What exactly makes video games different from other mediums? The go-to answer to that question is obviously interactivity – games require their audience (their ‘readers’, if we want to use the word in an extended sense) to interact. Now, clever-clogs will say, “Aren’t films and books interactive as well? After all, the reader is always engaged in co-creating meaning together with the text. Eh? Eh?” At which point you kick the clever-clogs in the nuts and send them back to the literature departments whence they came. (Please note that I myself was one of those clever-clogs for a long time, and I still have a fair amount of affinity with them. Doesn’t stop me from the whole nut-kicking thing.)
Granted, there is no such thing as an entirely passive audience. The interaction that games require, though, is of a different kind; it is not purely mechanical (like, say, flipping pages or working the DVD remote), nor is is purely a mental process (which covers anything from mere comprehension to interpretation to other forms of intellectual, psychological or emotional engagement with a text). It is tied in with the concept of agency: the player is more directly, more immediately involved in generating the actual text, although the freedom he has in this can be immense or minimal.
Where does this leave games such as the recent indie title Dear Esther, in which the player-reader-person holding the mouse (and wondering when he’ll find his first automatic weapon) is little more than a floating camera with ears? Playing Dear Esther, if “playing” is indeed the right term, means using the mouse to select where to look and the keys to move around. There’s no jumping, no shooting, no meaningful interaction with the environment – and more, there aren’t any goals, puzzles or challenges other than navigating the environment and looking for the spot where the next level or chapter begins. You walk around a foggy, damp island and look at things, and every now and then the narrator speaks his next monologue, about some guy called Donnelly, a long-dead shepherd called Jacobson, about Paul – and about Esther, the narrator’s wife. Over time, it becomes clear that Esther is dead, most likely killed in a car crash. Walking across the island, the narrator gives a voice and shape to his feelings of loss, sometimes through metaphor, sometimes through a simple retelling of events, sometimes through associative, allusive stream of consciousness.
Discussing whether this is a game risks being as pretentious as this short description of Dear Esther already sounds, most likely… and, truth to tell, I’m not particularly interested in finding a definition of what constitutes a game. On a very personal level, I wouldn’t say I “played” Dear Esther, I experienced it – and there I go again, skirting pretentiousness. Thing is, there’s no way around this. Dear Esther sets out to be artistic, from its themes (loss, mourning, life and death) to its visuals, to its writing, as this excerpt illustrates:
I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.
Now, since the interactivity that Dear Esther offers is minimal, couldn’t the same be done in a short story or a film? Why make this a game (in the loosest sense of the word), other than in an attempt to help the still fairly young medium gain seriousness or credibility, to save it from the accusation that video games are reserved for adolescents looking for escapism or intent on enacting their power fantasies (save the princess, save the world, shoot turbaned bad guys, that sort of thing)? My own personal answer is no. Even if walking around the island and looking at ruined houses, painted symbols and snippets and texts, the lighthouse in the distance doesn’t constitute agency in the sense that you’re affecting the story or the characters in any way, you’re still experiencing it in a way that is inherently different from reading a story or watching a film. In fact, what Dear Esther (and similar games) remind me of most, perhaps, is theatre – and specifically the sort of theatre that says, “Screw the fourth wall” and requires its audience to experience what is going on in a more direct way. I remember reading a review of a play performed in a series of rooms, and the audience walks freely from room to room, witnessing scenes that exist separately from the audience’s journey; the sequence in which you see the performance, the points at which you enter or leave a scene, all affect your experience of the play.
Games like Dear Esther go further than this, in that they can create a theatrical space and experience involving elements that are difficult or even impossible in live performance: the voice you hear as you explore the island is disembodied, it isn’t the player’s, but nor is it a third-person narrator – it takes up a space in between. In some ways, games are that weird beast, the second-person narrative: you don’t become a first-person narrator, you put them on like a mask, and you’re always aware that there is a distinction between you and your character even while you perform this character. For me at least, when talking about a game, I usually slip into second person: “So, you’re this guy who’s lost his wife, and you explore this island that he’s withdrawn to. You walk up the hill to the ruined house, hoping to find… something. Some sign, something that will help you understand. Dunno… You play it, okay?”
Playing, reading, experiencing Dear Esther isn’t like being an audience, nor is it like being an actor. It is more like a lucid dream, and this dream-like state lends itself to experiences that none of the other mediums can provide in this exact way. Theatre can perhaps come closest, but traditional theatre, with its literal actors and spaces, cannot recreate that final, heartbreaking, soaring moment that Dear Esther delivers. The game isn’t its medium’s Citizen Kane, its The Dubliners or Starry Night, but it is unlike anything I’ve read or seen in the way it uses its means to make me think and feel. Doesn’t mean I want all my games to be like this – but I’m looking forward to others exploring the medium to see what it can do, what it can be. Others can call this pretentious all they want – I’m quite happy to soar with Esther.