H.A.G.S. #5: Dear Esther and Gone Home: Two Video Games for Writers and Readers
Part of the practice of trying to be an active reader over this summer—with the mindset of “book talk”—is that sometimes I’ll finish a work and fail to have much to say. Sometimes the experience of reading the book is enough (or anything I might say could be an unkindness). This past week, on the flip-side, I’ve spent some time playing two games I was recommended because they possess literary and poetic qualities. It’s fascinating, how in the world of video game fans, these elements often result in a game being delegated to art (which can be praise or a pejorative, depending on who is speaking—there seems to be an equal love and hatred out there for games of the indie variety). I’ve found interest in how the qualities of focusing on storytelling over complicated gameplay, or interacting with a lyric over blowing up space aliens, is inherently controversial. I wonder how the expectations of writers and book readers differ? These two games I’ve played—Dear Esther and Gone Home—ended up holding a lot of literary value for me, and are two games I’d specifically recommend to book readers who don’t play video games. Both games are strange, interactive journeys through settings that rely on character and lyric to create an emotional experience from a first-person perspective.
Dear Esther, published by The Chinese Room, 2012
Too often I have the experience of piece of media reminding me of cinema, but I rarely have the experience of a movie or a video game distinctly feeling literary. Dear Esther is as much of a game as it is an interactive poem. I think, in fact, calling it a poem serves its purpose more as it tends to obscure narrative order and logic to give preference to the lyric. And well, while I imagine the game’s writing might be a little too baroque and Anglo for most of the readers I know, I nevertheless love the idea of a game being experienced as a walk through a poem.
Dear Esther is experienced as a stroll (or hike) through a deserted island off the coast of Scotland. That’s…basically it. Your WASD keys are all you need. There’s no inventory, no jumping over boulders or ducking under low ceilings. No characters to interact with (at least not in any traditional manner—there are a couple of specters haunting the periphery of the game, but this is never presented in a scary way). You just walk—and listen. As you walk through the sparse scenery, audio plays at different intervals—a man’s epistolary voice addressing a character named Esther. The beauty in this game is that you move through a scenic landscape as much as an emotional one. At times, the journey feels purgatorial, archetypal, ghostly, fevered, penitent….
If there’s one element that Dear Esther does well, it’s the technique of layering. There are threads of the island’s history, personal accounts of loss, beacons and shipwrecks, the body’s physical limitations, scientific diagrams as cave paintings…. The idiomatic “road to Damascus” moves through the story too, giving a biblical significance to the titular character as well. The metaphorical road as well as as the dirt paths the player walks speaks to what the game does well: blurring mimesis, dream logic, and personal mythology. I find the use of metaphor is something a lot of indie games try to utilize, but often use in a heavy-handed or flattening way that bonks the player over a head with a cartoon mallet. Often these types of games leave the player trying to process information inside a vacuum that recalls New Criticism, where every object is an isolated motif with a “secret” meaning behind it. 20th century education has asked us to approach poetry the same way: that we demand the poem’s One True Meaning™ than just experience it as a thing that is.
Beyond literary layering, the game does well with the aural textures of waves crashing, wind howling, moody instrumentals—pushed up against beautiful caverns and pathways overgrown with shrubs. Although the poetry can sometimes become unnecessarily ornamental or extravagant, the experience in Dear Esther rarely comes across as heavy-handed or overly familiar. We are asked to participate in a parable that may not entirely illustrate a principle or lesson. For this, I am grateful. The success lies in the game not asking too much of the player, besides, perhaps, a couple of hours of their time to walk, look, listen, witness.
Gone Home, published by the Fullbright Company, 2013
Gone Home is a game that is all-too-self-aware of its format. If you think of games in the “first person” genre, you probably already immediately conjure the third word—“shooter.” The act of being in someone else’s eyes in this video game genre often subject the player to participating in or being subject to violence. So when the game begins on a rainy porch—you, in the eyes of Katie Greenbriar, a college-aged woman who’s returned from a year of touring across Europe—you expect something to be amiss.
While Katie was in Europe, her family moved to an old, secluded mansion in the Pacific Northwest. You enter a dimly lit mansion as the thunderstorm rages on outside. The house is empty. No one is home. This is the first time in this new home, and nothing is familiar. By taking the cliché setting of the presumed-haunted manor, the game creates an atmosphere that makes the player want to move slow, to check carefully through the house, detail by detail, lest they be pounced upon by some axe murderer or ghoul. Like Dear Esther, Gone Home is a game entirely defined by exploration. There’s no fancy attacks or button-mashing to get the player to the end (although there are locked doors and keys to find strategically find for narrative purposes). Nevertheless, we, of course, assume the worst. That the missing family is murdered. That some supernatural creature is going to be our end.
What you come to find, however, is not terrible, but tender. Moving through the house you find textual fragments of Katie’s mother, father, and most importantly, her sister Sam—whose lives are both more pedestrian and empathetic than anything you could have assumed you’d encounter. These small pieces of these characters’ lives are given definition via incredibly talented voice acting. Gone Home is not Katie’s story, but Sam’s. Everything Katie encounters and gathers builds a full narrative via the remnants of the recent-past: diary entries, concert tickets, receipts, old mix tapes. Gone Home is a “game” about narrative, about “show-don’t-tell”, about everything we can learn from fragments of a family tree. It it akin to a just-snapped Polaroid—the portrait slowly coming into being as the chemicals process before you.
While we do learn about Katie and some fraught elements of the parents’ relationship (and the family history of the house), Gone Home is ultimately centered around the coming out story for the younger sister, Sam. While that’s perhaps a spoiler, Gone Home is careful not to use queerness for shock value, or as a surprise, which often is the role of the coming out narrative—to provide more drama than humanity. Which is why I want to emphasize how important this game is in an lineage of an industry that often dehumanizes women characters or delegates lesbians purely for the ero-hetero gaze. The closet is an intimate space, as is the process of adolescent self-discovery, and tying this queerness to the 90s setting of a Riot Grrrl-era PNW really creates an in-depth coming-of-age story. You can feel Sam trying to rebel against heterosexuality and the oppressive gender roles placed upon young women in a time period that made teens feel united in their capacity to push back. The game continuously subverts the expectation for horror and trauma—especially queer trauma—via visuals such as a‘bloody’ bathtub revealed to be Sam dying her hair a punky cherry red.
While Gone Home is an atmospheric game, and a haunted game defined by the physical absence of characters, most of the ghosts that move throughout this old manor exist in a domestic fabulist manner (e.g.: finding a receipt about how the house is poorly wired explaining the spooky electrical shortages). Nearly all of the abnormality of the setting can be explained by realism. And while the eerie setting provides an extra depth to the over-all story, but it’s not the end-all. Where we expect a trite horror story, we receive an unexpected character study of a family that fleshes out a complicated (although often subtle) narrative of adolescent queerness, gender, class, and even race (Sam’s deuteragonist girlfriend is from Mexico and the game is careful not to write whiteness as default). Gone Home is ultimately interactive fiction, a game about all the facets of youthful desire. It takes us to a past decade of Super Nintendo, mix tapes, and zines, to provide contrast of the infinite future that exists inside the teenage imagination and heart.
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- H.A.G.S. #5: Dear Esther and Gone Home: Two Video Games for Writers and Readers - June 29, 2016
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