Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is a first person interactive narrative in which the player travels across an abandoned island as the story is delivered by the narrator. What is interesting is that the interactive aspects of Dear Esther are very much secondary to the narrative and aesthetics of the work. The player is given the illusion of freedom in that they can move where they want but in reality the path is entirely linear. Although the time it takes you to reach each plot point effects the pace at which the story unfolds, the player has no influence in the direction of the experience. Basically, it is like a short story in which each paragraph is delivered by venturing further through the island. It's also very metaphorical with meaning being left to the player's interpretation.

Also, opening gameplay

To me, the experience was one which I am glad to have taken but it was not without issues. I found the pacing to be poor in areas as the gameplay (simply walking at a sometimes monotonous pace) distracted from an otherwise interesting narrative. By the time I spent a few minutes walking over a hill to reach the next section of the story I had already forgotten the previous part and so found the plot difficult to follow because of its fractured nature. In all honesty, I can't say I enjoyed playing it that much it until towards the end - like one of those films you don't really have fun watching but when you think back on it, realise it was actually quite amazing. I'm starting to think about Dear Esther less as something to play or enjoy but more as an experience as well as a statement in the potential powers of interactive narrative.

As I've been searching for readings I came across Mike Jones' blog and by perfect chance, he wrote about Dear Esther just a couple of weeks ago. It is worth quoting him at length because he articulates concepts that are not only relevant to the game itself but ideas which in my view, are highly prolific in the study of interactivity as a whole:
"Cinema has been described as the only art where more comes out than goes in; that there is a tangible difference between the intention and the affect- the affect of a moving image is more than the sum of its parts.
In Dear Esther the story and its mise-en-scene components of space, light, form, sound and voice do not add up to the experience one has while playing; play is something more.
It is not interactivity for the world does not respond, it is exploration.  If Dear Esther were played back as a film, a 90 minute single take film, from a single point of view it would be banal, tedious, tiresome. Yet when I as a player, am simulated into the geography of the island as a simulation of self, something is added, something which elevates Dear Esther from the sum of its parts. Is it a game? Am I playing it? Are there rules? How do I win? These are irrelevant questions, it is an experience and the feeling state of that experience is one distinct and apart from that which might be presented in book or film - stories connected to space and I only hear those parts of the story when I stand in that space, move through that space and methodically take the time to get to that space."
The beginning of 'Dear Esther'
The notion that the simplest of interactions can draw the audience so much deeper into a piece of media really fascinates me. Whether it is walking from point to point or even something as mundane as holding down a single key, this interaction instantly transforms media into something more.

Jones concludes by saying:
"Dear Esther is a story that is not adhering itself to game mechanics but rather one exploiting perfectly what game mechanics do best: the exploration of space and the architecture of awareness."
It is this idea that interactivity lends itself to further an 'exploration of space' which really resonates with what I want to do - using this interactivity to achieve a greater, or even just a different, means of exploring space than what can be attained by observational media alone.

*Interestingly Dear Esther has received critical acclaim as well as commercial success being sold as an online download for $10US. I'm actually surprised something like this was successful. For all the praise however there equally seems to be a lot of distaste towards it, the main issue seeming to be the expectation of Dear Esther being a 'game' as opposed to an interactive story.

** I'd also like to mention that I think Mike Jones is awesome, both for his ideas themselves but also for the fact that his work is easily accessible. Huge kudos for being an academic whose thoughts can be accessed for free (and commented on) by anyone.

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