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Dear Kelsey,

Although I may not have seemed appropriately impressed by your argument in our prior discussion on the narrative structure of video games, I definitely internalized your point. Of course predetermination is a huge factor in novels. Of course! The only control the reader exerts is whether or not to continue reading. While I am always attracted to the places where sharp delineations begin to blur (I’m looking at you, “enhanced” ebooks!), the engaged passivity of the reader seems to be a pretty essential piece in experiencing novels.

With that in mind, I want to add another example to our video game discussion. Dear Esther, an award-winning, experimental video game, feels (for lack of a better word) novelistic. There is no real game-play: you cannot interact with anything, speak, pick objects up, shoot, bash things, or even jump. You aren’t even able to kill yourself—the screen fades to black, whispers “come back…” and places you back on the path. All you do is wander slowly through a deserted island and experience bits of a story.

Nothing will jump out at you, try to scare you, or startle you, but even knowing this beforehand (because I refused to get near it until I was assured, repeatedly, that nothing would happen), I was unbelievably tense. Like a ghost story, it’s eerie and atmospheric, and I think a lot of my tension came from an awareness of cinematic conventions (something behind you, danger in the darkness…) juxtaposed with the relative safety of written narrative.

One of my favorite reviews described the gameplay thusly: “Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it” (Source). 

But before you begin to imagine it’s some creepy isolated horrorscape, let me show you something:

Dear Esther is beautiful. A Hebridean island off the coast of Scotland, it’s got rocky crags, shipwrecks, lighthouses, wildflowers, bioluminescent caves, underground waterfalls…every scene is breathtaking (or maybe I was just holding my breath).

The story, told through fragments of letters, is nonlinear and fractured. I know how much you love postmodern narratives, but the game’s focus on abstract language and interpretation is absolutely in this literary tradition. The “random” elements of the game—for some letters are variable and others are not—reflect the themes of a constructed personal reality (as opposed to a concrete or objective one) perhaps even better than a novel, which is necessarily the same words every time.

Let me take a moment to acknowledge how demoralizing it is to find myself so completely outclassed in literary analysis by a video game review blog before I pass over the reins again: “I found Dear Esther to be a broadly magnificent and genuinely moving experience, and that was almost entirely on a sensory level….I do not believe Dear Esther is the search for an answer, or even for a meaning. I believe it is an experiment with the senses and the emotions….It is a journey through morbidly beautiful emptiness, a maudlin cocktail of sight, sound, implication and metaphor designed to conjure up a feeling of purposeful despair” (Source).

Kelsey, I genuinely don’t know how to classify the experience of Dear Esther. Despite the graphics and soundtrack, this game felt more like experiencing a novel than any enhanced or experimental ebook I’ve come across. Despite the partially-randomized letters and open world exploration, I felt completely under the control of the author/development team. And despite the fact that it’s a video game, okay, not a novel!, I might need some help marking those delineations again…

Will you play it and help me decide?

Love,

Maggie Faber

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