We are obsessed with doing things. With gettin’ it done. Our culture is so permeated with this illusion of productivity that we develop ways to keep working while on the move, on vacation, even when we’re asleep. Value is placed on the people who work a lot and work hard. Whether or not this obsession with work actually translates directly to productivity – whatever that means to you – seems pretty subjective to me, but I still get uncomfortable if I sit still for too long.
This made the gameplay of “Dear Esther” pretty painful for me the first time I booted it up. “Dear Esther” is a first-person game on the PC and, not to spoil anything, you just walk. No jumping, interacting, shooting, or even running. The real spice of the gameplay is introduced in the audio and visuals. A man with a delicious English accent occasionally voices over, reciting letters out of order, frequently contrary to one another, but always addressed to someone named Esther. You travel along a circuitous path from one side of an island to the other. Under overcast skies, the landscape is speckled with cryptic chemistry diagrams, skeletal structures, and rusted debris. The limitation on gameplay mechanics will probably cause a good number of peoples’ eyes to involuntarily roll back so far into their heads that they’ll lose balance and consciousness. But somehow, it worked for me when I first played it a few years ago.
The game is short, linear, and limited in terms of design, yet it manages to feel somewhat unending with each play through being slightly different from the last. The narrator will read different entries in different places. You’ll see things – lights and shapes – that weren’t there before. The linear path of the game provides a spacious platform for your mind to try and put the pattern of the story together. Along the way, however, it gets even more muddied and confusing as none of the letters recited seem to fit cleanly together. The game forces you to make up the storyline yourself and ride through to the end with all the false hopes of closure that come with real-life tragedies. The only things that remain constant are the letters addressed to Esther, and a tremendous feeling of loss. You have to surrender a certain amount of control before you can appreciate what the game is trying to show you.
I enjoyed the slow, quietness of “Dear Esther.” In an industry so thick with fast-paced, loud, violent games that are nonstop action, “Dear Esther” is like a negative image. It practically exists in spite of the loud and action-packed. I found a deep appreciation for silence I had never noticed before through playing this game, like the pauses in a piece of music, the blank page between chapters in a book, or those few seconds where conversation stops and you’re just sitting across the table from someone, pleasantly existing. I discovered that in my life of multiple jobs, classes, social events, and family matters, there was no silence. Maybe you can relate? I began to carve out time in my day to play “Dear Esther” just so I could actively be still. I was getting increasingly interested in the dynamic between the narrator and this “Esther” person, his internal struggles likening to my own. His regrets a lesson. His sorrows a warning. I found myself walking at a slower pace and studying the landscape more, hearing my own thoughts sync in rhythm with my steps. I think I even learned how to truly appreciate writing letters as a form of art and it has permeated my methods of writing ever since. In that absence of my own busyness, I found I was satiated by the barely-perceived beauty in the chaos around me.
By the time I reach the end of “Dear Esther,” I don’t want to move. The landscape is simple and stunning, the music is atmospheric and ponderous. The wind animates the hillside, grass waving in a hypnotic dance. I can almost feel it ripping at my hair, scratching at my head like some overbearing uncle at a family barbecue. The clouds move along overhead, occasionally breaking apart to let the evening stars flicker through. The landscape, the shore, the rugged path, all seem to point to the radio tower on top of the hill, red light pulsing at the calm pace of waves on a shore. It makes me sad that this journey is almost over. I pause the game and go outside for a while, trying to extend the time on whatever this feeling is.
Among the many things I love about living, playing games like this is one of them. To empathize so powerfully with another’s experience that it shapes your own is one of those juicy morsels worth savoring. Who knows if this is what the game designers had intended, but I’m beginning to find value in sitting still, despite how unsettling it is. Ironically, I’m finding it takes hard work to accomplish nothing.