Motorway to Damascus: Fate and Agency in Dear EstherA column article by: Alex D. Jones
There are certain things that you are not allowed to do in thechineseroom’s Dear Esther. In the first act of the game, you are not allowed to swim past the wrecked fishing boat to investigate the nearby lighthouse. In the second act, you are not allowed to jump down the great chasm at the bottom of the hill leading up to Jakobson’s bothy. If you do the screen turns black and the voice of the anonymous narrator whispers, imploring you to return. And so, as I recklessly fall down the aforementioned chasm, my vision is taken away from me and I hear the voice again:
And I return, standing upon the precipice once more, my gaze directed upwards to the bothy.
Much has been made of Dear Esther’s difference; its violation of people’s expectations when it comes to the fundamentals of what video games are. At the beginning of the game, the player finds themselves on the coast of an unknown island in the Hebrides, the sound of gulls overhead, a mysterious aerial flashing in the distance and an unnamed male delivering a voice over from the erudite letters he has penned to a woman named Esther. With no direction, impetus or purpose, the player begins a journey around the island to investigate its mysteries.
The mysteries start off small, distinct and even manageable if you have the right expertise: the odd monologue here, a chemical structure diagram there. But as the game progresses deeper into the island the unknown variables grow, multiply and intertwine in ways that blur them together until the resultant cornucopia of images and symbols and phrases becomes an overwhelming, esoteric psychological puzzle that opens more questions whilst answering none: who is Esther, is the island real or fake, who is the player? Complicating matters further still is the fact that the game changes on each playthrough. The monologues triggered by entering certain areas are randomised at most points, leaving the player with different tidbits of information each time. Not only that, but the environment can be seen to change in certain ways the second or third time around, either by virtue of the path players take around the island or the game itself changing.
It would be fair to say then - based simply on this - that there is no over-arching mystery to Dear Esther, but rather that each playthrough is a new mystery in and of itself with similar recurring themes. But then, each story ends the same way; you find the aerial, climb it and jump off. The ending itself has its own ambiguities about your ultimate end, but nonetheless it is a certainty that you will see that cinematic played out in the exact same way every time as control is taken away from you. It seems contradictory to end an experience defined by uncertainty and change with something so definite and consistent, but really, the ending is the ultimate culmination of all of the messages of the game. When we consider the interaction between the environment, the narrative and the gameplay itself, the ending is simply the last logical step for a game that is, ultimately, about fate.
The concept of fate revolves around a lack of choice; it is “something that unavoidably befalls a person” to quote dictionary.com. It is inevitable and pre-determined by a God-like power, a deity or simply nature. On a fundamental level, it is the arresting of agency from the individual. In our case, the ending of Dear Esther is our inescapable fate. We can see the aerial beacon from the very beginning - when we start the game we are looking in it’s direction. It is the constant, driving force behind the player’s actions; we will always head towards the beacon, we will always climb it and we will always jump off.
As the game progresses, the motifs that we encounter throughout the island all come back to the idea of fate. Reasonably early on in the game, it is implied that Esther was killed by a drunk driver, an event that is referenced time and time again by car doors scattered on the beach, illustrations of the chemical structure of alcohol, and diagrams of neurons scattered across the walls of caves and empty houses. As the victim, Esther’s death was a matter outside of her control but, as an inhibitor, alcohol would have dulled the neural pathways of the driver that killed her, taking away their agency as well. When neither the perpetrator nor the victim of the accident had any control, who caused it? The obvious answer may still place the blame on the driver, but Dear Esther goes so far as to say that alcohol has no part in the equation, as the narrator cries in one piece of randomised monologue: “He was not drunk, Esther! It was the lines of convergence that doomed him!”
This overtly philosophical take on fault and blame finds its grounds in the way the game is played. The player is unable to interact with the world beyond moving through it, and as you do the world begins to fold in on itself. The pathways of the island narrow, restricting movement to a single route. Whenever the path splits into two, both roads lead to the same place barely fifty metres ahead of you. Even when you try to explore caves and crevices along the way, each of them invariably loops back round to the same road you were on before, all of them leading towards the aerial. No matter how much you try to resist, you cannot. If you try to swim out to sea, the game brings you back. If you take the untrodden path, the game brings you back. As the level design of Dear Esther drives you towards a certain end, your agency is arrested and you are held completely at the behest of fate. You do not choose to jump off the aerial. It is the lines of convergence that doom you.
It may seem to suit the detractors of Dear Esther rather well to say that it is a game that takes power and choice away from you, but this is by no means a new phenomenon. Asides from the countless comparisons that could be made to FPS games past and present, it is something that can be seen even in role-playing games that boast limitless options and narrative variance. Take the classic Fallout 2, which will always end in your character blowing up the Enclave’s oil rig and fighting Frank Horrigan, or even - and I drag this subject up again with caution - the now-infamous ending of Mass Effect 3, which closed off an entire trilogy of moral choices, character development and branching storylines with a choice between one of three seemingly indistinct cutscenes.
It is symptomatic of a problem that lies at the heart of modern game design philosophy; our fervent need to push the boundaries of agency and player choice is in direct opposition with the desire to tell a specific story. Games are relying on old methods of structuring stories, but these methods are collapsing under the weight of the interactive aspect. What is so novel - dare I say, so important - about Dear Esther is that not only does it dispel any illusions about its treatment of player agency, but it tells a story that only makes sense when structured around its gameplay. A story about fate could only have been told in a linear way, and a narrative that is so disjointed and changeable could only have been told through a video game.
Not only that, but it is a game that says something. The entire experience of Dear Esther is an exploration of death and time and memory and identity and fear that is so thick with substance, so brimming with philosophy, so alive with the possibility of its multiple interpretations that it will no doubt feed intellectual debate for a long time to come. For a game about a guy walking around an island, that’s pretty exciting.