Dear Esther And The Nature Of Memory

I should begin this post by saying I’m dearly sorry that I’ve been quite distant. If I’ve been abstaining from liking and commenting in the community recently it has not been because I’ve taken a disliking to any of you, I still love you all rigorously and passionately. I have just been absolutely swamped with schoolwork as I gear up for UCAS application and all such jazz. The opportunity to simply sit down and post away becomes rarer during schooltime, certainly, but in recent times I’ve forgotten what a free weekend feels like. Yet, up against the behemoths of uni prospect and herculean workloads, the spark in me that yearns to game glows fierce!

Hope this is suffice,

Kisses,

Vahrkalla xx

*****

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Beyond those double doors at the Odeon Hatfield, those gates from dark to light where popcorn sticks underfoot, it has often been the case that me and a friend will have walked into the same cinema screening, have eaten the same popcorn and have sat in the same barely visible cinema seats, but will have walked out of those dark double doors having seen an entirely different movie.

But never literally.

Randomized content is just another aspect in the vast roster of design possibilities that are exclusive to gaming as media. The roguelike genre capitalises on this, with environments and generated loot often being randomised upon an initial loading. The critically underwhelming No Man’s Sky is a recent example of randomised or procedurally generated environment being presented as a kind of selling point.

But where No Man’s Sky and other commercial giants such as Minecraft employ the use of procedural generation (which results in randomisation of experience), it is often to the end of the augmentation of systemNo Man’s Sky and Minecraft are games which randomise environment, and so therefore aesthetic, but randomisation does not end there. The procedurally generated environments in both cases house procedurally generated resources which can drastically change playstyle in any given procedural generation.

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Dear Esther is markedly devoid of any kind of system. It is regarded as the pioneer for the divisive neogenre of the ‘walking simulator’, in which the primary objective is simply to walk for extensive periods and to absorb and contemplate the environment. You have no resources or similar systematic distractions apart from the objective of walking, walking and thinking, perhaps even listening. And so essentially, despite randomization, playstyle remains identical to each player. It might seem strange or at least unusual then, that Dear Esther make use of randomised content when it would only come to augment the environment or audio.

But… that sounds misleading as an explanation. Dear Esther randomizes its environment but not the form of its environment, not the scale and the physical geography. The actual island, which writer Dan Pinchbeck explains is inspired by the Hebrides, is a staple of the user experience. What changes, what is randomized and augmented, are the nuances. After playing the game for a second time you begin to notice subtle changes, perhaps that an audio log has been delivered differently than before, with the same message, but a different vocabulary. Perhaps you begin to notice photos of foetal ultrasounds scattered around the island that definitely were not there before. Perhaps a gurney has been placed here where you could have sworn that a car had previously been in this location.

Dear Esther is the only game I’ve ever known that has made use of randomisation to the end of narrative or even symbolic augmentation. That is something brilliant. It evoked in me something that I’d never felt before, an inverse of déjà vu, a recognition that the content is lacking or shifting but with such nuance that there arises an uncertainty and distrust for my own ability of recollection. Games journalist and critic Ian Danskin describes the experience of Dear Esther as ‘haunted’, and I could not conjure up a better descriptor.

American psychologist Rosalind Cartwright once stated that “memory is never a precise duplicate of the original… it is a continuing act of creation”. This idea of an abyss of memory, where with each sought iteration of recollection, the recollection itself becomes increasingly degraded, is explored within the content of the game. The narrator appears to be describing a car crash on the M5, but as we progress through the game the audio logs become increasingly unintelligible, the landscape more impossible and the inferred narrative more contradictory. There is a clear sense of gradual understanding when it comes to the island’s and its experience’s impossibility.

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By way of this intended progression of understanding (or rather, progression of misunderstanding), the more the player attempts to comprehend as they progress, the less sense the narrative makes. The environment of the island is most apropos, erosion is a visual and narrative theme of the game. Apart from the sense of isolation and the theme of erosion, the Hebridean island serves to some historical purpose here. Early on in the game, you will see two giant carvings on a cliff face that expose the chalk. Pinchbeck says that this was a practice in Boreray and the Hebrides: “you’d know not to land because it was infectious”. This idea of infection, too, is extremely powerful with respect to the game’s exploration of memory. The physical island seems to be infected, no doubt, as you crawl towards its cavernous heart the area becomes decidedly more haunted, to use Danskin’s terminology. Rob Briscoe, the art designer, uses the term “corrupt” to describe the island. The idea of a memory being infected, corrupted, is interesting. We tend to use the term ‘corrupted’ in terms of digital memory, but it is applicable to human memory too. It can be corrupted with overuse, subconscious augmentation, age, and neglect.

Ebbinghaus was the first psychologist to explore the relationship between cues and recollection. Decay theory, in essence, shows that as we make ourselves less familiar with referents of memory: faces, scents, sensations, our ability to recall these things withers. There is a link between a referent and what is recalled that decays with neglect. It dies. A book I’m currently reading, A Passage To India by E.M. Forster sees the character of Aziz weep in despair not because the memory of his late wife is too much to bear, but because he both loves her and cannot remember her face.

In Dear Esther, as the narrator describes in vivid detail a gaining of a horrid blood infection towards the end of the game, you notice the toll it takes on the ethos of the whole environment as well. The world pulls further away from reality as we try harder to grasp. Neurologist Oliver Sacks said of memory: “We as human beings are landed with memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties and imperfections”. The term ‘landed’ could not be more appropriate given the context of the game.

But this is all speaking of what is immediately evident from a first playthrough. What makes Dear Esther so dumbfounding, so utterly brilliant, is the fact that its entity as a game is in itself an exploration of memory. Details change, the story will never be the same for each playthrough, nothing will ever match even to the same person playing it twice. Just like the memories that Dear Esther displays with some pathos, the game itself can never be fully recollected. That is fantastic.

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And terrifying. Imagine placing the DVD of your favourite movie onto the disc tray, loading up, and discovering that the entire cast had changed. It is the same movie, with the same message, but the clarity of comprehension that you thought you had is no longer there. Dear Esther is somewhat like that experience. It is dreamlike, to a kind of cinematic degree, even. In the developer’s commentary of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, composer Jessica Curry says “Shamefully, I’d never played a game before worked on Dear Esther“. This shows, but in a good way. Besides the music being in and of itself excellent, it feels as though the music brings the world alive. Curry herself says that “The voice of the island speaks to you through the music…the music in a way populates the island”. Without the music, I’m sure that Dear Esther wouldn’t work. Curry’s score acts a contemplative aid, and I’m glad that Curry had a more cinematic approach to diegetic music during development as the game is, in essence, a spectacle, in the same sense that a lucid dream is a spectacle. And like a lucid dream, once awake, recollection is defeating.

I love this game. It’s a modding success story, and a testament to the potential of the indie, but whilst I love it, it is hated. Art designer Rob Briscoe says in the director’s commentary: “I approached it like an impressionistic painting”. There’s no doubt, Dear Esther is the Pollock of our times. The creative process as described by Pinchbeck is even similar: “The language in the story… it didn’t matter the sense it made, it was more about the kind of shapes it created”. And there are awful similarities between the way some look at Dear Esther and the way some look at Pollock’s ilk.

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“The island is as wax fruit, visually notable but serving as little more than a backdrop with which no meaningful interaction can be had. There’s no opportunity or reason for exploration, nothing to touch or affect. Anything of potential interest, be it a discarded book or the remnants of past activity, are there simply to be observed from a cold, impersonal distance.” -Jim Sterling

A failure to infer meaning has always frustrated the critic. Look, I love Jim Sterling but I think when it comes to Dear Esther his view is childishly myopic. The game is so rich in meaning and artistry that it frustrates me terribly to hear phrases such as:

“It’d be easy to say it should’ve been a book, but there’s not enough here to even fill a pamphlet.”

From my beloved Jim Sterling. The supposition that any experience be relegated to other media because you just don’t get it makes me wince. Briscoe’s art, Curry’s score and Pinchbeck’s eldritch narrative are not things which can be expressed in pages. Dear Esther is innately a videogame because of its iconic randomisation. What a stupid thing to say.

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Beyond Dear Esther‘s fantastic originality, it is best described as an exploration of memory, that demonstrably shows the player the illusion of recollection.

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8 thoughts on “Dear Esther And The Nature Of Memory

  1. I’d heard mostly negative things about Dear Esther, you certainly put a more positive spin on it though. If I ever get through my backlog of games, I’ll certainly give it a look based on the recommendation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is not a perfect game, but I think its spin on procedural generation is perfectly unique. Like any art game, it will inspire something in some and it will be lost to others, which is perfectly fine. But we shouldn’t let a lack of understanding slip into condemnation.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I played Dear Esther and, like you, being interested in the artistry of video games, I wanted to love it.

    But honestly it left me a bit cold. I know there’s a lot going on here – about loss, and memory (as you brilliantly detail here). The overall effect though was chilling. Perhaps it was the subject matter, but the experience – the technical part of being in the game, playing it – was lacking for me.

    All that said – your article does make me want to go back and replay it! There were some stand-out moments. There was a point at which I thought I saw a man walking towards the beach, near a wrecked ship, but I can’t be sure. Memory again?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Of course there is room for something more here, even the simplest of gimmicks. There would have been no harm in being able to examine certain items hidden around the island: the ultrasound scans, the book that the narrator and Esther loved.

      It’s just that I think, with all else considered, that this entirely forgiveable.

      Thank you for the kind words! 🙂 Means a lot

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so, so much! I would have never thought two years ago when I started this that anyone would complement me on my writing skills, to me finding the right words to form a pathway for my thoughts has always been a hard task.

      Really, really appreciate it!

      Like

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