I am frightened. I am alone. I feel like there are eyes following my every footstep, stripping away chunks of my calm, collected guise as though clawing open a Christmas present. I don't think I can keep it together for much longer, but I can't run. My legs maintain a disarmingly leisurely pace, like they're trudging through a quicksand-flavored Jello mold. Will I spot a ghost first, or will it spot me? Where? When? How? I'm like a child who's afraid of the dark. The suspense makes me want to toss a blanket over my head until a Real Adult chases the Bad Things away. Unpredictability, as it turns out, is terror at its purest.
This is my third playthrough of Dear Esther, and it's the hardest hitting yet. I still haven't figured out this amorphous, ever-shifting puzzle of an island, and I don't think I ever will. Moreover, I'm not some improbable mix between a Ghost Buster, Rambo, and Wolverine. I'm not even sure if I have hands. I feel utterly powerless – all at once breathless with both awe and fear. This world doesn't revolve around me. I am not its master. I can only speculate as to what it all means and why I'm here.
There are infinite possibilities, and Dear Esther constantly shuffles its deck of devious plot devices – narrations, environmental clues, guh-guh-guh-guh-ghooosts – to keep me guessing. There's a certain magic to it, though – a sense of wonderment I haven't felt since I finished Ocarina of Time only to realize that games aren't un-ending playgrounds of pure imagination. Games have limits. Borders. Invisible walls. Ones and zeroes. But Dear Esther makes me feel like that naive kid again and – in the process – makes other games feel like mere child's play. In a word: incredible.
Then the peanut gallery chimes in: “Wait, I can't shoot stuff? This clearly isn't a real game. Yuck.” And now we have a very, very serious problem.
That derogatory use of “not a game” didn't really strike fear into me until I found myself perusing Fallout: New Vegas lead designer Joshua Sawyer's Formspring. On it, someone asked him if he'd had a chance to play Dear Esther yet. His response? “I got the impression it is not a thing that is actually played.” Now, maybe he was simply categorizing it more as an “experience,” but his remark still echoed in a chamber full of cracks like “Why are you reviewing this if it's not even a game?” and “There's not even a sprint key! What's the point?”
In essence, this mentality relegates more abstract and minimal games like Dear Esther, Proteus, and – to a lesser extent – even thatgamecompany's Journey to the position of an inherently inferior “other.” They don't look, feel, smell, or taste like traditional games, so clearly, they must be some lower form of entertainment that filthy serfs play in between loud lamentations over their illiteracy and inability to rebel against the landed gentry.
And yet, it's an utterly arbitrary designation. When games like Half-Life 2, Portal, and Fallout 3 litter their environments with bite-sized story cues, they're handed trophies and medals and put on pedestals made out of more trophies and medals for being pioneers of the form. “This is a story that could only be told by a game,” chime in all the folks who clutch their Shadow of the Colossus bed sheets at night while softly sobbing about how Ebert is wrong and games totally matter now.
But then we strip away the gallery of gun porn on display like it's in an art museum and – god forbid – the giant list of humdrum chores masquerading as “sidequests,” and suddenly, the experience ceases to be worthy of the title “game.” I'm sorry, how does that work again?
Really, though, I'm not calling for a big, streamers-and-confetti-plastered ceremony in which we officially declare Dear Esther a “game” – just as I honestly don't give a shit whether or not everyone thinks games are “art.” Those terms only serve to fuel the flames of eternally raging Internet arguments and pigeon hole developers into a claustrophobically tiny box. We complain day-in and day-out about how the industry fails to innovate, yet we pull out spears and emit guttural howls as soon as a game that does something truly different tries to move things forward.
Statements like “not a game” only serve to facilitate that mentality. Ultimately, though, who cares if something's a “game” or “art” or “uses too many cut-scenes” or “is just a giant quick-time event”? Did you – in some way or another – enjoy the experience? If so, it's perfectly valid and worthy of merit. End of story.
For now, though, expectations of what a game should be run rampant, and the mentality's proven positively infectious. There are only so many settings that'll support an explosion-riddled, fast-paced single-player campaign, unlockable-packed deathmatch multiplayer, and every other checkbox on the increasingly lengthy marketing survey. Gamer culture now finds itself almost entirely founded upon gritty “realistic” wars, overwrought space operas, and swords 'n' sorcery carbon copies that – near as I can tell – switch around where the pointless apostrophes are in absurdly obtuse names (for reference) and call it a day. Our medium's devolved into a brainless zombie, content to merely feast on the decaying corpses of Tolkien, Heinlein, and whoever first thought “Hey, you know what'd be a great idea? War.”
I want to go someplace new. I want to have an adventure – tons of adventures, even. But if a game like Dear Esther tries to spirit us away to some crazy new land in a novel way and all we can manage is a disinterested “So, like, where are all the guns?” then we're in big, big trouble. Yeah, the ghosts are scary and unpredictable. No, I can't hope to understand what exactly they are and what they're up to. But I still want to chase them. Just to see where they'll go.