Arts Review: Dear Esther

Tramway, 3rd November

Dear Esther straddles the boundaries of method and experience. The project began as the brainchild of Dan Pinchbeck in a strive to explore the relationship between interactivity and immersion in the video game format. From these experimental beginnings the project grew to involve Pinchbeck’s partner Jessica Curry as creative collaborator and soundtrack composer, and was eventually released to critical acclaim in 2012 as Dear Esther – in turn leading to the formation of The Chinese Room studio, led by the two.

At its heart, Dear Esther is a ghost story, with the player (or audience) wandering a remote and desolate, yet perhaps still occupied, Outer Hebridean Isle with no indication of purpose beyond an overgrown, branching path. Both structurally and narratively the game, and its live on-stage presentation, is an experience of in-betweens. Structurally, the game walks between passivity and interaction, in allowing the player to engage with the experience in full merely through on-foot exploration. There are no health bars, compasses or button prompts onscreen to divide the viewer from complete immersion with Dear Esther’s setting.

Yet in having the game’s various working components laid out before us in our viewing – with the game’s narrator, string quartet, conductor, and even the player onstage throughout – this complete immersion was denied to the audience in our passive observation. The sharpest break in the audience’s disbelief came with the occasional two-second loading screens which punctuated our journey. Narratively too, the experience occupies this blurred border realm. For instance, it is never fully clear whether the narrator’s metaphors are drawn from the surrounding landscape he explores, or whether the island is the product of his narrative – conjured in the mind’s eye of the unspecified wandering character.

Jessica Curry’s soundtrack was as integral to the night’s experience as the narrative or visuals themselves, creating an impenetrable atmosphere of mournful isolation. The overall effect was best summarised by Curry herself in her after-show discussion, as she envisioned the experience as triangular in composition: with soundtrack, narrative and visuals at each point – strengthened in structure and immersive effect with the removal of interactivity both partially in gameplay and wholly in the night’s live presentation.

[Ronan Duff – @DonanRuff]

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