Have you ever walked out of a movie theater, feeling heavy, burdened, but ultimately, more alive than when you walked in? That was how I felt when I finished my first play through of Dear Esther. The game that launched the “first person exploration” genre of video games, to no small amount of ire from more “traditional” gamers, is really something else. And it’s something that deserves attention.
So here we have a “game” or more accurately, a piece of interactive fiction that tells a story in abrupt, dislocated images, voices, and places. The main journey throughout the abandoned island, where the story takes place, is deceptively linear, but is interspersed with snippets of narration and strange objects and symbols that appear either far before or far after their explanation and purpose. And we never know what our character looks like; for the most part, you appear as a faceless Lost Man, wandering a desolate isle, with only his poetic ruminations to keep you company. (Alongside a stunning and haunting musical score.)
We begin standing in front of a ruined lighthouse, gazing at the tower and the jagged rocks around it. We never see our own face, and must assume that the narration heard is our own. Thus unknown, the main character brings up a deep theme of identity. Who is he? What is he doing on this island? Why is he always drawn to that red light blinking above a far-off radio tower?
As the story progresses the Lost Man extols a historical account of the island and intersperses his musings with spoken letters to his deceased wife, the shepherd who lived here, the drunk who crashed into his car and killed his wife, and the man who wrote the unreliable history of the island.
Throughout your journey, you can’t help but to feel isolated, with the marks of those who had tried to live here – and failed – scattered across your path. The Lost Man himself is also grimly lonely, sometimes accepting, sometimes desperate for some small glimpse of another’s passing. His letters – of which he writes 21, thinking to send them to Esther if he ever left the island – he ends up folding into little paper boats and pushing out to sea. A small “armada” of his heart and love, sinking slowly into the dark waters.
The themes of longing and grief are also poignant in this story. It’s clear that he so dearly craves the company of someone he can never see again, longs to be with her, yet knows on a very cerebral level that such a meeting can never take place. She’s been reduced to “smoke” over a cremation chimney, “sparks” that dance across the bodies of two colliding cars, letters folded into tiny boats and set sail on an ocean that will only swallow them whole. There are times where the Lost Man cries out for Esther, complaining of the intangible burdens that drag him down, of the event that stole her from him, of the writings and stories of a historian he never knew that now twist and shape his consciousness. He is alone, he is grieving and he is obsessed.
And in the end there is acceptance, and perhaps even rest – the Lost Man, at the end of his journey, climbs to the top of a nigh-abandoned radio tower aerial and jumps off – and instead of falling, he flies, his shadow dancing across the rocks in the shape of the gull that had appeared more than once as he journeyed across the island. And having reached the “finish” we’re left with more questions than answers. Who was the Lost Man? Why would he come to some abandoned island and paint pictures, carve symbols and light candles on walls of caves and crumbling houses? How would such a thing help someone cope with grief? In the end, was he a physical person, who perished from his leap? Or was he a ghost the whole time, reliving his journey, his thoughts, pains and sorrows up to the event that took his love and life away from him?
These are all interesting questions, but the one that disturbs me the most is what happens when you fall into a ravine you weren’t meant to, or leap off a pier and drown – in the swirling darkness, you hear the Lost Man’s voice beckoning you, the player, to return – by simply saying, in a low, softly desperate voice – “Come back.” And at the end of the story, after the screen darkens and the player is greeted only by the sounds of wind and waves, he says it again, once – “Come back.” Is he talking to the player? Or is it his final vocalized wish, the one thing he so cerebrally attempted to justify and parse into words and allusions, defeated by two words – was he talking to Esther the whole time?
I know I’ll play the game again (and the player is dutifully rewarded for playing some sections over again with new dialog or images and objects) but now, I think I need to turn off the computer and call someone I love.
And I can only hope that I never feel the need to leap off a radio tower just to feel connected again.
Watch the trailer here.