The debut game by The Chinese Room makes us confront our cosmic smallness. Also you walk a lot.
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Contemporary blockbuster video games love to speculate about the future. From the Illuminati-controlled strangeness of Deus Ex to the wasteland of Fallout and the mushroom-covered sewer world of The Last of Us, there is a throughline of wondering what the hell is going to happen to humans in the future. Many games treat this as literally as possible, giving up apocalypse scenarios, militaristic fantasies, or just the cold, hard brutality of a libertarian paradise where the only thing you can depend on is your ability to raid and loot to survive.
We're not wrong to be fascinated with the end of the world. As Sarah Emerson reported over at Motherboard, we recently crossed the dreaded red line of carbon in our atmosphere. Global warming has passed a tipping point that we can never go back from. It only gets more brutal and ugly from here, and you can imagine Road Warrior fans getting excited at the idea of a world with an ever-reducing carrying capacity that is tending further and further toward abundance for few and scarcity for most. Things are trending in a certain direction, and our media reflecting those concerns and exhilarations seems appropriate.
Games aren't unique in their fetish for the decimated future. Michael Bay has given us an Age of Extinction, Guillermo Del Toro has conjured Lovecraftian apocalypse via kaiju, and James Franco annihilated most of the world in his bid to be the first person to truly get to truly hang out with an ape. We're living in an age of apocalypse media; we're beset on all sides with brilliant fantasies of the worst things that can happen to us as a species.
In our moment of need, we can turn in a few directions. We can embrace Michael Bay-style destruction, a fantastical end of the world, or we can turn inward. Facing the reality of the Industrial Revolution and its destruction of nature, oppression of workers, and privatization of many things once shared in common by the public, the Romantics—poets, novelists, and visual artists—of the 18th and 19th centuries imagined the world outside the human and scrutinized what humanity was doing to itself.
Dear Esther is a game that could be subtitled "a Romantic romp through depression." Initially a Half-Life 2 mod, then a stand alone release, and now existing in a remade "Landmark Edition" for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, Dear Esther tells a story of a man whose life has been shattered by the death of his partner in a car accident. Or it tells the story of a ghost tracing the path of a man across an island. Or it tells a story about a man named Paul who caused a car accident that killed a woman and who has been driven into a third-person narrative about his own life. Interpretations vary as to the plot, most of which has to do with randomized voiceover and physical objects within the game. The pieces of narrative and worldbuilding that you get are, within bounds, fairly random.
The feeling of playing through Dear Esther is, for me, like viewing Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (always a go-to example of Romantic work): This dude is hanging out looking at these monolithic mountains swallowed by an ocean of otherworldly fog, and we're supposed to be like "Whoa, I mean, damn! Humans don't mean very much at all!"
In both the game and the painting, I have a distinct sense that this world is bigger than I am, and that I won't ever have access to all the tools that I need to truly overcome or interpret it rationally. It all smacks of something William Gilpin wrote 1972: "There may be more pleasure in recollecting, and recording, from a few transient lines, the scenes we have admired, than in the present enjoyment of them." Gilpin is talking about landscapes and trying to capture their beauty, but this is the same Romantic way that Dear Esther presents itself. The strength of the game is not in the exact, minute detail but instead in how it shows us a world.
It's not surprising that listening to the developer commentary in the new Landmark Edition spells that out directly. Jessica Curry (composer and audio designer), Dan Pinchbeck (producer and narrative designer), and Robert Briscoe (art and environment designer) all sit around a microphone and deliver their own interpretations of the game based on their contributions, but all three firmly argue that much of the game is taking place in the player's mind. The deliberate walking pace, the synthesis of sound and environment, and the attention to visual elements like a randomized ultrasound, in Pinchbeck's words, "makes each playthrough more personal."
Most games about the end of things pit you against the world. Joel needs to smash zombie heads apart in The Last of Us in order to save the world he wants to keep around. The Flame and the Flood imagines that the only thing left to do is to loot and hold onto yourself while barreling down a river that you can't control. It's about grinding out some kind of life through the friction generated by the conflict between you and everything that isn't you. It's a rational, cold, calculating logic that keeps us surviving against all odds.
But Dear Esther empties out its apocalyptic world so that you can't fight your way to something better. There is nothing better. There's only a final journey for a collapsing protagonist reduced to monologue and melancholy. There's not a power fantasy to be had, but instead there is a coming to terms with tragedy. Things will end, the game seems to say, and the best thing you can do is come to terms with it.
This is the lasting power of Dear Esther. It isn't the inauguration of the "walking simulator" or the randomized elements. It's the fact that it is a game about a world robbed of humanity that forces the player to think about their relationship to the world, to their personal failings, and to their guilt. It is a game that can absolve you, but it does that through making you feel so incredibly tiny. Humanity recedes into the distance, smaller than mountains, smothered by clouds.
It's important, I think, to experience this kind of quiet oblivion and recognize that the game's true claim is one about togetherness. It's about recognizing our smallness and proceeding despite it. It's about coming to terms with some things ending and other things beginning. It's about not falling to the logic of War Boys or aspiring to be a singular human against the onslaught of anonymous hordes. It's about reconciling with a loss, or a great tragedy, and then somehow scraping through it with the recognition that, somehow, things never seem to truly be over. Dear Esther's protagonist drops into empty air, but the game ends on wings that fly us to another place. That transformation from human to bird—that's the work.
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