Dear Esther: An open letter for story telling in games

Academic studies about videogames only tend to get noticed when they talk about what games do, rather than what they are. Do games improve manual dexterity? Are they addictive or dangerous? Will they make us clever? Are they making us stupid?

Such laudable and headline friendly research often overshadows work of a more critical nature, but rarely – if ever – does either have any effect on the actual production of videogames themselves. Thanks to funding from the AHRC, however, one Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth has gained international recognition and generated thousands of pages of enthusiastic and practical debate not about what games are or do, but what they can be.

His name is Dr Dan Pinchbeck, and in order to engage the right audience for a discussion about the nature of narrative in videogames he didn't publish a academic paper: he made a game.

The game is called Dear Esther (opens in a new window) and has been described by The Daily Telegraph as “a beautiful and thought provoking piece of work”. It has won awards for story telling and visual art, and received accolades from reviewers worldwide. Most importantly, it's also been a commercial success, recouping its development costs within six hours of going on sale in February 2012.

Pinchbeck describes Dear Esther as “an interactive ghost story,” and he began working on it as a vehicle for exploring story telling in games.

“My PhD application was to look at how you can use story in virtual environments to increase the sense of immersion and presence,” Pinchbeck explains, “How to think about story as a specific tool for user engagement.

“I had an epiphany moment when I realised 'why am I looking at virtual environments when games are much more interesting?'. They already use content, character and plot to manipulate the player experience, so I shifted over to looking at story as a gameplay function in first person games.”

With Dear Esther, Pinchbeck wanted to find out what happens if you pare a game experience back until all that's left is the story. The result is something compelling and unique. It begins as the player takes control of an unnamed and unseen avatar and wades onto the foreshore of a remote and uninhabited Scottish island.

 

As the player progresses around the island and through an underground cave network, three intertwining stories are revealed which involve a Scandinavian hermit, a syphilitic 18th century explorer with a laudanum habit and a possibly drunk pharmaceutical salesman called Paul. The crux of the narrative is that while returning from a sales conference in Exeter, Paul's car collides with that of the eponymous Esther, killing her.

The stories are revealed through fragments of letters to Esther read by a narrator, which are triggered as the player passes over particular locations. Each audio clip is selected at random from a selection of potential audio cues, which means that the entire script can't be heard in one play through.

Even if every fragment was at your disposal, however, it's never made clear exactly what the relationship between the main characters is. Neither is it explicitly stated whether or not the narrator's voice is that of the player's avatar or someone else, or even if the narrator is Esther's husband, lover or killer.

“We basically decided we had to give you the tools to create your own version of what’s going on,” says Pinchbeck, “It’s about creating a space with these ideas in, and your interpretation of it is equally as valid as anyone’s, including the authors.”

As the player gets closer to the climactic end sequence the stories overlap, leaving you unsure whether or not the key characters are 'real' or simply ciphers for a distressed state of mind. The game environment also becomes more surreal, with rocks daubed in ever more frantic pieces of phosphorescent graffiti showing chemical symbols, Biblical quotes taken from Paul's conversion in Acts and electrical circuit diagrams – including one for anti-lock brakes.

Within this all this deliberately confusing symbolism, however, the key point about Dear Esther is that most of the elements traditionally associated with a videogame have been stripped out. As a player, you're unable to make your character run, jump or interact with objects, and there are no puzzles which impede your progress along a predetermined path.

There is the story, told through the narrator's voice, the musical score and the landscape, and little else. It's also short, designed to be played from start to finish in one sitting in about an hour and a half. This has led many to question whether or not Dear Esther is a game or, as one fan describes it, a “virtual art installation”.

Pinchbeck believes that the 'game' of Dear Esther happens away from the screen as players piece together what has happened.

“People struggle to identify it as a game not because you don’t have a shotgun to face down armies of zombies,” he says, “You have an awful lot of work to do as a player, but it’s not involved in the mechanical act of negotiating the environment.”

Certainly Dear Esther has provoked a reaction in its audience. Aside from its overall popularity, selling 50,000 copies in its first week, few games have been so thoroughly deconstructed by players. There are forums dedicated to analysing every sign and building within the landscape for meaning – even typographical errors in the subtitles.

“One of the major things that's come out of the feedback from the commercial release,” explains Pinchbeck, “Is that the players' imaginations rush into the vacuums we created and fill them with experience.”

Alec Meer is a founder of the leading PC games site Rock, Paper, Shotgun (opens in a new window). He says that Dear Esther is one of a few games that are tapping into players' desire for something outside the often formulaic design of major releases.

“Between Dear Esther and the more ostentatious Journey [released on the PlayStation 3 in March 2012 (opens in a new window)], it's clear that there's more of an appetite for esoteric gaming than might have been expected,” Meer says, “Esther's particular appeal is that it combines a thoughtful pace and an open-ended tale with the kind of production values usually only seen in morally bankrupt odysseys of violence.”

One player who was especially moved by it was Robert Briscoe (opens in a new window). In 2009, the 3D artist and level designer had just finished working on a game called Mirror's Edge for the Swedish company DICE, when he tried the original version of Dear Esther.

“I was looking to take a bit of a break and I came across Dear Esther,” says Briscoe, “And what really blew me away was the idea that you can tell a story through exploration and that the environment can be more than just a backdrop. That it's an integral part of the story telling process was really interesting.”

The first release of Dear Esther (opens in a new window) had been produced using basic visual tools and released for free as a 'mod' for the popular game Half-Life 2. Briscoe took this initial version and remodelled the landscapes using more modern software, adding in more details and a sophisticated lighting engine. This made the environments more realistic and gave the whole game a more surreal feel, particularly in the cave and night time sequences which are lit with an unworldly glow from bioluminescent moss and phosphorescent graffiti.

It was Briscoe's work that led to the Independent Games Festival Award for Visual Excellence, and one reviewer to comment that he'd stopped playing the game and was just taking screenshots, as if photographing the island.

Briscoe says that he's learned a lot of valuable lessons for future projects.

“There's a lot of emotional story telling within the environment,” he explains, “A lot of subliminal signposting... It's a really good example of what players are looking for in games, how far they are willing to go outside the norms of traditional gameplay to have an interesting experience. It gives other developers an idea of what can be done with games as a medium.”

This is where the potential of exploring videogames in an academic environment come into their own. Sales of games in the UK overtook video, music and books last year, making them the primary cultural medium for many young people. But commercial developers operate under restraints that can prevent the format from maturing.

“If you’re a game developer, you’ve obviously got high risk areas and low risk areas to work in, and what you’re trying to do is build and innovate within a low risk area,” says Pinchbeck, “If you’re an academic you can take risks in a completely different way. We can fail, providing we can fail in interesting ways. And that has a direct benefit to the games industry, because we can say we tried this, and it works and no-one’s doing it.”

Pinchbeck believes that the research model he's followed should be repeated more often if universities are to have a meaningful dialogue with the gaming industry beyond mere analysis or finger waving. He's already begun work on second project, Everybody's Gone To The Rapture (opens in a new window) that expands upon the ideas of Dear Esther.

“It was important to me to be able to show that universities can do this stuff,” he explains, “If academics want to do stuff that might be interesting to the games industry, don’t write a paper, make a game. It teaches you a lot about why games are the way they are, and if you haven’t got a background in the industry you need that experience to be taken seriously.”

Images courtesy of Dear Esther (opens in a new window).

Feature by Adam Oxford.

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