Narration can make or break a story, and if you’ve ever played Max Payne then you know how effective it can be. Max’s internal dialogue creates an immersive and gritty atmosphere. We become intimately aware of his inner workings as we move from area to area and from thought to thought. Syringes, objects on the floor and broken glass, his observations of the world around him immerse the player into Max’s disintegrating reality as he delves further into the criminal element. We also become aware that as his internal dialogue becomes more and more pessimistic, so too does his character. His true development is reflected in the disjointed nature of his final dialogues. Max’s exposition makes the game; however, though it may be effective way of handling a story it’s also a limited style of narration.
Max’s authority dictates how the player interprets the experience. We can always look at his story from our own perspective, but he will always has the final say in what happens. It’s worth mentioning that Max’s dialogue is done In Media Res, so he’s narrating the events leading up to the endgame confrontation. Then, in essence, no matter what struggles you yourself experience, Max’s single authorial voice controls the development of the game’s narrative. He’s a limited third-person narrator and an omniscient narrator with an unlimited scope of knowledge. His narratological authority is only challenged during the dream sequence, but he soon gathers his wits and goes back to killing. But what would happen if Max suddenly decided to go off on a tangent about one mundane afternoon he spent walking around New York? How would a deviation from his plot oriented voice affect his authority? How large of a role should the speaker have over the player’s free interpretation of a game experience? This is something that Dear Esther tries to tackle.
Dear Esther is a dense game, and it’s taken a while to wrap my head around the experience. I’ve looked at it as an interactive film and as a narrative dependent on the player’s immersion, and each of these ideas has yielded some new understanding of the game, but none of them have been able to explain its true nature. I kept looking into more and more obscure narrative techniques, but one option struck a cord. Dear Esther is a game written using the stream of consciousness. Check out the link to the game’s script. It takes a little explaining, but when you get into it you can see how using this technique can make for some riveting storytelling.
The game’s narration is fractured, wavering and—at times—multiple. If you’ve taken a look at the link to the game’s script above, you can see how disjointed the writing is. The game wavers from dialogue to dialogue, not unlike Max. The interesting part here is that the speaker himself is unable to decipher the text. Max can look at a crime scene and say, “Oh, crap. Valkyr again.” This is where the Dear Esther’s stream of consciousness comes into play. The story is told through a series of letters addressed simply to “Esther.” The nature of the speaker and Esther’s relationship is left unsaid, but we know that the narrator confides to her the tragedies of his life. Every letter adds a new layer of complexity to the story because each reveals something about a larger and unseen narrative. As you walk through the island you are encouraged to interact with objects and the environment. As a Half-Life 2 mod, Dear Esther allows you to touch those objects and experience exactly what the narrative voice is feeling at that moment. Every time we see an object of importance, the narrator seems to recall a letter that he sent to Esther or a piece of his internal monologue. The fragments come together from these objects and help form a narrative for the player. His voice both exposes his inability to understand the text and undercuts his authority as a narrator. This dichotomy of narrative styles is what makes Dear Esther stand out.
The difference between Dear Esther and Max Payne’s voice is in their authority. You can categorize Max as a limited narrator because he doesn’t have all the answers all of the time; however, can we trust him? Sure, I can’t see why Max would lie to us. The problem here is that Max has the ability to recall the events as he sees fit. We know that his wife Michelle and his daughter were killed because of Valkyr, but we never receive a full sense of his mental state. He’s constantly taking pain killers and he’s killing hundreds of people, yet his voice is unwavering and his narration is trusted by the player. We trust Max simply because he is allowing us to interact with his past. He trusts us. The narrator in Dear Esther is confused and untrustworthy. As we walk through the game’s varied environments, he encounters objects and settings that help him bring his interior dialogue to the surface. A small meadow, a shack, bed frames, ships and the ever looming antenna located on the island. He wavers from object to object without a plot driven purpose. This creates a kind of narratological experimentation seldom seen in videogame. It adds a layer of interactive complexity.
Deconstructing Dear Esther’s narrative is a task. One could consider it a post-modern text. It’s definitely written in a way that obfuscates the player’s understanding of the narrative. In the game, the narrator alludes to several incidents on both the island and on land. There’s the car accident on the M5 between Exeter and Bristol, a tale of a hermit who lived on the island, the story of the island’s herders and the story of Donnelly’s final hours on the island; however, these tales are just fragments of the overall story. The narrator is trapped between several personalities, stories and branching narratives. As he walks through the island he becomes a construction of the stories he is telling. The post-modern condition is fragmented. This condition is shown through the game’s use of the stream.
Stream of consciousness works by engaging exactly what the character/voice is experiencing right at the moment in the narrative. For example, Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, Peter gets distracted by a motorcade of cars. The novel’s narrative voice wonders, “looking at the great motor-cars capable of doing — how many miles on how many gallons?” This is the thing about the nature of the stream of consciousness, the speaker is left indeterminate. At times during the novel you are left wondering who exactly is doing the narration, is the entire novel in Mrs. Dalloway’s mind or is an omniscient narrator looking down on her party? What Woolf was able to do was shift the narrative plane. She was able to create a novel from multiple perspectives.
Who’s speaking in Dear Esther isn’t determined. It could be Esther Donnelly, it could be Paul Jacobson or it could be the man currently walking on the island. The game’s narration is constantly shifting between multiple perspectives and narrators. At one point you may have a good sense of what’s going on and then another voice is introduced, or a figure is seen over the horizon. The shifting between voices creates multiple perspectives on the narrative’s development. As we walk our attention may be drawn to a specific object or image. The narrator does this to obfuscate the player and alienate them from the narrative.
Stream of consciousness trips up the reader and confuses in order to expose the obscurity of self the narrator suffers from. There is particularly striking scene where the narrator speaks about an inventory of things in his home. He says, “Inventory: a trestle table we spread wallpaper on in our first home. A folding chair; I laughed at you for bringing camping in the lakes.” You just walk into the small room and look at these items that have such significance to the speaker. He soon confesses that on the last morning, which we can assume is the day of his ascent of the mountain, that he will burn these objects to create an aerial, a beacon for himself. At once, he remembers his past but then burns it all away. This becomes an overarching theme of the game. You see, at once we experience a piece of dialogue one could see as insignificant or supplementary, but then the narrative plane shifts to a deeper, more entrenched theme of the loss of self. This theme is culminated in the island, the game’s only tangible character.
The island is a character in and of itself. The narrator suggests that the island is a representation of his “self.” As we get closer and closer to the top of the island the narrator’s voice becomes agitated and excited. He explains that because of a broken femur, an overdose of painkillers and kidney stones that he is delirious with pain and unable to understand his surroundings. Thus, we can see why he is such a confused narrator. With everything that’s going on around him, he in unable to escape the physical manifestation of his pain and confusion. At once, we see the narrator delving into himself as he enters into the caves. He is journeying into himself. As he exits the caves and begins his ascent his self is physically and mentally coming unravelled. This is where the analysis of the story’s plot comes in handy.
Esther Donnelly was an author who came to this island years ago to write a novel. He was suffering from syphilis and as he ascended to the top he began to die. This pain of ascendance is transferred to the narrator who is following Esther’s path. Paul Jacobson is another important character in the game. While returning from a business meeting he nodded off to sleep while driving home. He subsequently crashed into the narrator’s car and killing his partner. This crash spiritually melded both Paul and the narrator into one being unable to escape from their pain. The island thus becomes symbolic of both the pain of memory and the obscurity of the self in the post-modern era. The stream of consciousness is used to express this fragmentation through multiple perspectives, and it’s used to highlight the befuddled nature of the game’s narrative voice.
Dear Esther develops and presents its narrative in an engaging and unique way. There are games out there which use the stream of consciousness to provide players with the character’s instantaneous responses to their surrounds; however, few of them are able to use the technique to achieve this narratological depth. This journey into the self is definitely one mod that you have to download. It’ll take a couple play-throughs to get at the true narrative, but do it for the experience. Max Payne is confident, strong and engaging, but his authority affords him complete control over the narrative. To see a character lose his mind, to see a character become confused, lost and hopeless is something unique. Narration can make or break a story; ironically it’s the fragments that make Dear Esther such an amazing experience.