New Directions in Videogame Storytelling: The Mysteries of Dear Esther and Journey

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Videogames have always told stories. Pac-Man is a Serling-esque grotesquerie about an insatiable glutton whose hunger directly imperils his life but also acts as his salvation. Missile Command and Defender are bleak, apocalyptic warnings of a future undone by technology. Of course those stories were either subtext or limited to whatever words would fit on an arcade cabinet’s artwork or attract mode.

A debate has long raged within the gaming community about whether the medium is suitable for storytelling. After all, these are rule-based competitions first and foremost, built by large teams of creators, and lacking the singular authorial intent of a novel or a movie from an auteur director. Why should we evaluate them all like a comp lit assignment? Others point to games like the just-released Mass Effect 3 as examples of how the interactive nature of the medium can make stories more meaningful and personal than movies or television. Everybody tries to minimize the significance of the debate, talking about how tired they are of having the same circular conversation, even while regularly and stridently voicing their strongly held beliefs.

Mass Effect 3 has reignited the issue. It’s the current standard-bearer for the sort of heavily cinematic storytelling that dominates mainstream blockbusters, with copious cut-scenes and dialogue broken up by brief bursts of gunplay. It’s a movie where you control the action scenes and gently nudge the story in various directions via dialogue choices. You directly influence the story, but are largely a passive observer outside of several key moments.

Two other recent games that take a more interesting approach to narrative had already fanned the “game vs. story” flames in certain gaming corners. Both Dear Esther, an independent PC game, and Journey, an exclusive downloadable game for the PlayStation 3, try to elegantly unite play and story while also leaving an indelible emotional imprint upon us. They can be seen as reactions to the type of sprawling, patchwork storytelling found in games like Mass Effect 3. They reach different conclusions, though, with one largely avoiding standard game mechanics while embracing traditional narrative techniques, and the other streamlining both into an elemental twist on the standard heroic adventure.

“[Dear Esther] is the right story for this particular medium, used in this particular way,” says Dan Pinchbeck, writer and co-designer of Dear Esther. “It takes advantage of the inherent isolation you find in many first-person shooter [FPS] games, it plays with the normal process of discovering the answers, it co-opts the player’s expectations of what they will find, which helps build that dawning sense of dread. Really, it’s following-up the long design history of FPS games and just pushing them in a slightly different direction.”

Dear Esther is a game without the play. It takes place in the first-person, but you can’t pick up any objects or shoot any aliens. You don’t solve any puzzles. You can’t perform improbably high standing jumps whenever you’d like. All you can do is walk around a desolate island and let the story slowly unravel.

Dear Esther is a ghost story told by an unreliable narrator. It uses the immediacy of the first-person perspective commonly employed by shooters to minimize the distance between player and story. As you explore the island, walking through caves, empty shacks and a shipwreck-strewn shore as if you’re prowling a barren battlefield in a nonviolent Modern Warfare, always inching closer to the radio tower that flickers in the distance, you’ll hear occasional bits of narration that obliquely fills in the history of this island and your character. At certain moments you’ll notice brief glimmers of figures in the distance, ghostly memories of the lost ones mentioned in the narration. It’s a sad elegy for your character but a novel new direction for first-person games.

It looks like a game, and the controls feel like a game, but that’s where the similarities end. “We wanted to see if you removed all the traditional gameplay elements from a first-person game, leaving just a space and a story, whether that would be enough for a rewarding, engaging experience,” Pinchbeck says. “This came from a lot of thinking about the power of worlds in these games, how they exist independently of those traditional gameplay loops and sustain a lot of player focus around them. It seemed like a logical step to push that a step further and see if it worked.”

It’s tempting to label Dear Esther as interactive fiction, but you don’t really interact with it. You stroll leisurely through Esther’s beautifully rendered environments while the story is parceled out in small dollops at specific points. The narration isn’t always the same each time you play the game, but the conclusion and overall story don’t vary. It’s virtual tourism with a monologue.

Pinchbeck agrees. “Interactive fiction usually refers to work where the player can affect the narrative structure in a non-trivial way,” he says. “Esther doesn’t really have that. At the least, it’s closer to a game than anything else.”

Dear Esther’s recurring mysteries are occasionally illuminated by environmental clues and writing on the sides of cliffs, but most of the story is imparted through the voiceover narration. It’s not that fundamentally different in purpose than the dialogue of Mass Effect 3, although Esther’s stream-of-consciousness voiceovers are less concerned with plot than poetry. These deliberately written passages aim high, with a literary tone unusual in videogames. They’re occasionally overwritten, but when combined with starkly beautiful environments and an almost open indifference towards the player, they create an arresting atmosphere with few obvious antecedents. You may not like Dear Esther’s florid writing or lack of concrete goals, but you’ll also not soon forget this game.

Dear Esther looks to literature and film for its narrative inspiration, but Journey stays closer to its own medium. It boils the typical heroic journey found in most adventure games down into a universal form, eliminating dialogue and text and focusing primarily on play.

In avoiding dialogue and lengthy cut-scenes Journey seems like a pointed rebuke of gaming narratives. Of course it’s the game’s story that gives it power and that makes it more than just a rudimentary adventure. The fact that that story is told elliptically and without ponderous voiceovers or walls of text makes Journey even more potent. As designer Jenova Chen said in a recent conference call, games spoil “that sense of wonder” when they explain themselves too much . “We want to avoid ruining that for you,” he continued. “We would rather the players discover everything themselves.”

Journey‘s hero indulges in a smattering of game-like behavior while traveling wordlessly through a series of massive environments that are largely devoid of life. You can run and jump and float with the help of a magic ribbon. You’ll unlock stations that replenish your ribbon’s power, collect icons that make the ribbon longer, and free lifelike swaths of flying fabric that can help you in your journey. You can also shout wordlessly, both to call for help from that fabric or to communicate with the occasional online interloper. Journey feels like a videogame, with some of the basic actions you’d expect, but with none of the conflict. The only win condition is walking (or floating) from one end of the game to the other.

Journey’s wordlessness makes it more elegant than Dear Esther and light-years removed from Mass Effect 3 and its ilk. It makes its case through play itself, from the constant motion and primordial appeal of its mythic quest, to the mysteries of its interactive environments and unspeaking partners. Journey’s universality hints at the profundity that Esther reaches out for. It also makes for a story that’s so stripped down and noncommittal that you might struggle to feel the emotional resonance it’s striving for.

Maybe you won’t think Journey or Dear Esther succeed as stories or games. Maybe they’ll touch you emotionally in ways you never expected from a game. Both take risks, though, and try to find new paths through the old debate about mechanics and narrative. Both tell concrete stories in ways that largely haven’t been attempted in the past. Most importantly, both present unique and memorable experiences, which are too often a rarity in the world of videogames.