete experience. The game challenges the traditional format of a linear plot to one that embraces the idea of ambiguity that can only be resolved by individual intuition. Pinchbeck explains, “this place was almost beyond a direct answer, that you’d never really get there, but be left with these pieces that almost make sense, but you’re never fully sure of it” (Pinchbeck). This game is both frustrating and enlightening to players (arguably in the way that Marcuse’s work is), as it encourages them to extend the realm of how a video game or any other form can tell a narrative.
Another layer of ambiguity comes into play when the reliability of the narrator is questioned. Yes, the game is played from a first-person perspective, and that does play a role in the experience, but the narration comes from an unknown source and unknown character. Even the creator admits, “You are almost as in the dark at the end as at the beginning, or at least, you can’t trust any of the understanding you’ve developed over the course of it” (Pinchbeck). In the third level the narrator describes, in one of the possible narrations, that he “swallow(s) fistfuls of diazepam and paracetamol to stay conscious” (Dear Esther, The Caves) even referencing his “delirium” in another passage. He describes feeling “almost lucid” in the fourth level, and describes times of blindness from the pain (Dear Esther, The Beacon). The fact that the narrator is under the influence of an unregulated number of painkillers supports the idea that his narration may not be so reliable. Among other potential factors including grief, hallucinations, or even lack of existence altogether, the narration cannot be taken completely seriously. However, according to Marcuse, individual analysis of concrete experience of the player creates an interpretation that can be the truth. Pinchbeck agrees, stating: “I think you can go through Dear Esther and not really understand it, not really have a clear sense of what happened, but still have this engaging experience” (Pinchbeck).
The overlap between Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Dear Esther brings up some very complicated ideas of truth and reality. Marcuse addresses: “Thus there is contradiction rather than correspondence between dialectical thought and the given reality; the true judgment judges this reality not in its own terms, but in terms which envisage its subversion. And in this subversion, reality comes into its own truth” (Marcuse 98). His ideas and definitions of how one’s truth should be interpreted echo in the way that Dear Esther presents a narrative. The presentation is unconventional and fragmented, often making little sense, but it’s about the intangible experience of questioning vs. acceptance that the player takes away from the game, which is intended to be an individually distinct experience.
1. "Dear Esther Script." Dear Esther Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
2. Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964. PDF.
3. Pinchbeck, Dan. "Moved By Mod -- Dear Esther's Dan Pinchbeck." Interview by Phill Cameron. Gamasutra: The Art and Business of Making Games. UBM Tech, 1 July 2009. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24217>.