Dear Esther and Exegesis

The idea behind every critical engagement with a medium is exegesis – which, when the definition is provided (“Explanation, exposition [of a sentence, word, etc.]; esp. the interpretation of Scripture or a Scriptural passage” according to the OED) makes my opening phrase sound tautological. But the examination of a text or the parsing of a game have connotations that reach beyond the mere act of reading or playing. It is the associated verbs in that definition – “to explain” and “to expose” – that render exegesis an active, and not a passive, function. To interpret and to explain always involve a measure of thought and argument, the framing of a reading that explores what the text’s latent meaning is. This goes beyond the high school English class question of “What is the author trying to say?” The author – or the text – does not say anything beyond what is written on the page. The ideological, emotive, or what-have-you arguments it makes are made solely by the reader or the player.

But that is not to say there is no rigour to exegesis, or to take refuge in the facile notion that all art is ultimately subjective, and therefore I can have whatever reaction I want to the book thank you very much. You can’t really go beyond the boundaries of the work – say, arguing that Romeo and Juliet is about aliens – and there are better readings and worse readings, insofar as the better readings make a more involved exploration of the text; compare two readings of Lolita, one that argues the book is merely a vicarious exploration of pedophilia (thereby ignoring Humbert’s reflection on the immorality of his actions near the end of the novel) and another that takes into account said turn. One is thinner than the other, and disregards a substantial part of the text. Ultimately, the former is less valid because of its blind spot.

Then, of course, there is the question of how useful some readings are. The twentieth-century critic Northrop Frye proposed a model of criticism that invokes the different archetypes at play in the construction of different literary works. Genres like tragedy and elegy are explained as belonging to “the sunset, autumn and death phase,” which includes “Myths of fall, of the dying god, of violent death and sacrifice and of the isolation of the hero.” But of what use is this kind of exegesis? It becomes a way of filling in the blanks, of noting superficial similarities in the relationships between different types of characters – while, it must be noted, collapsing their differences. So Link can be identified with a solar predisposition, in that he repeats the model of Siegfried or Beowulf – so what? Beyond the association, no greater insight is given into either the character or The Legend of Zelda as a whole. The reading sits there, flaccid, and fails to incite any fruitful conversation save for sterile arguments of type.

And conversations are important to exegesis. Different explanations and interpretations demand answers, even if the responses they generate are corrections, refinements, and even refutations. Criticism is an ongoing process, and not a finite act. Hell, one way to judge the artistic quality of a novel or a game is to examine the depth, breadth, and length of the criticism involved – if the “final word” on a game has yet to be written due to the confluence of conflicting voices, then the game is certainly complicated enough to support such an apparatus: Call of Duty‘s most recent incarnation certainly failed this test, if the universally pejorative conversation surrounding the game is any indication, while Bioshock still serves as fertile ground for discussion. If the game is continually inspiring new conversations, then so much the better.

Again, it is the most useful criticisms that matter, and it is in this capacity that I find certain criticisms of both Dear Esther and Gone Home frustrating. The metacritic page for Dear Esther is particularly illustrative in this respect: the majority of negative scores are given alongside the statement “This is not a game.” This line of criticism reminds me of the seventeenth-century Académie Française and their demands that all dramatic works follow the Aristotelian Three Unities: unity of action (one main plot; minimal subplots), unity of place (the stage should represent one geographical location, such as a single palace, or, even better, a single room), and unity of time (the play should take place over a day at most). While excellent plays were produced under these stringent conditions (such as Corneille’s Le Cid), their stringent enforcement hamstrung the ability of one such as Voltaire to appreciate Shakespeare, in part due to the Bard’s utter failure to conform to these unities – quoth the Frenchman on Hamlet: “One would take this work to be a fruit of the inspiration of a drunken savage.”

The failure of both criticisms (leaving aside the nationalistic elements of Voltaire’s invectives) lies in their inability to take a work of art on its own terms; instead, a formalized yardstick is used to measure the whole work and find it wanting: Henry V is a failure because it fails to conform to the unity of time, when a more productive way to look at the play’s jumping from England to Agincourt – collapsing time and geography into a simple scene change – would be as a self-conscious reflection on what we would now call suspension of disbelief. Similarly, the criticism that Dear Esther is bad “because it is not a game” is inutile because it refuses to grapple with the game’s monomaniacal linearity and its fragmentary narrative and why these features are important to its portrayal of death, solitude, and grief.

The main difficulty with Dear Esther, to my mind, is the fragmentary narrative. Though the letters that accompany the player’s exploration of an anonymous Hebridean island imply a cohesive story, it’s hard to piece it together on just one playthrough. That the titular Esther is dead, and that the narrator is her love is the consensus reading. A car accident is referenced repeatedly, and most strikingly in that surreal, ethereal scene that comes after the player has leaped into the water during the game’s third quarter; that Esther died as a result of this accident is obliquely implied in different fragments; her cremation is made repeatedly clear: “It cannot be the chimney that delivered you to the skies.” Paul is the presumed killer, though whether he or the narrator was drunk is unclear – that Paul died and was brought back is stated repeatedly, though without any real consistency. Only two details are certain: Jakobson was a shepherd on the island a few centuries back – though, crucially, the exact nature of his death is left ambiguous – and Donnelly, dying of “laudanum and syphilis” decades ago, wrote an unreliable account of the the island’s history. Though this summary is far from certainty, one thing should be clear: ambiguity is an essential part of Dear Esther. This is the conceptual stumbling block to a conventional understanding of the game: where we are so damned obsessed with canonical veracity (and only via the merest expression of plot in its most basic form), we are left confused when presented with an uncertain work.

Looking closer, we can see the uncertainty on a micro level by looking at the contradictions between two letters:

They found Jakobson in early spring, the thaw had only just come. Even though he’d been dead nearly seven months, his body had been frozen right down to the nerves and had not even begun to decompose. He’d struggled halfway down the cliff path, perhaps looking for some lost goat, or perhaps in a delirium and expired, curled into a claw, right under the winter moon. Even the animals shunned his corpse; the mainlanders thought to bring it home unlucky. Donnelly claims they dragged it to the caves to thaw out and rot, but he is proving an unreliable witness.


They found Jakobson in early spring, the thaw had only just come. Even though he’d been dead nearly seven months, his body had been frozen right down to the nerves and had not even begun to decompose. His fingernails were raw and bitten to the quick; they found the phosphorescent moss that grows in the caves deep under the nails. Whatever he’d been doing under the island when his strength began to fail is lost. He’d struggled halfway up the cliff again, perhaps in a delirium, perhaps trying to reach the bothy’s fire, before curling into a stone and expiring.

One letter claims that Jakobson died returning from the depths of the island, while the other claims he died descending the hill. The contrast is, by its lonesome self, insignificant, but it does serve to exemplify the inconsistent narrative that the fragments present. There are similar examples: is Paul the motorist dead for twenty-one minutes following the accident, as the following fragment implied:

I will drag my leg behind me; I will drag it like a crumpled hatchback, tyres blown and sparking across the dimming lights of my vision. I am running out of painkillers and am following the flicker of the moon home. When Paul keeled over dead on the road to Damascus, they restarted his heart with the jump leads from a crumpled hatchback; it took twenty-one attempts to convince it to wake up.

Or is he fine and dandy, as this fragment implies:

They had stopped the traffic back as far as the Sandford junction and come up the hard shoulder like radio signals from another star. It took twenty-one minutes for them to arrive. I watched Paul time it, to the second, on his watch.

An explanation for the former fragment’s mention of a resurrected Paul is found in yet another fragment, which implies that the narrator is confusing Paul the motorist for Paul from the New Testament:

When Paul keeled over dead on the road to Damascus, they resuscitated him by hitting him in the chest with stones gathered by the roadside. He was lifeless for twenty-one minutes, certainly long enough for the oxygen levels in his brain to have decreased and caused hallucinations and delusions of transcendence. I am running out of painkillers and the moon has become almost unbearably bright.

Again, there can be no coherent, unified narrative in Dear Esther. Even when one leaves the game behind in order to examine the script, the contradictions and confusing conflations of different details make it impossible to come to a single, unified conclusion about the flow of events.

Of course, this collection of contradictions within the script is to a certain extent besides the point as each experience with the game is randomized: different fragments play on every different playthrough, furthering the ambiguous experience. The one constant, of course, is the island itself, which is curiously peppered with all manner of symbolic graffiti and litter. Here the fragments have an explanation: “In the hold of the wrecked trawler I have found what must amount to several tons of gloss paint. Perhaps they were importing it. Instead, I will put it to use, and decorate this island in the icons and symbols of our disaster.” But rather than taking this as a literal admission that various decorations are the work of the narrator, we can view them as another kind of writing on the island, akin to Donnelly’s book: both are explanations made by unreliable narrators in memoriam of a hidden character, Esther and Jakobson respectively. Indeed, the luminescent graffiti of braking mechanisms, alcohol molecules, and so forth support the opaque hints to Esther’s fate – that is, we only learn of Esther what another has written about her.

But beneath this referential game is the island itself: a collection of ruins both modern and antique, marked, at its highest point, with the promise of enlightenment. The road up to the aerial is scarred by biblical graffiti: “it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus.” The reference to Acts 9 is obvious, and it brings with it associations of revelation, understanding, and – just as St. Paul was cured of the blindness that afflicted him after the journey’s epiphany – a promise of clarity. That the aerial has been the object of the player’s journey throughout the entire game turns this journey into a quest for understanding, for some sense of conclusion or coherence. The tenors of this metaphor are many: it can represent the narrator’s attempt to parse the grief he feels over Esther’s death; or, as Ben Milton argues, it can represent a video game “as a passion play,” but one where “Salvation is not the primary concern… understanding is.”

Yet the game does offer a conclusion. Though the exact narrative is impossible to put together, and though the player is left with confusing shards of one man’s broken life and his contradictory attempts to restore the whole, the exploration of grief and the dissolution that death instates is still answerable. There are two final fragments, and though they present oppositional stances, they nevertheless are able to meld together into a single point. The first, in a word, deals with tombstones:

Dear Esther. I have burnt my belongings, my books, this death certificate. Mine will be written all across this island. Who was Jakobson, who remembers him? Donnelly has written of him, but who was Donnelly, who remembers him? I have painted, carved, hewn, scored into this space all that I could draw from him. There will be another to these shores to remember me. I will rise from the ocean like an island without bottom, come together like a stone, become an aerial, a beacon that they will not forget you. We have always been drawn here: one day the gulls will return and nest in our bones and our history. I will look to my left and see Esther Donnelly, flying beside me. I will look to my right and see Paul Jakobson, flying beside me. They will leave white lines carved into the air to reach the mainland, where help will be sent.

The narrator has left markers – painted diagrams, scored statements – in memoriam of those he feel should not be forgotten, with the promise that “There will be another to these shores to remember me,” that “help will be sent” to aid in this memorialization. But the next letter goes beyond mere temporal permanence:

Dear Esther. I have burned the cliffs of Damascus, I have drunk deep of it. My heart is my leg and a black line etched on the paper all along this boat without a bottom. You are all the world like a nest to me, in which eggs unbroken form like fossils, come together, shatter and send small black flowers to the very air. From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back! Come back…

This one speaks of transcendence: from each item in the list, an opposite shall arise to match its respective source. The promise of healing, freedom, and love come as an answer to the knot that Esther’s death has tangled our narrator into. But both of these letters represent the twin responses to grief: respect for the dead, and respite for the living. The emphasis is different in both, but by no means are they incompatible. And this finality is what explains the island’s linear outline: the letters on the map may be confusing, but the path towards this reconciliation is clear.

And who are we to bear witness to this struggle? My personal thesis is that the player is just that: an unknown third party who follows in the footsteps of these different characters, reading the narrator’s fragments for significance in the same way that the narrator read Donnelly’s book. This is not, of course, to claim that Dear Esther is a purposeless celebration of the idea of ambiguity; the exercise of exploration and understanding is the conceit of the game. The player’s attempt to come to some kind of understanding of the game mirrors the narrator’s attempts to come to some sort of understanding regarding his grief. While the discussion of whether or not Dear Esther is a game or not is still opaque to me, one might be able to muster a counter argument by invoking this kind of cerebral interaction: while it might be fair to say that all games require some kind of mental reflection, Dear Esther demands it by virtue of the importance it places on exegesis – and here the etymology of the word can offer insight: from the Ancient Greek exēgeisthai, meaning “to lead out of.” The demand that Dear Esther places on the player is that of understanding, of making sense of the island, of leading oneself out of the confusing tangle of contradictory fragments and obscure references and to the distant promise of revelation.