So Eric Swain has an article up at PopMatters about Dear Esther. I have written about Dear Esther extensively on this blog.
Faithful readers of this blog will know that I have a particular weird love for Dear Esther. I’ve played it several times, listened to the OST more times than anyone should listen to any OST, and obviously I AM A TRUE, 100% PASSIONATE DEAR ESTHER FAN.
Or maybe all of that is nonsensical.
I like Dear Esther a lot, and I want to point out Swain’s article because a. it is engaging with the work still, which means that Dear Esther might have some staying power and b. It is a smart article, but I disagree with it, and I want to point out why.
On top, I think that the base assumptions that Swain makes aren’t supported by the text, quite on purpose. He writes that
The player is the narrator who is Esther’s husband and who has lost a part of himself in her car crash. That much is obvious. But there is so much more to the story than that. Donnelly, Paul, Jakobson, and the hermit all may or may not all be the same people given they way that the narration weaves in and out of his thoughts. The player is already dead, forever circling the island. The ghost story is about a ghost and that ghost is us. The player is haunting an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland forever running in circles, using both his feet and his mind.
I don’t think there is a single “obvious” thing in the diegesis of the game. Additionally, I don’t think that these things can be separated off so easily from one another. Donnelly and Paul and Esther all slide into one another. Everyone is part of the same stuff, the same prematter of the “back then.” They are history.
Swain’s reading of the game then makes the jump to the fact that the player character, at the end of the game, instead of actually dying, just begins again. Which, if we’re going to take this seriously, is interesting. However, the only thing that separates this from every other game experience is that Dear Esther makes this somehow more poetic. Why isn’t every life, every restart, in every game the exact same thing? Games, by their very repetitious nature, are like Hell. Characters live in short bursts, die, and when their franchise is over they are eradicated from existence totally.
So I think that Swain is overreading for the sake of poetry. That is his prerogative of course, and I would be a liar if I didn’t do it myself from time to time.
I am writing this response, and cautioning against Swain’s haunting/purgatory reading, because I think that it devalues the actual narrative we are presented with in Dear Esther. If the game is merely a haunting, then it is infinitely repeatable. First as tragedy, then as farce, as Marx said. The game, in repetition, becomes the enacting of a ghost’s life. There is no escape.
I have to read the end of the game, the throwing of oneself off of an aerial and into the sea, as a “real” event. It isn’t something being undertaken by an incorporeal ghost, poignantly throwing himself into the sea. It is the death act of a lived being. This is crucial to my connection with the game.
To me this is the horror of Dear Esther. Locked into a fate of eternal repetition and utter meaninglessness. It isn’t your traditional horror story because it isn’t within the work itself that the scares reside. It’s what you bring out of this ghost story into the real world that scares the most: the ceaseless doubt of one’s own actions and search for meaning. As the cold wind and moments of lonely contemplation leave their mark, we as the narrator haunt the island, and as a consequence, Dear Esther haunts us.
Which is a beautiful thought, but the possibility of repetition into infinity seems more beautiful than anything else. Infinite lives aren’t horror; they’re Groundhog Day. The knowledge that a man, broken, kills himself after dragging his diseased body across an island is much more terrible, and painful, than the idea that he merely haunts.
So when I am haunted by Dear Esther, it isn’t because I have slid into the protagonist’s shoes. It isn’t because I am playing over and over again. I am haunted because that pure blackness without end exists. When the camera moves out into the ocean and the sound of waves crashing exists alone–that is when I am haunted.
It doesn’t go on forever. It happens once and stops. There’s no way out. That’s the horror of Dear Esther.
(side note: I don’t think that horror ever resides in a work. It lives in the body of the viewer, in her relationship with objects in the world, even if those objects are fictions [like in video games].)