What Makes a Game?

I’ve always been strangely fond of any art that challenges my ideas about its medium. And this isn’t an easy thing to do with me. I’m the sort of person who walks past a painting called “Red Rectangle on White Canvas” and thinks there’s a sucker born every minute. Still I’ve seen art, read poetry and stories, and heard music that challenged my definitions of art, poetry, stories, and music. But never before have I had this kind of experience with a game. Yes, a game.

DearEsther

I can’t recall how I first heard about Dear Esther, but I understand it began as a mod for Half-Life 2 (which I still need to play). The version I played is the revamped 2012 version. And oh. my. god. is this game gorgeous. I can’t even begin to go into it. The caves. If you start this game and don’t at least get to the caves, you’ve not even begun to play.

Okay, so I’ve heard the complaints about Dear Esther. I had them, too, at first. No, really. I finished the thing in one night, got to the infamous black screen, and said, “Wait. That’s it? That’s it! You just walk through it and look at stuff, and you don’t even get any answers? Oh, no you don’t, game. I’m getting SOMETHING out of this—a story, at the very least, since you couldn’t even give me the (admittedly false) sense of accomplishment I usually get from finishing a game. Bad game. Bad. I payed how much for this? Oh, for the love of…” Yeah, I get emotional about things.

Lately, my answer to infuriating art is to find out as much as I can about author intention, reader interpretation, and the process of creation. I often end up doing this with David Lynch films (which will become relevant a few paragraphs down). And I learned some things when I read up on Dear Esther. So when it came time for The Other Lamm to play, I was ready with hard-won insight. He reached the black screen, fiddled around because he was sure the thing had a glitch, and when he discovered it didn’t, he said the words I knew he would say: “That’s it?”

“Okay,” I said. “The game starts now. Ready. Set. Go.”

Once you finish what I’m calling the “walk-through” of Dear Esther, you’ll find you’ve been given an array of puzzle pieces. Your job is to put them together. Build a story. And that’s the game. Each person’s story is different because each person is going to get different pieces of the puzzle, focus on different aspects of the story, and notice different visuals in the walk-through. And each person is going to bring aspects of their own lives, experiences, and knowledge to their interpretation. Once you’ve built a story, the fun, of course, is sharing it. I’m going to share mine below, after the spoiler warning, so if you haven’t played the game, don’t read past the warning. You really do want a chance to piece this together on your own before the interpretations of other people change the puzzle for you. And they will. And that’s fun, too. But getting that first idea will tell you some things about yourself.

One last thing before I go into spoiler zone: I was given the option to purchase the soundtrack in a bundle with the game. I scoffed, thinking why should I buy a soundtrack I haven’t even heard yet? I should have taken the deal. The music in this game is over a good third of the experience, and it is gorgeous. The soundtrack really should be singing to you while you’re playing the REAL game. In fact, I kind of think it would be far more fair to automatically bundle the soundtrack with the game, simply because the game you’re paying for is played during and after the first walk-through.

Now…

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Spoiler Warning: the following is my own interpretation of Dear Esther.

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lost highwayOne day, at a friend’s party, I found myself watching my first David Lynch film: Lost Highway. I was awestruck, disturbed, unraveled by the thing. I spent the next week reading everything I could find on it. I finally saw an article that talked about the film’s intention to put the viewer in the position of the protagonist, who is suffering a fugue state. That information completely changed my understanding of the story. It all came together for me. And in Dear Esther, when I was given a monologue that implied a fugue state, I couldn’t help going back to that idea.

Here is the monologue that changed my interpretation:

“The pain in my leg sent me blind for a few minutes as I struggled up the cliff path: I swallowed another handful of painkillers and now I feel almost lucid. The island around me has retreated to a hazed distance, whilst the moon appears to have descended into my palm to guide me. I can see a thick black line of infection reaching for my heart from the waistband of my trousers. Through the fugue, it is all the world like the path I have cut from the lowlands towards the aerial.”

So my final interpretation of this story is that it’s about a man who had a few drinks the night he crashed his car, and his wife was killed in the accident. He is trapped in a fugue state, wherein he identifies as a stranger trying to assign blame. He assigns blame to the other driver, to himself, to the drink, to the seagulls, to the paint on the road. He wants desperately to make meaning out of a meaningless tragedy. He is on a variety of medication, painkillers etc. He is not himself. Maybe he’s dying. Maybe he just wishes he was. Every once in a while, he becomes lucid and remembers who he is. But the fugue state always draws him back because he cannot deal with reality. The ending can be either happy or miserable. I toggle between them, and I think that’s okay. Interpretation doesn’t have to be precise to be meaningful.

Now I’ve read interpretations that are so different from mine, and yet these people had very similar information with which to build. I’ve read someone’s idea that the person wandering the island is Esther, who is in a coma and listening to the letters her husband reads to her as her dreamscape is influenced by those letters. And I’ve read an interpretation where you, the player, are an infection traversing the body of a dying man and hearing the thoughts that haunt him. These are all beautiful interpretations, and I don’t think any of them are right or wrong. They just are, and the people who came up with them have now beat the game, as have I. My prize is a story I pieced together, good memories of beautiful landscape and music, and new ideas about what makes a game a game.