I have no arms and I must scream

by Wardog

Wardog has still not learned her lesson about indie-games and played Dear Esther...
~
I really really need to stop playing pretentious Indie games.

The thing is, I’m not Dan. I haven’t planted my arse firmly on the face of the possibility that games could conceivably be art, I’m interested in games-as-texts, and I’ve had genuinely meaningful and valuable experiences while playing them.  But I think it’s come to the point that I am playing indie games specifically to prove to myself that I am not Dan, and I need to accept the fact that, although games can be all the things I’ve listed above, what I personally enjoy about them is running around with a sword or gun, driving a car or spaceship really fast and occasionally taking a breather from my life of glorious ultraviolence to fuck an elf or prostitute.

And, y’know, something, that’s okay.  And it’s about time I got comfortable with it, a process I shall begin by telling you that Dear Esther is a pointless, tedious non-game, whose only redeeming feature is that it’s marginally better than The Path, and end by hopefully getting out the dreadful cycle of self-harm that is the buying, playing and loathing of this particular type of indie-game.

Dear Esther began life as a Half Life mod, and I remember it gathering enough of a “oooh, this seems arty” buzz that I was vaguely intrigued.  It’s now available as a stand-alone product, for a mere seven of our English pounds.  Some of the discussion surrounding the game has concerned its worth-it-ness (yes, that’s a word) considering you get about an hour of playing time for your bucks.  I don’t really want to get into it because it seems to me that computer games get hit by the volumetric fallacy more than possibly any other media.  I mean, how long something lasts is no measure of quality or intensity of enjoyment, the worth of something is actually pretty personal, and a vague desire for things to be cheaper in general is not a reasonable estimation of value.  I can’t in all honesty say that, to me, Dear Esther was worth £7 but equally I knowingly paid £7 for it, recognising that I would probably hate it and consider it a waste of my time.  So in that respect I got exactly what I paid for, and apparently I was prepared to pay £7 for it, so I don’t feel like I have any right to complain.

Anyway, Dear Esther begins with “you” randomly on an island in the Outer Hebrides, apparently without any arms but, somehow, able to operate a flashlight which clicks on helpfully whenever you go somewhere dark-ish.  I know this sounds like an absurdly pointless thing to react so badly to, but nevertheless it established an inconsistent tone from the very beginning of the game for me.  I mean I didn’t expect to be walking round like I had First Person Shooter Disease, but I felt as though I was immediately and uninterestingly disempowered by the game’s preoccupations.  The experience of playing (by which I mean, walking through) Dear Esther is extremely ephemeral, and I can’t tell to what extent it’s deliberate and to what extent it’s mechanical. I mean, tromping along through Skyrim, for example, is a very visceral experience, as your footsteps make noise, the undergrowth crushes beneath your feet, branches move and you occasionally blunder around like a mammoth knocking boots and apple tarts off tables.  By contrast, despite the beautifully rendered world, in Dear Esther you glide along, as though on smooth, oiled rails.  You can walk into things but they merely halt your progress.  And given that it’s a sort of ghost story it would make sense that you are eerily un-present but at the same it’s hard to invest in being eerily un-present when you apparently have a flashlight about your person that you nevertheless lack the ability to turn off and on at will.  I mean that’s a very specific level of passivity.  And ultimately I didn’t feel dreamy and disembodied, I felt ARMLESS, which was just frustrating.

Just frustrating, by the way, encapsulates (unsurprisingly) my experiences with Dear Esther.  As well as having no arms, I had legs incapable of moving at a rate faster than a languid stroll.  And, yes, I suppose realistically if I was a ghost/metaphor/mad-person moving around an island in the Outer Hebrides I wouldn’t be sprinting tirelessly along the empty, wave-washed beaches but I’d have the goddamn option. I mean maybe that would be how my ghost/metaphor/mad-personness might want to express itself, given there is literally no other way to interact with the game at all.  I have played games with a single speed setting before – The Path, of course, and, incongruously, Harvest Moon, where I actually enjoyed strolling around my little farm, watering my cow and milking my crops (and I did later buy a horsey which allowed me to trot to the village a little bit faster).  It’s probably irrational to take against Dear Esther while finding Harvest Moon adorable, but I think the difference is that Harvest Moon just wanted to immerse me in being a cute anime farmer and Dear Esther was forcing me to experience its deep shit.  Essentially, Dear Esther is like visiting a museum with the sort of person who wants to start at the beginning and end at the end and spend an equal amount of time at each exhibit.  And I’m tugging on its hand, wanting to move at my own pace, and get to what I think is the good stuff but Dear Esther says no, no fun for you today!

In practical terms, limping along like a recently raped girl (that’s a Path reference, not just arbitrary offensiveness...) severely hindered what little engagement was possible.  You trigger randomised narration at various points along your tedious stroll, but a lot of the time I wasn’t exploring properly or searching them out because any deviation from the beaten path meant I would have to walk back again, and I couldn’t bear it.  My w-key finger still hates me this morning.  There are several occasions in the game in which you crest some rise and you can see the whole island spread out behind you – and during these moments of melancholy beauty, the only thought in my head was “I walked all that fucking way.”


ALL THIS WAY!

And if anybody tries to say “aaaah, but d’you see at me” I will bite their nose off.

So what the fuck is Dear Esther, apart from a w-finger straining walk-a-thon?  Well, you wander round an island and then into some caves, occasionally triggering bits of randomised fragmentary narration about ... stuff.  I think there are probably three-to-four overlapping stories, in which the history of the island, and other bits of folklore, are woven into the guilt-stricken ramblings of some dude who has lost his loved one in a car-crash (the eponymous Esther...maybe).  The thing about fragmented narratives, right, is that they’re fucking easy.  The way to make any old pile of crap sound awesomely poetic and meaningful is to take the middle out and put everything in an arbitrary order.  Just ask Ezra Pound.

It is possible to construct something moderately meaningful, and even moving, out of the pieces of Dear Esther but then it’s also possible to encounter a peanut that looks like a duck.   Between the stories, the histories and the blatantly obvious metaphors (oh like this island, right, d’you see) a reasonably banal tale of guilt and loss emerges.  However, because you have to work like a motherfucker to get the thing, it’s insanely easy to over-invest. Dan has always said that the cheapest trick in the story-telling book is the one every single computer game deploys like it’s somehow deeply profound: making it about YOU. Which means the second cheapest trick in the story-telling book is making you build your own story from crap left lying on the ground.  It’s the same principle as the Muller Fruit Corner.  There are way nicer yoghurts out there but human nature means that the sheer delight of adding your own fruit makes you feel involved, and therefore you convince yourself that you’re eating a better yoghurt.

So I can totally understand why people have decided the deepmeaningful story of Dear Esther is the bee-knees, since constructing a narrative and drawing connections between fairly obvious elements in it  makes you feel all warm and clever inside... but it doesn’t actually alter the fact Dear Esther says what little it has to say in a massively frustrating manner.  I mean, it’s a Fruit Corner that’s makes you go trekking really slowly all over a Hebridian island to find the damn fruit.  And as for the fruit ... The narrative is, in general, that quite specific shade of game designer purple, a rare combination of over and under precision that implies depth but is basically meaningless when examined.  For example, the game opens with this:
Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here.  No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis.  I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.

As a general rule, I think criticising people’s written style is obnoxious but this screams so loudly of geekboy with aspirations that it makes my skin crawl.  “No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity?”  Seriously?!  Who the fuck correlates in their day to day lives, except for cyberpunk AIs?  And the repetitions / reformulations of the final sentence are just painfully inept, especially with the fussiness of ‘interim’ plinking into your brain like a dropped penny at the end.  It makes me want to fall on my knees and beg whoever wrote this to, please, for the love of God, stop trying so hard.

Here’s another:
I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat without a bottom. I will fly to the moon in it. I’ve been folded along a crease in time, a weakness in the sheet of life. Now you’ve settled on the opposite side of the paper to me. You can see your traces in the ink that soaks through the fibre, the pulped vegetation. When we become waterlogged and the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle. When this paper airplane leaves the cliff edge and carves parallel paper trails in the dark, we will come together.


I shall now take pity on you, dear Ferretbrain, and cease my quoting.  I believe my point is made.

The thing is, there are times when Dear Esther slips into nearly being effective.  It is, as I confessed above, better than The Path.  It looks absolutely gorgeous (although not so gorgeous I would not have appreciated BEING ABLE TO WALK QUICKER THANKS) and with the music and the sound effects the atmosphere of lonely aloneness and being alone is very intense (although not so intense I would not have appreciated BEING ABLE TO WALK QUICKER THANKS).  There’s a section where you wander through some underground caves and they are breathtaking lovely (though not so breathtakingly lovely that...I...yeah) and your vague destination is a distant radio tower, an ominous red beacon that beckons you through the fog and the heather like some inversion of Gatsby’s green light.  I think, given arms and a faster walking pace, I’d have been moderately willing to wander around the island, poking into abandoned huts and viewing various scenes of desolation and alienation, with bits of narration occasionally coming my way to break up the gloom with a different sort of gloom, except in practice the game is quite restrictive.  I understand it’s not really a game about freedom, so essentially walking down a prettily designed, thinly disguised corridor is thematically in-keeping and blah blah blah, but it’s still annoying.

Also it might have helped reconcile me to the story-telling, but it feels as though the designer lacked trust in his own creation. The game ends when you are funnelled along and up the radio tower, whereupon control is wrested from your armless hands and you jump off it.  As Alec Meer observes more eloquently in his review over at RPS: dude, I was going to do that anyway.  My first act in the game, on discovering myself armless in Indie-world, was to try and drown in the sea, of course I was going to hurl myself off the damn radio tower!   Yeesh.  And I know it’s not a narrative over which you’re supposed to have any control whatsoever (you can’t even turn your own flashlight on and off for god’s sake!) but I think at least giving the player sufficient agency to choose when they’re ready to go towards the red light, and when they want to jump, would have at least been a nod towards remembering that interaction is more than holding down the w key, and even small acts can constitute meaningful choices if they’re appropriately contextualised.

I’m getting counter-factual here but the truth is Dear Esther is a shitty videogame.  And I know you can call it an interactive poem or a mood piece or experiment in ambience or a Walking in the Outer Hebrides simulator but, you know what, it’s a game, it’s a fucking game.  And games allow you to do things with stories and story-telling that other texts do not.  This is exciting.  However, Dear Esther does none of them.  The limited interactivity in some way disguises and distracts from its flaws because hey, monkey has a button to press but ultimately there is no getting away from the fact that it’s not a piece of art, it’s just a bad game.

Dipping into RPS again, Alec writes in his wot-he-thinks:
Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it.

But, you know what, if I want to sit on a lonely hillside in the dark and the cold getting my emo freak on, and feeling guilty about all the shit I've done in my life, I can do that at home for nothing.

Guess what I can't do? Run round with a gun!

I love RPS to pieces, I really do, and there's a very smart and balanced evaluation of Dear Esther by John Walker which talks about its virtues and limitations much more fairly and eloquently than I have done but Alec's comments epitomise everything I hate about the way gamers talk about indie-games. The last time I checked, being boring, even intentionally, is neither difficult nor commendable. It's not even arty. It seems to me that people who like games, and would like games to be recognised as art, can't like art very much, because art is not boring. Yet whenever a game shows up that's crap to play people start immediately hailing the tediousness of the experience as some kind of amazing artistic virtue, as though art is the cultural equivalent of eating your greens and something can only possibly be good for you if it doesn't taste very nice.

And then the review gets even worse:
I feel a great swell of pity for people on Wikipedia, GameFaqs, forums et al who have attempted to clarify all, and indeed for anyone who rolled their eyes and thought ‘well, this is obvious’. They do that because they surely can’t have experienced the body-blows to the senses that I did.


This is the other thing I hate about discussions of indie-games. The shameless wanking. Dude, you simply do not get to say shit like this. We both chose to wade through Dear Esther. You over-invested massively and twisted yourself into knots to give meaning to all its flaws, limitations and irritations. I didn't, but I'm not trying to pretend it makes me a better person than you. I agree that the literal meaning of Dear Esther, who the narrator is, what the island represents and all that malarky, is not something that would ever interest me, for the same reasons I don't care whether Ofelia's fairy kingdom in Pan's Labyrinth is 'real' or not. But for people who enjoy the puzzle-box aspects of constructing a text, flock to Wikipedia, to GameFaqs, to anywhere else you want to go, have yourselves a blast. I'm not going to look down at you because you interact with things differently to me, and nor should anyone else.

And the sheer breadth of ignorant condescension in his avowed intent to pity me for playing the game with my critical facilities switched on is utterly staggering. It's a repulsive attempt to turn an entirely legitimate response into a value judgement on the player. I didn't like Dear Esther but it wasn't because the game was hackneyed and frustrating, oh no, it was because I'm a wretched pleb who was too stupid and insensitive to get it. Well, I guess we are well on our to the establishment as games as art, starting with the establishment of a critical elite, who can tell us how we're supposed to feel about the games we play. There is nothing inherently wrong with liking or disliking any text, whether it's Grand Theft Auto IV or Hamlet, but it's very very wrong to sneeringly condemn the responses of others.

Although I did not like Dear Esther and I will never like Dear Esther no matter how floridly someone describes their profound personal experiences with it, the text is fragmentary and contradictory enough that I found an interpretative space that borderline worked for me. About halfway up one of the many hills, just past the stone circle, while the narrator was burbling about dreaming that he stood in the centre of the sun (shut uuuuuup), I decided, fuck it: I'm going to be Esther.

One of the genuinely interesting things about computer games is that, even more than books, they are interpretatively fluid which means you can force a personally meaningful reading on the text constructed entirely in the spaces between creator and consumer. Or, as we like to call it in lit circles, make shit up. And, yes, ironically, I would see this as a potentially useful insight into the possibility of computer games being art. But it does not redeem Dear Ester from being bad, and if anybody dares to "aaaaahh but d'you see at me", as threatened previously, there will be biting. I mean it.

I also don't believe for a moment that 'being Esther' is an intentional or supported reading, because it's a too unquestioningly masculine text. The Esther of the title is remarkably absent, I mean over and above the fact she's dead. Unlike the other people, in the past and the present, constructable through pieces of the narration, Esther is just Princess Peach all over again (your Esther is at the top of another radio tower) and exists primarily as a maguffin to provide tragedy and inspire guilt in the assumed-male protagonist. This is, of course, what women are for.

I poked around the internet to see what other people were thinking. And between the whole male-as-default thing and the way the connection between narrator and protagonist is so deeply embedded within the grammar of games, the general assumptions seem to support Alec's reading of Dear Esther as a “Lonely, Guilt-Stricken Man Simulator.” But you can also be a dying Esther, untethered from past and future, wandering linearly through a landscape defined and restricted by her partner's guilt and shame (over, y'know, killing her...). In which case being defined and restricted by a pretentious game designer who won't let you interact with anything takes on a certain thematic resonance.

It's still shit though. Don't play it.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 21:56 on 2012-02-22
Sounds like this game would've been improved by having some random puzzles sitting around. Like a crane you have to fix or something.

Well, that is the logic of adventure games, isn't it? Like this, to intentionally frustrate your experience of a story, except that in an adventure game, at least you can feel clever about figuring out how to get on board the pirate ship without being seen using a piece of cheese and a hammer.

Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it.

Because, as you say, this exactly why we play video games. For the lonely tedium of them. Mind you, I do find games lonely and tedious these days, but that's because at least if I walk through the forest all alone I'm actually getting some exercise instead of just tapping keys on a keyboard and clicking the mouse a few times while a flit around some virtual world where I accomplish, well, nothing that has any real-world consequence. If I'm going to do that, I would at least like to have some sense of being while doing it.
Dan H at 22:45 on 2012-02-22
Well, that is the logic of adventure games, isn't it? Like this, to intentionally frustrate your experience of a story


I'd argue the opposite actually, I'd argue that the logic of adventure games is to use story to contextualize puzzles. This, essentially, is why I don't buy the notion of video games as a storytelling medium, because they're utterly preoccupied with stuff that gets in the *way* of story.

To put it into a glib one-liner, stories make games better, but games don't make stories better.

Because, as you say, this exactly why we play video games. For the lonely tedium of them.


Not only do I not play video games for their loneliness and tedium, I don't consume art for loneliness and tedium *either*. Oh there are a lot of plays, books, films and even paintings that are *about* loneliness or tedium, but they are not themselves lonely or tedious.

Something I think the games-as-art lobby really need to get their heads around is that there is a world of difference between giving the audience *insight* into something and merely creating a *facsimile* of it. Waiting for Godot is a play about meaninglessness and futility, but the act of watching it does not feel meaningless or futile.

People really do seem to think that a video game can somehow engage intelligently with complex themes merely by dint of not being fun.
Wardog at 22:56 on 2012-02-22
Sounds like this game would've been improved by having some random puzzles sitting around. Like a crane you have to fix or something

But then ... it wouldn't be ... ART!
http://hafl.livejournal.com/ at 04:29 on 2012-02-23
I think the issue is not playing indie games. There is plenty of indie games that are fun. The issue is playing indie art games.

The issue with the "games are art/can be art" thing is that nobody has yet figured how to make a game art withour aping books or movies or whatever. Planescape: Torment came close, but there were still times when the game got in the way.

(Oh, and a first time commenter, hello.)
valse de la lune at 06:01 on 2012-02-23
It is, as I confessed above, better than The Path.


I imagine it doesn't contain artsy violent off-screen rape to Make a Point. :P
Wardog at 10:01 on 2012-02-23
@Valse
Yes, indeed. But I consider 'better than The Path' the faintest of faint praise. It's is sort of the equivalent of 'better than rolling naked on broken glass while doing something quite boring simultaneously."

@Hafl
Welcome, hullo! :) Whenever I write about arty-indie games I always exaggerate my stance of burning, frothing hatred precisely because of the sort of 'if you don't get it, you're just stupid' rhetoric I quoted in the article. There's actually a lot of indie games I like a lot, that are neither pretentious nor just plain bad.

I recently re-visited Torment and, err, although it was still AWESOME it's not quite the shining beacon of attainment I remembered it as. I know that's, like, heresy. The thing is, I think as soon as you entertain the notion that the 'game' bit of a game is getting in the way of the text's artistic vision or whatever then ... I don't know, I feel something has gone horribly wrong in both directions, both in the conception of 'game' and the conception of 'art'.
Guy at 15:48 on 2012-02-23
Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island.

I think this is probably the best "found" entry for the Lyttle Lytton contest I've ever seen.

My favourite indie game of all time is Spelunky. It contains violence, action, treasure, a definite focus on scoring points rather than revealing a story... and yet, the vibrant sense of being Indiana Jones that it creates is as powerful an experience of mimesis as I think any computer game has ever given me. It's also kinda sexist, but, what can you do? Anyway, yeah... self-conscious "artiness" seems to be a trap even if you're only interested in making "art", but doubly so if you make an "art game". Instead... I think it probably makes more sense to aim at "craft" - and once you're a hell of a craftswoman / craftsman, you may find that you're making art by accident. "It's intentionally boring" may have gotten people nodding over how clever Andy Warhol was, but nobody actually wants to watch those films.
http://hafl.livejournal.com/ at 16:20 on 2012-02-23
There's not much to get about art games. I think 'The Path' is actually the most complex of them, since it at least managed to do the 'horrible things are happening because of you, the player' thing, while most others cannot do even that. (The best game I played in 2011 was a freeware Japanese RPG and I'm currently having loads of fun playing Academagia, so it's not just my crappy computer that makes me play a lot of indie games.)

I still think Torment is a shining beacon of attainment, within the limits of game stories and storytelling, since I don't think there was anything better than it before or since. I would almost say that it may have been better as an adventure game, because the combat usually felt monotone and underwhelming. However, taking that part out would still make it worse as a game, because as weak as combat was, a lot of the fun stuff in the game revolved around getting better at killing things and exploring dangerous places. What I'm trying to say is that 'the game getting in the way' is a failure of the gameplay to complement the story, rather than me not wanting to bother with the gameplay and being impatient to get to the next part of the story. The problem is in the execution, not in the concept.

I'd say that for game to be art, it needs to have the gameplay and the 'message' or the story complement each other. Without the gameplay, it's not a game and without something to say, it is 'only' entertainment.
Arthur B at 16:22 on 2012-02-23
Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island.

Dear game designers: making me conceptualise the setting of your game as a gargantuan floater bobbing about in a toilet bowl the size of the ocean is a bad idea. Yet, combining this line with the screenshot, I can now think of the island in no other way.
James D at 18:26 on 2012-02-23
The issue with the "games are art/can be art" thing is that nobody has yet figured how to make a game art withour aping books or movies or whatever. Planescape: Torment came close, but there were still times when the game got in the way.

Sure they have. I loved Planescape: Torment, but as others have mentioned, as far as the combat mechanics went it was clunky even for its time. I'd say a lot of adventure games have done it though, such as the Myst games. Yes, sometimes the puzzles stump you, but for the most part they did a great job of making the puzzles feel organic to their environments, and gave you great motivation for solving them. Other games like Silent Hill 2 did a great job of putting *you* into a setting that a book or movie just wouldn't have been able to convey as powerfully. The whole modern-day 'games-as-art' crew have sort of missed that games have been viable as art for a long time, without resorting to gimmicks like a lack of interaction with the game world.
Hey.

I didn't like Dear Esther but it wasn't because the game was hackneyed and frustrating, oh no, it was because I'm a wretched pleb who was too stupid and insensitive to get it.

God, I hate this attitude so much. Yes, I didn't like 2001 A Space Oddessy because I didn't get it; not because it was drawn-out and boring as shit.

Though I have to ask: are there good Indie games you would recomend?
Dan H at 21:49 on 2012-02-23
There are *loads* of good indie (or at least small developer) games, it's just that the good ones are the ones that are trying to be good games, rather than trying to Be Art.

If you like adventure games, I've just finished Emerald City Confidential which is a cute little adventure game set in a faux-noir version of Oz (the puzzles are very simple, but it's a cute little game and I'm a fan of the genre).

If you like roguelikes, Dungeons of Dreadmor is ... well it's intentionally frustrating in a non-wanky way, in that it's specifically designed to be all hardcore-dungeon-crawl-you-died-from-kicking-a-door-down.

And I've not played it, but I hear Bastion was really good.
Emerald City Confidential which is a cute little adventure game set in a faux-noir version of Oz (the puzzles are very simple, but it's a cute little game and I'm a fan of the genre).

That sounds great; I'll have to get it soon. Thanks.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 01:52 on 2012-02-24
Pseudo-philosophy is the bane of my existence.

For me, my top three games are Ocarina of Time, which follows the Hero's Journey, deals with themes of loss and belonging, and creates a fantasy world that feels very alive and interactive; Robot Unicorn Attack, because it's so unapologetically girly, and because I always wonder where the unicorn is going, which creates a never-ending sense of wonder and mystery and longing for me even if it is a simple one-level game; and The Last Dalek, because I feel like I really am breaking out of a maximum-security research facility: hacking computers to read about my tormentor and locate technology to fix my armor, decoding computerized locks to break into rooms, and all while announcements come over the PA system to warn the terrified scientists in Haz-mat suits about my mad escape, and where I've been sighted now.

Obviously I'm not much of a gamer (don't have the time, don't have the money), but I used to play all the time up till college, and I feel "entertainment" is definitely important in a game. To me something is art if it picks a theme and expands on that theme successfully, whether that theme be loss of innocence or "What to do if aliens invade the dairy farm and eat all the cows." It may not be high art, but it's still art. Art for art's sake seems a pointless waste of time, because art can't enoy or criticize itself, supposing you even do it right.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:56 on 2012-02-24
God, I hate this attitude so much. Yes, I didn't like 2001 A Space Oddessy because I didn't get it; not because it was drawn-out and boring as shit.

Hey hey hey, dem's fightin' words where I come from!

Well, not really. But I do love that movie, and I think its structure is appropriate for its goals. But that's neither here nor there in this thread.

Kyra, as a guy who has the soundtracks to both Dear Esther and Korsakovia on his mp3 player, I suppose I should write up some sort of alternate interpretation. But to be honest...I don't want to. A few months back I had a small binge on a bunch of "art mods" build on the Source engine (Dear Esther, Korsakovia, Cakebread's The Stanley Parable, and Robert Yang's Radiator), and the experience convinced me that I should just avoid art mods forever.

After reading your piece, I though back to my experience with Esther, and I found that it really hasn't stuck with me. I've played games with vaguely similar premises and structures, but I would much rather revisit them than Esther. I suppose the issue was that, in the end, if I'm going to be walking though a virtual landscape, I would prefer an overall narrative, if only to orient myself. There is none in Esther. There's a whole mess of details and allusions that you can interpret as a narrative, but there was nothing for me that drove me around (not even the joy of exploration; the landscape was far too mundane to take much pleasure in it). It felt less like a game than a bunch of stuff in a box, and it didn't feel like it would have made any difference if it was me or a ten-line program that was driving the camera around.

There are other games I've played that are similar but managed to keep me going. Outcry was a short adventure game developed by a music collective out of St. Petersburg, apparently under the premise of "we've made an album; let's build a game around it!" There's a lot of trekking through mental landscapes, but it grounds out at the beginning by giving you a situation, in this case by having your estranged scientist brother has summoned you to see his new invention, then mysteriously disappeared into the diving bell he's erected in his living room, and gives you enough of a hook with diary entries from your brother to make you want to keep investigating. The Crysis mod The Worry of Newport is even more Esther-like, but it tells its Lovecraft-homaging story straightforwardly and manages to make the landscape interesting.

(As an aside, was I supposed to take all the narration in Esther seriously? I just assumed by the end of the game that they were the mental poems of a man suffering from cerebral hypoxia as he lay trapped in a car wreck along with the [presumably dead] bodies of the other two people he was with.)

Finally, for anyone that's interested, I tried to play through Korsakovia, the game Daniel Pinchbeck [I don't trust that name for some reason] made after Esther. It's built more like a regular game, but not a good one; it's more a collection of good ideas for other developers to use rather than something fun in and of itself. I never finished it, partly due to the fact it kept crashing on me after a certain point in the game, but mostly due to the fact it relies heavily on first-person jump puzzles in the Source engine. And let me tell you, the only time I will consent to jumping around in a Source game is if I have a stickybomb launcher in one hand and a bottle of scrumpy in the other.

(Finally finally, after being soundly defeated by its many Simon puzzles, I've started watching a playthrough of Indigo Prophecy. It's been as boring as all fuck, but now that Lucas has pulled his Matrix powers out of his ass, things are looking up. It does get more insane from this point, right?)
Hey hey hey, dem's fightin' words where I come from!

Well, not really. But I do love that movie, and I think its structure is appropriate for its goals. But that's neither here nor there in this thread.


Well to be fair, I really liked the part of the movie that was about HAL because I thought HAL was a great character; I don't like the rest of the movie though I agree the structure fits the movie.
Wardog at 16:52 on 2012-02-24
@Guy
Anyway, yeah... self-conscious "artiness" seems to be a trap even if you're only interested in making "art", but doubly so if you make an "art game". Instead... I think it probably makes more sense to aim at "craft" - and once you're a hell of a craftswoman / craftsman, you may find that you're making art by accident.

Yes, I can see what you mean. It's also the fact that 'art' seems to be conceived as something 'other' to games, in some ways, so that in order to make an art-game you have to make something, err, boring to play. Whereas I think maybe if you just made awesome games they might, as you say, become art in some way that is specific to games. It's like the conversation about Torment, which I HEART BIG - most of the arguments I've seen that would offer up Torment as art are faintly sheepish about the game stuff. And if the game isn't working then it might as well just be a story? (But, again, it wouldn't work as a non-interactive story because Torment gets much of its power from the whole OMG IT'S ME! thing)

@Hafl
think 'The Path' is actually the most complex of them, since it at least managed to do the 'horrible things are happening because of you, the player' thing, while most others cannot do even that

I hope you don't feel I'm arguing with you all the time :P But as I said in my review, I think the validity of collusion can be massively over-stated. I mean The Path offers you two choices: go straight to the house and 'fail' OR have horrible things happen to your girls and then feel bad about it. That just seems cheap to me. I mean you *have* to conclude because that's where the *content* is.

In happier news, I love Academagia! It's awesome! It's on my old computer though so *pout*. I was really bad it, though. Always failing classes and having horrible things to me in adventures. It was one of those games that seems ludicrously complex under the shiny happy interface. I literally have no idea how to not screw up my exams in that game.

What I'm trying to say is that 'the game getting in the way' is a failure of the gameplay to complement the story, rather than me not wanting to bother with the gameplay and being impatient to get to the next part of the story. The problem is in the execution, not in the concept.

I get ya, and yes, agreed. Although I'm not sure if it's kind of ... I don't know ... a dead end. I mean possibly the whole idea of story runs counter to the notion of gameplay... *strokes goatee*

@Arthur
For you.
*childish*

@James
The whole modern-day 'games-as-art' crew have sort of missed that games have been viable as art for a long time, without resorting to gimmicks like a lack of interaction with the game world.

That's the thing though, I'm not sure whether those are art or just really good games?

@Wake
Though I have to ask: are there good Indie games you would recomend?

Err...well, there you have me. I mean most of the indie-games I play that work for me tend to be sort of little pocket games, if that makes sense, who do a small thing exceptionally well.

I absolutely adore Desktop Dungeons for example, and I am usually interested in Christine Love's work, even if it isn't always successful (also, all her games barring her last are free). Actually, that's the other thing, I'm much less, err, critical when games are free. Cthulhu Saves the World is basically a joke, but it's cuuuuute, and Dungeons of Dredmor is a whimsical little rogue-alike with graphics. But none of these are, y'know, ART MAN ART!

I've also really enjoyed (linking to reviews now) Bastion and Recettear. Bastion, in particular, works quite nicely as a blending of narrative and gameplay. And Recettear is just stupidly fun.

I also play a shit tonne of interaction fiction but I'll, err, spare you a long list of those in case they're not your thing.

@Angmar
I've never played Ocarina of Time, which makes me sad, but I haven't touched a Nintendo since my 8 bit days. Robot Unicorn Attack is amazing... I entirely agree with you. Andy actually reviewed it so, yeah, much love for sparkly unicorns from us! And The Last Dalek, also, slipped me by. But then not being much a Who-o-phile or whatever the appropriate term is, I don't think I'd be able to emotionally invest in the Dalek ;)

To me something is art if it picks a theme and expands on that theme successfully, whether that theme be loss of innocence or "What to do if aliens invade the dairy farm and eat all the cows."

Huh, I like this. I suppose the difficult term is "successfully" however, since I'm sure there are lots of Alec Meers out there who want to tell you that Dear Esther "successfully" expands on its themes of grief, loss, madness and despair, and that if you don't feel it is successful it's YOUR FAULT.
Wardog at 17:04 on 2012-02-24
@Alasdair
I would totally buy the soundtrack, it's lovely. The aesthetics of the game were perfect, it's just the game that sucked.

I'm sorry if the uber-aggressive of my smackdown, err, I mean review has made it difficult to challenge my THIS IS SHIT stance. I'm sure it's perfectly possible to have derived something interesting from Esther ... it's just all the gushy criticism of it I've read has been "oh, and if you don't like it, you're shallow and only like to shoot people in the head." And, it's true, I do like to shoot people in the head, but I don't think wanting to be entertained by my entertainment makes me culturally illiterate.

Weirdly, I was okay with the Build Your Own Narrative (although as I said in the review it's a cheap way to make something banal seem deeply meaningful) and I loved the landscape. I mean, I grew up in the North East of England which is not exactly like the Outer Hebrides but it's a bit like it ... I've wandered along beaches that look like that, across cliffs that look like that, beneath skies that look that like. I found very very haunting, and beautiful. If only I'd had ARMS, dammit. And been able to run.

Re the narration - it was super annoying wasn't it? If my internal voice starts babbling on like that when I'm dying I will be really annoyed. Again, from the perspective of Esther, it becomes almost interesting as you have this man self-indulgently historicising in your ear as you're trying desperately to escape into death... and on that level it really works.

I have a feeling Arthur attempted Indigo Prophecy a while back...
Arthur B at 17:36 on 2012-02-24
@Arthur
For you.
*childish*

Is this a toilet from the game? Because I have to say, Silent Hill II had better atmospheric toilets.
Wardog at 17:41 on 2012-02-24
But it's an artistic indie toilet...

And, yes, that's a genuine Dear Esther screenshot, and genuine Dear Esther narration, and a genuine Dear Esther toilet.

I had to crank up the damn game to get that toilet for you.
Arthur B at 17:50 on 2012-02-24
Your sacrifices for my amusement are appreciated. :D

Though I am compelled to point out that there's at least one toilet in Silent Hill II which is actually interactable and plot-relevant and contributes substantially to the atmosphere, and at least a few other stalls which play an important role in the aesthetic. I don't think anyone has put more thought to the artistic use of toilets in games than Team Silent.

But I guess they can't be artists because they were professionals with actual funding. Same reason the Sistine Chapel isn't art.

Re: Indigo Prophecy: I posted a review of it ages ago to my blog, which I deleted due to it being a discarded husk from an inferior past life.

Super-fast review: it's really, really good for the first hour, before you realise that Quantic Dream aren't actually going to follow through with the gameplay experiment they set up there. Pretty much everything after that gets progressively more disappointing - the lack of genuine choices, the stupid minigames, the Simon games completely fucking ruining the cut scenes, the story's utter inability to choose what genre it wanted to belong to, and finally the game designers saying "fucking" and just going full stupid for the ending. (They've actually flat-out admitted that they purposesly didn't give much thought to the ending, on the basis that people form their impressions on the early parts of gameplay. Not when the ending's that impressively poor, Quantic!)

Then I saw the easter egg where lead designer has his animated avatar dance with the underwear-clad female lead and I decided that I'd never play another Quantic Dream game again. Professionals can be infuriating games-as-art people who turn out to be enormous dorks who do gross things too, it's not just an indie thing.
Shimmin at 18:03 on 2012-02-24
It strikes me that some creative person should write a mod that would make Dear Esther more fun. Maybe something where you navigate a few puzzles. I mean the 1P perspective is fine, very immersive you could keep that and the landscapes. You could have some sort of basic interactivity tool for manipulating the environment (a crowbar or something?), some moveable items, maybe a few enemies to avoid, you could throw in a few weapons... does that sound like fun?

Oh, and running. Running would be good.
Dan H at 21:32 on 2012-02-24
It strikes me that some creative person should write a mod that would make Dear Esther more fun


I'm currently working on a Dear Esther mod where you play a guy who works at a secret research facility who accidentally opens a portal into an alien dimension.
http://angmar-bucket.livejournal.com/ at 21:47 on 2012-02-24

But then not being much a Who-o-phile or whatever the appropriate term is, I don't think I'd be able to emotionally invest in the Dalek ;)


I must be far gone in the enemy's service because people not reacting with automatic sympathy to the Dalek is something that didn't occur to me. XD
Jules V.O. at 04:25 on 2012-02-25
I would strongly recommend checking out Where We Remain, which is also an indie game about wandering around an island, going into caves, fragmented narratives, and a sense of helplessness - but which I found to be immensely engaging.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:41 on 2012-03-01
And now, Dear Esther is reviewed by a very sarcastic doctor who manages to create one of the best interpretations of the...ugh, "experience" [horrid term]...to date.

Also, Mr. Pinchbeck has teamed up with Frictional Games for their newest project. I can see the reviews now: "Man, I had no idea that trudging through a malevolent underground abattoir could be so fucking tedious."
Wardog at 21:42 on 2012-03-05
I feel that the sarcastic doctor is my indie-game playing soul-mate.
Michal at 00:22 on 2013-04-04
When I watched this video I immediately thought of this article.
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