Dear Esther started as a research project in 2008, as academic Dan Pinchbeck developed a mod response to a research question; this mod was later further developed by Robert Briscoe for commercial release in 2012 (Briscoe, 2012).
For Briscoe (2012), Dear Esther is a game that treated environmental story-telling as a self-contained gameplay experience. Indeed, Pinchbeck originally created Dear Esther to explicitly explore “what happens when you ditch traditional gameplay out of an FPS space and what that leaves you with” (2009), stating that his research was needed as commercial releases could not answer his question. However, nine years later, is this still true? Are FPS games (or, for the purpose of this post, games that feature action as the main gameplay mechanic) still unable to answer this question?
Dear Esther‘s story can be described as “deliberately cryptic” (Taylor and Lowthorpe, 2017, p. 153), centered around a non-linear, non-literal narrative, “almost more of a mood piece, rather than a traditional narrative” (Pinchbeck, 2009). Interestingly, this description fits the narrative of a very successful commercial game: Dark Souls.
The Dark Souls series features a strikingly vague narrative: goals are cryptic and far between, there is no quest log or journal, and no lore entries. At the start of the game, players have very little information on themselves or the world. Instead, information is “woven directly into the world of the game” (Battey, 2014) and can only be deduced from clues in the environment, sporadic dialogue interactions, and item descriptions. As highlighted by Battey (2014), Dark Souls‘ narrative requires real detective work from the player, and even becomes its own game within the game. Dark Souls could therefore be considered to exhibit the cryptic and non-linear narrative that Pinchbeck seeked to emulate with Dear Esther.
However, it can be argued that Dark Soul‘s narrative, while not dependent on the action itself (to the point where the player can avoid all the narrative if they so wish), still requires some player progression (through fighting enemies) to be accessed. Is there another way for commercial games to “do” a Dear Esther?
In Punk Playthings, Taylor and Lowthorpe offer the following practical provocation: “What if you stripped an established genre of its game mechanics and preconceptions?” (2017, p.160). In the case of Alien: Isolation, this has been taken literally by the modding community.
Alien: Isolation is a survival horror game, featuring a narratively dense world, but which exploration and pace is rendered challenging by the player having to evade an Alien that can kill them very quickly. Paul Huwe, a developer, modded the game so that the alien would not pursue the player any longer, stating that “in that way I could explore the station in a far more enjoyable fashion“(Greer, 2018). This phenomenon is not unique, with other games such as Dark Souls or Soma having had similar mods created for them. In Soma‘s case, interestingly, the mod proved so popular it was later included as an official game mode (Greer, 2018).
Since Pinchbeck’s Dear Esther mod, games have therefore shown they can do interesting, non-linear narrative. Taking this further, games like Soma have officially added “no action” mods to allow players to solely focus on the narrative aspects of the game.
Perhaps the next consideration for narrative is not whether action-led gameplay hampers it – but perhaps whether a narrative is compelling enough to be experienced all on its own.
Battey, T. (2014) Narrative Design in Dark Souls. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/TomBattey/20140425/216262/Narrative_Design_in_Dark_Souls.php (Accessed: 13 October 2018)
Briscoe, R. (2012) A Retrospective/Post-mortem on Dear Esther. Available at: http://www.littlelostpoly.com/my-retrospectivepost-mortem-on-dear-esther/ (Accessed: 13 October 2018).
Greer, S. (2018) How Modders Are Removing Enemies from Games to Create Stress-Free Experiences. Available at: https://www.pcgamer.com/how-modders-are-removing-enemies-from-games-to-create-stress-free-experiences/#comment-jump (Accessed: 13 October 2018).
Pinchbeck, D. (2009) ‘Interview: Moved By Mod — Dear Esther’s Dan Pinchbeck’. Interviewed by Phill Cameron for Gamasutra, 1 July. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/115161/Interview_Moved_By_Mod__Dear_Esthers_Dan_Pinchbeck.php (Accessed: 13 October 2018).
Taylor, S., and Lowthorpe, C. (2017) Punk Playthings : Provocations for 21st Century Game Makers. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Creative Assembly (2014) Alien: Isolation. Sega.
From Software (2011) Dark Souls. Namco Bandai Games.
The Chinese Room (2012) Dear Esther. The Chinese Room, Curve Digital.
[Main] The Chinese Room (2018) Dear Esther. Available at: http://www.thechineseroom.co.uk/games/dear-esther/ (Accessed: 13 October 2018).
Game & Type (2016). Dark Souls Item Description. Available at: http://www.gameandtype.com/2016/08/05/the-evolution-of-soulsborne-ui/ (Accessed: 13 October 2018)
KillScreen (2014) Alien: Isolation. Available at: https://killscreen.com/articles/uncompromising-alien-isolation-about-get-uncompromising-er/ (Accessed: 13 October 2018)
MobyGames (2012) Dear Esther. Available at: https://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/dear-esther/screenshots/gameShotId,545805/ (Accessed: 13 October 2018).