What’s a Game: From Myst to Dear Esther

No game is an island unto itself.

But a lot of games do take place on islands, some of my favorites among them. Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island, Wind Waker, Dear Esther, and Far Cry 3 are all games I loved that share a common setting. Outside of their choice in locale however, these games as a whole are fairly dissimilar. Some are old, others new, some are “AAA”, others indie. The only other real common thread here tying these games together, besides the fact that they take place on islands, is that they are all touch stones for me. They all help to comprise what my view of what games as a whole are, and color how I view each new experience individually. I want to talk about two in particular that have been particularly impactful on me, Myst and Dear Esther. Both of these titles were seminal experiences for me, which have changed how I view the way that immersion and interactive narratives are treated in the video games.

It’s important here to note that Dear Esther has taken a lot of heat regarding its status as a proper ‘game’. While 2012 was certainly a renaissance for indie games, this title, in which you explore an island for hours while a narrator shares a fragmented story with the player by reading letters addressed to the titular Esther, was the recipient of backlash for its lack of perceived ‘gamey-ness’. Devoid of explicit goals, enemies and NPC’s, kill-screens, puzzles or other common gaming tropes and mechanics, people questioned whether or not it truly is a capital “G” game. Alternative proposed classifications of it being an “interactive story”, a “virtual promenade”, or (rather boringly) an “anti-game” ring hollow to me. On the balance, this line of inquisition seems fruitless. Realistically, if this piece of software did not call itself a “game”, how else would it reach an audience? The question I ask is: what is the value in classifying Dear Esther as anything but a game?

Let’s make a detour before continuing.

I love Myst, it was one of the most influential virtual experiences on me growing up. Clearly I was not alone in my sentiment, as the game was the best-selling PC title of all time until the debut of The Sims. A mysterious first-person puzzler, it was fairly ground-breaking in its day, one whose success hinged on drawing the player into a captivating and stunningly rendered (for its day) island to explore. The game also was largely notable for its approach to its narrative, which was fleshed out through environmental storytelling and unreliable characters. The puzzles were more logical and not as arbitrary are those seen in many of its contemporaries whose solutions often relied on seemingly arbitrary combinations of inventory items. That said, I would argue that the puzzles in Myst weren’t as memorable as its achievements in world-building and creating immersive environments. Regardless, it was a landmark game that left a legacy.

Now that we have some context, let’s look at a couple of quotes from Robyn Miller, the co-creator of Myst, which were given as part of a postmortem talk at this year’s Games Developers Conference:

Gamers love puzzles, but we weren’t creating Myst for gamers. We were creating the game for essentially non-gamers.

Myst was fairly experimental and innovative at the time. Robyn, along with his brother Rand who also co-developed the game, clearly weren’t concerned with making a title that would satisfy a target demographic. They weren’t looking to build a conventional ‘game’ that would satisfy traditional fans of the puzzle or graphic adventure genres. This is important to note because puzzle games up to this point had relied on a certain kind of wit and unspoken code that created a barrier to entry for most ‘non-gamers’, something that the Millers sought to overcome.

More interesting however, was his response to the question: “Why was it so essential that there be puzzles filling the game.”

Oh it’s not essential at all. But they slow people down, and then they get to experience the world a little bit more slowly. But yeah, for me, I just love being in the world. I do like the story, puzzles I think tend to strengthen, they can tend to strengthen that story a little bit more. If there could be a game, I’m sure there could be a game with no puzzles, and where you could have story, somehow. I’m sure that could work.

Here Robyn gives the raison d’être for the puzzles in Myst. The game was not designed with them at the forefront of the mind, the primary goal was not to give players intellectual challenges to overcome. The Millers took a straightforward approach in their brain teasers because they wanted anyone, gamer or otherwise, to be able to overcome them. The real reason for the puzzles, was to help pace the game, to spread out the experience, and in doing so give the players the time to soak in the environments and story that they had created. Given Robyn’s answer to the query, I wonder: what would Myst have looked like if they hadn’t bother to include puzzles at all?

In my estimation, it wouldn’t have been so different from Dear Esther. An island to be immersed in and explore at your own pace, a fragmented and disconcerting story told by unreliable narrators—I find the similarities striking.

This begins to bring us back to the question at hand. Games are about providing players with interactive experiences they find valuable. Now, you don’t have to agree with me that Dear Esther or even Myst does this, nor do you have to agree with Robyn that a game like Myst could be enjoyable without its puzzles, but given the surprise success that both games achieved (albeit on much different scales), you would have to admit that there’s certainly something there. There is no value in defining games based solely on our personal values and excluding those that do not meet some specific set of requirements. Everyone’s history with the medium is different, and how we describe ‘what games are’ is fluid and ever-changing as our collective experience grows.

Myst Island

With increasing frequency over the last few years, you hear the vanguards of the gaming community call out for more inventive and diverse experiences. We want games of different scales and sizes, games to amuse us, to intrigue us, to make us feel, to break out of tired conventions. Yet, when a title like Dear Esther emerges, one that is admittedly minimalistic and experimental, attempts made by some to box it out as an “anti-game” and place it in a ghetto of “hipster software” leave a bad taste in my mouth. In its heyday, Myst also received blowback for not meeting the standard definition of what a “game” was, and yet it undeniably contributed to making the medium as a whole that more textured and rich.

I value Dear Esther greatly. I don’t expect everyone else to, not by any stretch, but anyone who would seek to diminish its value by qualifying its status as not actually being a ‘real game’ only helps to diminish the culture as a whole. While I doubt that Dear Esther will have the same impact that Myst did, its contribution is still valuable. Arguing the semantics of “what a game is” and whether Dear Esther qualifies is as useful asking the how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Games aren’t islands unto themselves; they exist in an archipelago of their contemporaries and predecessors. If we try and wash one away or separate one from the others, however small an island it may be, the landscape is made less rich on the whole. Let’s then not seek to rigidly define what the experiences we accept should be, but instead encourage diversity and experimentation. We should extol games to push boundaries, not disparage them for doing so. In the end, having a more robust and varied options benefits everyone. Be it Myst, Dear Esther, or something wholly different, you never know what will resonate with and inspire the next generation of designers and players.

Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

Nick Hahneman

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