Dear Esther

Last night I stumbled across a new computer game, Dear Esther, released only last week (14 February) on Steam for GBP £6.99, that has me captivated all day. I can’t stop thinking about its haunting beauty, its simplicity.

“A deserted island…a lost man…memories of a fatal crash…a book written by a dying explorer.” Two years in the making, the highly anticipated Indie remake of the cult mod Dear Esther arrives on PC. Dear Esther immerses you in a stunningly realised world, a remote and desolate island somewhere in the outer Hebrides.

A scene from Dear Esther, on the shoreline with the beacon in the distance.
A scene from Dear Esther, on the shoreline with the beacon in the distance.

I’m not a prolific computer games’ player. I have a handful of titles: LEGO Star Wars 1 and 2, Star Wars Battlefront 1 and 2, Battlefield 2, Bad Company 2and some of the later Call of Duty games: Modern Warfare, MW2 and Black Ops.

The more hostile titles I like for the cinematic experience—it’s like seeing a film but you get to control the main characters. I never play them online, I don’t like the idea of trying to ‘kill’ the characters of other humans. I prefer to challenge the computer instead. It’s a fine line, I know, but its a line I chose to draw and stand by.

Dear Esther has none of that. The main character—the only character—in the game walks everywhere. No running, jumping or climbing trees. No weapons. No picking up items. Just looking. And yet it’s the most beautiful, most cinematic, most immersive game I’ve ever seen.

The game began as a mod for Half Life 2 but was picked up in 2009 “by a professional game artist, Robert Briscoe, for a complete overhaul of the visuals and level design, in the hopes that it would be able to overcome it’s early shortcomings as a mod and be able to fulfil its true potential.”

In my opinion it has more than achieved its vision. Not only is the artwork breath-taking, the music (by Jessica Curry) is gorgeous, and the in-game narration (by Nigel Carrington) is sublime.

Dear Esther was created by Dan Pinchbeck, listed as Writer and Producer, a researcher based at the University of Portsmouth as part of a project funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council to explore experimental game play and storytelling.

Which is where some of the controversy lies. Many are claiming that Dear Esther isn’t a computer game, that it is rather an interactive story or simply art. Whatever it is I think it’s beautiful and mournful and intriguing. I can’t wait to start playing it for myself.

Spot (1999-2012)

Spot, the cat, stretched out sitting on a blanket

Yesterday afternoon, around 4:40 pm, I received a telephone call at work from Jane. She was crying. “Spot’s dead,” she said.

“What?! How?!”

Jane had gone out after lunch; the boys went to nursery, and Isaac went to his grannie’s while Jane went to play tennis. They all returned home just after 4:30 pm; they hadn’t been out for more than a few hours.

It was Joshua who found Spot, who was lying in the doorway between the kitchen and the utility room. He went to find mummy.

“Why is Spot lying on the floor?” he asked her.

He was already in rigor mortis so must have died shortly after Jane and the boys left the house. By the time I arrived home shortly after 5:10 pm Spot was getting cold. Jane had wrapped him in a white towel and moved him into the study.

Reuben told Jane that we needed to take him to the hospital and after the doctors had seen him he could “meow at me again”. She explained gently that Spot would never meow again and that we needed to bury him. Joshua then instructed Jane that we should bury him in his cat carrier.

“The cat carrier would be too big to bury with him, darling,” she told him.

It seems that Joshua wanted to make sure that Spot was kept safe. He seemed upset by the idea that he’d just be buried in a hole with nothing to protect him from the earth. Oddly, the idea of cremation didn’t seem to upset him too much.

We all went through to the study and knelt on the floor next to the body of poor wee Spot, stroked him, gave him cuddles and said our thank yous and goodbyes. He was a lovely cat, gentle and fun. He had been so good with Reuben, Joshua and Isaac; so tolerant of their rather enthusiastic cuddles, and only very occasionally swiping them with an open claw when his tail or fur was being pulled a little too much.

“Spot has died,” Reuben told me as we sat on the floor next to his body.

“Yes, he has,” I said.

“One day, later,” he said, “we need to bury him in MUD!”

“That’s right, darling.”

Over dinner—Jane’s dad had very kindly gone out for fish suppers for us all—we decided that he should be cremated. Our garden isn’t huge and there really wouldn’t be enough room to bury him as he was, cat carrier or not.

So Jane phoned the vet and about ten minutes later she and Reuben took Spot’s remains to the East Neuk Veterinary Centre in St Monans. Reuben gave him a cuddle and they returned home.

As I was putting Joshua to bed he lay with his head on the pillow, looking at me.

“I’m sad about Spot,” he said.

“Me too,” I said with tears rolling down my cheek.

“Why,” he asked in his usual prolonged, two-tone, toddler way, “did Mummy and Reuben leave Spot at the vets’?”

I wiped by eyes and explained that after someone dies there are two things we can do with a dead body: bury it or cremate it. Mummy and Reuben took Spot’s body to the vet so that it can be sent to be cremated, and then we’ll get his ashes back, which will look like a jar or tub of dust. We’ll then be able to bury his ashes in the garden.

“Does that make sense?” I asked him.

There was a pause as he seemed to be processing what I’d said. “Yes,” he said before grabbing his beloved toy dog Copper, cuddling him tight to his chest, rolling over and falling asleep.

Jane went out to her church home group, and I didn’t have the most productive of evening. It involved more crying than I had planned in my diary for that evening. I was fine until I had to feed Spot’s brother Smudge.

We had acquired Spot and Smudge while living in Inverness back in February 2000. We’d gone to lunch with some members of the cathedral congregation and returned with two kittens, and they’ve remained inseparable ever since. Until yesterday.

I’m going to miss him, particularly when he’d come and jump up on my lap during morning prayer in my study.

Rest in peace dear Spot. We loved you, and thank you for loving us too.