What it's like watching Dear Esther live, in a theater

December 9, 2016 by John Brindle

The theater experience changes things-- a lot.

The landscape of Dear Esther is the landscape of my childhood. True, its hillsides are steeper and its cliffs much taller than those of the small Scottish island where I actually grew up. It’s a stylised version of what the Hebrides are like. But it’s similar enough that areas which many find bleak and forbidding, if beautiful, instead strike me simply as comforting and homely. It was therefore a little weird to see it filling a giant projector screen in a concert hall in central London last week as part of a live performance of the videogame itself.

This was Dear Esther Live, a staged playthrough of the game – which has just been re-released on the new consoles – accompanied in the flesh by an orchestra and narrator. Taking place at the Barbican Centre, a sprawling Brutalist arts complex in London’s financial district, it was billed as an affirmation of videogames’ "musical, narrative and artistic" capabilities: one of those collaborations between games culture and high culture which are increasingly familiar to gallery- and concert-goers in big first world cities. In front of the projector, on stage, there were real musicians performing Jessica Curry’s soundtrack, as well as a voice actor reading out the game’s monologues. And beside them was its lead designer, Dan Pinchbeck, sitting at a PC playing through the game while we watched.

I’ll confess that part of my motive for going was a sense of sheer amusement in taking my habitual art-game hipsterdom to an absurd extreme. When Dear Esther was first released as a standalone title in 2012 (having initially been a mod for Half-Life 2), it attracted a great deal of criticism for having low interactivity, and was widely accused of not being a “game” at all. Its peaceful, non-violent gameplay gave birth to the term ‘Walking Simulator’, which has since transformed from a term of derision into a thriving genre. I was never actually a devoted fan: to me, Dear Esther was an aesthetically stirring and formally interesting game somewhat weighed down by the portentious if alliterative waffle of its script. But respecting this alleged non-game so much as to literally pay someone else to play it for me felt like a delightful act of doubling down – a statement of allegiance as well as an ironic salute to the not-a-game brigade who still stomp self-importantly around Steam review pages today.

At the same time, I was also genuinely curious. In this most cinematic and theatrical of games, where so much of the player’s role consists of simply being and breathing in a space, how much would carry over into a concert hall? How closely would being immersed in its sights and sounds replicate the experience of directing my own path through them? How much would actually be lost if I wasn’t in control – and would it be just pale tribute to the original, or actually a different experience which could stand on its own? As the camera moved out across the island, and the orchestra struck up, and the narrator began to tell his story of guilt and injury, Dear Esther Live turned out to have three quite important lessons for anyone who is interested in how videogames work. 

The first lay in its gameplay. During the performance I was often frustrated by the way Dan Pinchbeck chose to play his own game. He seemed to move without curiosity – never turning the camera to probe the scenery around him, keeping it locked on the route ahead. That made sense, because he already knew everything there was to know, but it felt wrong for a game which depends on the exploration and witnessing. He also tended to stop and wait while the narrator was speaking, which I felt gave things stilted and stagey air. It separated the game’s components rather than allowing them to flow together as they do when you play it more organically.

But when I contacted Pinchbeck after the show to ask about his play style, he explained how all of these quirks were deliberate decisions. For instance, he could not use the camera to look around very much because he only had 90 minutes to complete his run. Everything had to be paced to fit the format of the playthrough, which meant hurrying through the early stages in order to give the later ones more dramatic weight. Moreover, his movement had to be intelligible and not disorientating for an audience which might well include non-gamers, and who would not be directly controlling the game themselves. “You become really aware of camera motion,” he told me – “for instance, when you’re moving over rocks and your camera’s bobbing. You almost have to try and think like a cinematographer rather than a game designer.” Such incidental movement feels natural to a videogame player, but weirder to an audience member sitting still in their seat.

The stop-start walking style had a similar rationale. Pinchbeck knew that many people would be there to listen to the musicians and the narration, not to watch a glorified Let’s Play. So he wanted to let their work take the spotlight as often as possible. “Jess kept telling me that some of these scenes were like paintings, so I had to not be afraid to just stand still and let them be paintings – to line things up visually and just let the live elements do their thing without competing with them. I’m such a twitchy FPS player, it was a real exercise in restraint.” He saw his role not as the leader of the show, the player of the game, but as the operator of something which existed to support the live performers – “to respond to them, to be sympathetic with them.”

The format produced other oddities. Pinchbeck had to skate sideways through trigger points so the music would begin while he was looking at something pretty. He had to plan his route through the game, plotting a “racing line” which avoided its numerous tangents and dead ends. Once he almost fell backwards off a cliff, though nobody seemed to notice. The point is that for a game so intensely criticised upon release for being “non-interactive” there are still huge differences between how Dan Pinchbeck played it for an audience at the Barbican and how I would have played it for myself in my home. Ironically, not being able to control it underlined how much control I would otherwise have had. For Pinchbeck, too, “it really affirmed why Dear Esther wouldn’t work as a short film, because everything in it is geared around the choices the player can make. It reaffirms to me that interactivity is not always about hard mechanics. It’s also about those subtle choices you make constantly, about pacing and attention, which can be equally as important as pressing X to reload.”

The second interesting thing about Dear Esther Live was the role of the audience itself. In New York City there is a play called Sleep No More – a nonlinear retelling of Macbeth with strong Bioshock vibes – which has been running continuously since 2011. Audience members are free to roam around the set, exploring at their own pace, and are given creepy masks to wear as they do so. One effect of this is to solve the problem of audience members being able to see each other: everyone looks, from the outside, like a character in the play (and indeed the lines between audience and performer are blurred here). But the other effect is to illuminate the fact that audience members are already performers, in the sense that they are given a strongly defined role which they must fulfil in order to make the whole thing work. In that sense, they do ‘interact’ with the plays they attend. 

I obviously would not claim that the role of ‘audience member’ in Dear Esther Live was at all similar as the role of ‘player’ in Dear Esther, nor as important on an individual level. Nevertheless, we were collectively necessary to the performance’s existence. If simply sitting and watching doesn’t seem like a very large contribution, think again about how profoundly we changed Pinchbeck’s behaviour merely by watching it. If you were playing a version of Half-Life 2 where your friend stood behind you and slapped you in the back of the head every time you were wounded by a headcrab, you would certainly consider  her presence and designated role to have significantly modified your experience of the game. The difference there is only one of degree.

And let’s be clear that the role of audience member is not actually as insubstantial as it seems. You may think that when you watch a film or a play you are simply doing ‘nothing’, that you are refraining from action. But sitting so still and paying so much undivided attention to one thing is actually pretty unnatural. When we go to the theatre we make serious behavioural commitments, undertaking to stay quiet, to not speak to anyone beside us, to enter and leave only in special cases, and to clap and cheer at the appropriate times. What better proof that being in the audience entails a departure from normal behaviour than the fact that it requires us, in 2016, to turn off and never touch our mobile phones? At any point during Dear Esther Live, one or all of us could have stopped following these rules, which in turn could have stopped the performance. We did not.

The third interesting lesson is about the structure of the game itself. Dear Esther Live used a special build of Dear Esther from which the music and narration had been removed. Where usually invisible tripwires would register the player’s progress and trigger certain sound files, they would instead send cue numbers to screens in front of the orchestra and live narrator, telling them when to start playing. The rest of the audio and visual data went down a parallel channel to the projector and giant speakers of the hall. So while we usually think of videogames as discrete and self-contained objects, this game had been gutted, its key components removed and their functions rerouted through external replacements. It was like a human body in a hospital, its kidneys usurped by a dialysis machine and its heart in cardiopulmonary bypass.

But when you think about it, isn’t this always the case? In order to understand and appreciate Half-Life 2’s conspiracy-heavy plot, we must draw on our existing knowledge of science fiction, pulp, and politics. In order to follow its dialogue, we must draw on our ability to process language, and by extension on the vast apparatus of schools, markets and media organs which has produced the English language in the first place. In order to make use of its 3D spaces we have to import three hundred million years or more of evolutionary preparation for the interpretation and navigation of 3D space. In order to run the Source engine you must first invent the universe. In other words, Half-Life 2 is has much higher system requirements than were ever printed on its packaging. It depends constantly on these external frameworks in order to be intelligible, and huge parts of its machinery flow through and depend on our culture and our bodies.

One of the clever things Dear Esther does is to challenge the philosophical simplicity with which FPS games traditionally approach the self. Most of them use the first person perspective to unify the various aspects of a human being – body, decision-making mind, and introspective conscience – in one point of roving agency. But in Dear Esther these elements, normally sequestered safely behind the camera and inside the “refrigerator box”, are externalised, spread out across an island which the game heavily implies is not a real place at all but an emanation of the protagonist’s body, mind, and memory. Just so, Dear Esther Live extracts and externalises elements of games which we normally consider integral. It breaks up the outline of what constitutes a “videogame” in order to reveal how tangled up videogames always are with things which are not videogames – how many of their core functions actually extend outside their bodies.

By removing direct  control of the game’s avatar from the audience members, it reveals how much scope there is for variation and expression even in seemingly trivial decisions. By forcing its only conventional player into an intricate and highly stylised performance, it illustrates how those decisions are always taken according to goals and for purposes which are external to the game. By gathering a large audience around what is usually a solitary pursuit, it highlights the various ways one can interact with a game without actually playing it. And by replacing some of its digital parts with live human components – a cybernetic augmentation in reverse – it reminds us how inextricably linked all videogames always are with just such messy and meaty phenomena, many of which are not, unless Elon Musk is right, happening inside a computer.

My point in noting all of this is not to propose that watching Dear Esther Live was an equivalent experience to playing the vanilla game. Even I’m not perverse enough for that. But I do want to make the case that a binary vision of ‘interaction’ – in which media products are these self-contained, standalone artefacts that we either interact with by playing or otherwise just passively observe – is totally inadequate for dealing with their actual, material complexities. Instead, as theorists like Brendan Keogh, Ian Bogost, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter have argued for some time, they are complex and sometimes contradictory tangles of large and small phenomena. No game is actually an island; we are involved with each one, and each is involved with the world.

If bizarre hybrid events like Dear Esther Live can help us remember that, so much the better. And depending on how deeply you are affected by what I have written here, you may well find, the next time you play Dear Esther, that I, and the several hundred people who unwittingly collaborated in this article, have become part of your game as well.