We were talking just a few days ago about the narrowing gap between traditional storytelling and computer games. Well, here’s something that seems to have bridged the two to create a hybrid artform: Dear Esther is a Half-Life mod that’s a sort of first-person virtuality narrative with a degree of interaction but no ‘traditional’ gameplay goals.
In a way, that it would be this sort of amateur creation to have such an effect makes sense. The mod scene has the potential to be a land of limitless creative opportunity. You’re not restricted by publishers’ requests, or the demands of your perceived audience, or your own barely competent technology. You’ve an enormous blank canvas to paint on, and all that holds you back is your imagination.
The real big deal here, though, is that 3D game engines can theoretically produce experiences that film, audio and the written word combined still fall short of; the interactive element is the key, producing a sense of emotional engagement that a ‘static’ work cannot replicate. Back to Denby, who suspects it’s the untapped potential for producing a negative emotional response that’s important:
I love my Marios and what-have-you as much as the next person, but I still feel games have an incredible untapped potential for negative emotions. Some have tried – Braid stands out for having a bloody good go – but we’re still a little too comfortable with enjoying everything we play. Any stretches of sadness in this medium tend to be restricted to self-indulgence or vapid tearjerker fare, and even they invariably make way for happy endings and bunny fluff.
Dear Esther rejects pretty much every notion of what videogames should do, and instead presents a profound look at what they could be doing. They could be telling stories that, while unforgiving and upsetting, exist within a format that no novel or film could ever reproduce. Stories that take clever audiovisual amalgamation for granted and go the extra mile, allowing the player to explore a tangible world that they would never otherwise be able to visit. In a sense, Dear Esther is pretty much non-interactive: nothing you do changes the course of the fiction, and there’s no element of challenge to speak of. But in another, far more accurate sense, the interaction is totally key. It’s your journey – whoever “you” are – and the intimacy heightens every emotion censor in your poor, overloaded brain. After watching me finish Dear Esther, my girlfriend asked me what it was I’d been playing. I turned to answer her, only to find I couldn’t speak. No words arrived. None mattered.
Of course, not everyone will want a harrowing immersive experience – think of the number of people who bemoan the lack of happy endings in modern novels – but there’s nothing to say that the form has to be negative in character. But it’s that potential, that opportunity to produce and manipulate both ends of the emotional spectrum, that demonstrates we have yet to see even the infancy of this hybrid artform.
I rather suspect that this could provide a great way for powerful fiction writers to reach a massive new audience that traditionally ignores dead-tree media. Who knows – it might even usher in a return of the writer as something more than a small-font credit line at the end of a movie or TV show. [via BoingBoing; Dear Esther screensot borrowed from Rock Paper Shotgun under Fair Use terms, please contact for immediate takedown if required]