I picked up Dear Esther during the Steam Summer Sale of 2012 for barely one dollar. Just wanting to play something different after months of infatuation with Minecraft, a friend and I decided to play it together over Skype (she was in Hawaii, and I in DC). Besides numerous games of invisible Marco Polo, quickly describing where we were or waiting at the beginning of a chapter so the other could catch up, we were absolutely enamored. As a Literature turned Illustration student, she, and a Computer Animation turned Creative Writing student, I, it took no time until we were obsessed with the narrator’s rich monologues.
We spent more time playing Dear Esther than I assume it was meant to be played — hours upon hours of ghost hunting, taking notes on the story, verbally working our way through critical analyses of what and why. It truly was, and remains, one of the most unique experiences I’ve had playing a video game.
Sadly, that sort of experience is so far from what the general market wants, and is thrown on the back burner when compared to other AAA titles. It’s only now becoming a more mainstream practice that major publishers are picking up these games. Both Microsoft and Sony, for instance, have realized the depth of the indie market and have started taking on smaller studios (which limits one another from touching these games). Dear Esther’s developer, The Chinese Room, got this treatment when Sony pulled them onboard to produce their most recent game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. As a studio that started out making Source mods, that’s pretty significant.
What’s truly sad about their lack of popularity, though, is the absolute brilliance that this sort of game possesses. They’re what we roughly refer to as “First Person Exploration Games,” and while the general public is up in arms about their lack of jump scares or functionality, we should be paying more attention to something that they do far better than they’re given credit for: storytelling.
The narration in Dear Esther is just so good that it doesn’t necessarily need the rest of the game to be effective — I could read these monologues alone, which I have, and get a similar effect. Heck, I could easily imagine the text being published and see it becoming successful among literary circles. But, when mixed with the misty environment of the abandoned island, it turns into a whole new creature. You become the narrator, wondering a carefully constructed pathway. There’s not a whole ton to see, so why does it work so well?
I don’t know if it amuses of disturbs me each time I read through Gone Home’s reviews on Steam. Probably the later, because most of the general player’s woes could have been avoided had the player just read the description of the game before purchasing. The reviews are riddled with threats and curses, demands of refunds, poor grammar, and kids that are appalled that we could possibly sell a game so “useless.” How could something so bad get so much praise from more illustrious reviewers? Well, little one, it’s good shit. Pardon my french, but Gone Home is another example of storytelling done so well, that simply listening to the tapes of a high school girl leaves more of an impression on the environment than flashy graphics. That sort of atmosphere, one that’s harvested simply from speech, is something that everyone wishes they could do but can’t.
I played Gone Home at release on a hot summer night. My desk was riddled with bottles of Shirley Temples (because yes, you can get them in a bottle), and sweat was sticking my shirt to my back. It didn’t take long before the roaring storm of the fictional game brought my body temperature back down, and I started shivering just a few steps into the house. The atmosphere was undeniable, something I’d expect of former Irrational fellows. The mood really sets in, though, once Sam starts telling her story.
Sam’s dialogue needs the environment, just as the environment needs Sam’s dialogue, but when mixed together the result is uncanny. By itself, the house sure feels like a house, but riddled with memories and stories about Sam’s life and struggles turns this house into someone’s home. Rather than wonder about, peeking around corners to avoid an enemy, I’m scared. Actually scared, that I might find something very real. Rain beating against the windows, red hair dye dripping down into a bathtub, the flicker of light from an old TV against couch cushions, rusted toys in the basement — all very real elements that I could find in my own home. Nothing feels unnecessary, and almost every one of those small details adds something to the bigger picture.
There are exploration games out there that do have more than just follow-the-story functionality. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, for instance, introduces puzzles to help supplement the story, although most of the game is spent wondering abandoned buildings. Of the four, this is my least favorite. Now, don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore this title — but I often found that the mechanics took away from the story. The puzzles were fun, the visuals were often starling, but the story seemed as if it were relying on those funky mechanics to add a level of depth that wasn’t present in the writing. The story was good, almost great, but the astronauts and zombie cameos felt forced. Had they taken the time to explain their story more by adding relevant context, it would have easy crossed over into something better.
But, I chose to discuss The Vanishing on Ethan Carter for a reason. When you subtract everything from the map — the puzzles, the dialogue, the ghosted silhouettes — you are left with something hauntingly beautiful. Visually, this game is near near golden. The technical and concept artists of Nordic Games should be proud. They’ve managed to construct a large map that tells a story by itself, with only subtle peeks into what actually occurred. This setting is large, but makes sense. It feels corrupt and eerie, but not abandoned. As a storyteller and writer, the sensations that this world emits is unrivaled. With the absence of plot, it would be nearly impossible to deduct what happened if you just walked along. But, when you leave your mind to fill in those blanks, the absolute beauty that peeks out between the cracks is euphoric.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, though, brings all of these concepts full circle. There aren’t literal puzzles, no, not unless you count the extensive and difficult achievements for the PSN, but that doesn’t matter when you take the time to immerse yourself in the game. Without the added distraction, there’s already enough content to keep your time well occupied so long as you’re willing to commit.
The fictional town of Yaughton is very well constructed. As someone that lived in a picturesque small country town for half of my college experience, I can vouch for how much care went into it’s construction. The size is believable, I feel like I’m walking through a real village. It’s almost perfect, only small tastes of the townsfolk’s horror sprinkled delicately between the lines — bloodies tissues, abandoned suitcases, a toxic shell in the river — Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is by far more implicit than it is explicit. Unlike The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, it is possible to figure out to some extent (without understanding the individual characters) what happened just by exploring this new little world.
Then, you add the spirit-like silhouettes that are burdened to retell their stories prior to the main event over and over. This is why you play the game. Human psychology and interaction meets classical science fiction. It’s exceptional, really, how much thought went into the writing. It took me two solid playthroughs to listen to every conversation, and every single bit adds to the overall message. It isn’t straightforward, though, which is why I’m so drawn to the game. The dialogue is scattered, it takes a long time to put down a concrete timeline. Mingle this nonconventional dialogue with the map, and you’ve got raw, near perfect storytelling. The game is absolutely brilliant.
So, why do these games work so well? The majority of the titles, with the exception of Ethan Carter, force the player to utilize their own creativity as a prime mechanic. There is puzzle solving in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home, but it’s nonconventional and more cerebral. These aren’t games that you can play with half of your attention. They require you to piece together the scraps that they do give and make it something more enlightening. It’s a different sort of problem solving, and for the right player, on par with any other major title.