Dear EstherPhilharmonic Hall 26/1/18
A huge screen is on stage. On the screen, water washes ashore an island, birds gliding above. A family sit beside me, puzzled. The father leans in: “So, do you know anything about tonight?” I do; a band is going to play the score of the award-winning video game DEAR ESTHER while someone plays the game. I find myself explaining the game itself, an impromptu diplomat for the games developer The Chinese Room. It’s a narrative experience, with the narrator, Nigel Carrington, being the sole voice and source of the story. The father struggles still with what to expect and the performance itself; sometime later I catch him nodding off. Dear Esther is best compared to an art film, abstract and cryptic, which comes as a shock for many unfamiliar with similar works.
Video games as art have been a hard sell for a long time. It’s a battle of two fronts: firstly, you have to convince the average person, who sees only the blockbuster titles, that there is more to the medium than entertainment; secondly, and perhaps surprisingly, you have to convince the ‘gamer’. Like many first-person exploration games, Dear Esther was met with disgruntlement by the gaming community: “It’s not a game, you don’t do anything,” being a typical response. This is true, the only level of interaction is moving and looking. This led to the budding genre being labeled as Walking Simulators, the idea being that they’re boring and pointless. Dear Esther has the player walking the paths of a nameless Hebridean island as the narrator reads fragmented letters to their wife, Esther. It’s deliberately slow and obscure, but a narrative is revealed through the words and environment. The island’s history is wrapped up in the story, merging with the narrator’s musings on self-imposed exile and clues pointing to a fatal car crash. It’s never made clear who the narrator is in the story, whether they’re riddled with guilt or sorrow, or if the island is even real.
Tonight’s performance is no less oblique. As it concludes the audience is left still trying to assemble all the pieces. Biblical references and unreliable recollections obfuscate the truth of the events, yet, the incredibly human emotions that pervade the piece seep in, making it hard to shake well after it’s over. Even as you step away with a head full of questions, you understand the grief and hopefulness portrayed. It’s an ambient game which strips away the traditional mechanics to let the rest breathe.
It’s here the translation from computer monitor to theatre struggles. As a medium, video games are a personal experience, most apparent with the story-driven sort. The player discovers things at their own pace, can linger in the world and absorb the environment at their leisure. Dear Esther has a playtime of an hour and a half; in an industry where six hours is seen as a short game, it is incredibly brief. This is no detriment, but the performance doesn’t stop and look for one second. The island is covered in detail in the visual walkthrough: messages scrawled on walls, character’s belongings, disappearing phantoms, all flitting across the screen as we follow the wanderer’s journey. However, the exploration of the impeccably-realised world that is the core of Dear Esther is lost in favour of a timely show. You begin to question the point of it all – which is where the music comes in.
JESSICA CURRY could easily be called a video game composer, which sadly tells you nothing of her music. She’s a modern classical composer – her work is not MIDI and infinitely repeatable. Curry has worked on each of The Chinese Room’s games, but it was for Dear Esther she won a BAFTA. The score is minimal – piano meanderings accompanied by a string quartet and vocals – perfectly reflecting the mournful and forlorn tone of the game. Coupled with the narration, it’s reminiscent of Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks. The haunting strings and vocals underpin the game’s themes, helping frame the splintered voice-over.
Nigel Carrington’s performance is not to be forgotten either. Voice acting is often phoned-in or hammed-up in video games, usually as a result of the writing and casting. The script here, however, is poetic and brimming with character. Carrington pulls off the range of emotions the game takes him through; he shows vitriolic anger and intense loss within a single breath.
I’m unsure if the concert as a whole works, but the live musical performances elevate it where the live playthrough stumbles. Dear Esther is an outlier in a medium used to the longform and to replayability. On paper it works onstage; but, ultimately, it’s best in its original form.