Dear Esther by The Chinese Room may be contested about its status as a “game,” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bring a tremendous amount to the table. Dear Esther utilizes standard first-person-shooter conventions to create an audiovisual experience completely different from anything anybody in the literary or gaming communities has ever seen. Better yet, The Chinese Room pulls this off masterfully, creating an experience that sticks with the player.
You’re plopped on the edge of an island on the Hebrides, unsure what landed you there or how long you’ve been there. There’s a boat on the dock but it’s dilapidated and half-sunk. The dock house is also in a state of ruin, as if it’s been there for a hundred years, torn apart by the ocean and the plant life taking back the land from men. From the start, you are presented with motifs such as paint cans and themes such as alienation and isolation. Throughout the piece you’re presented with biblical allusions and scientific models scrawled on the walls, contributing to one’s understanding of the narrator’s tale.
The narrator is coping with the loss of a woman named Esther who died in a car wreck, but identity and continuity are unclear. Characters are given multiple names and multiple identities. For instance, Paul is the man whose drunk driving triggered the car crash which killed Esther. Paul chooses to hide in his home, living in seclusion after his unintentional killing. Jacobsen is a hermit who lived on the island the player navigates. He lived in seclusion on the island and occasionally accepted gifts from the natives of the island. The thing is, though, that the character is Paul Jacobsen. If you’re confused, you’re in the right place. This intertwining of stories and chronologies and the timeless nature of the island creates a multifaceted story which could be analyzed for months in a classroom.
Imagery is a tremendous portion of the experience of Dear Esther. You’re walking through the tale instead of just reading it. You’re seeing the island for yourself and you are free to progress as you wish at the timing you are comfortable with. If you take the time to explore the island, your knowledge and understanding increases substantially with symbolism and intertextual references scrawled on walls. Even the ruins of the island and the traces of characters left behind will allow the player to create an understanding of his or her own.
Playing Dear Esther does something for literature that has never been done before to this extent: it creates an ethos that one cannot simply attain by way of reading text. It allows the player to become the story, rather than letting a reader imagine it or a viewer watch it. You allow your own understanding to be shaped by the way that you choose to explore the game. Additionally, the dialogue and visuals change slightly with every playthrough, allowing a brand new experience with the game every time it’s played.
With all of these different means of storytelling coming together in Dear Esther, it could provide a new understanding of literature and storytelling to the high school student. Students would be able to understand the process of analysis of theme and the different literary techniques which enhance storytelling, as well as enhancing the abilities by allowing the student to analyze something familiar several different times in several different ways. The themes and ideas are easy to understand, but the game itself is not. It requires a high level of thought, but the chance for a student to engage in that level of thought with classmates with a medium that is generally seen as a fun way to pass the time could serve as an extremely effective gateway to reluctant readers and a brilliant teaching tool to students struggling with literary analysis.
Plus, it’s an amazing game.