Playing Pretend: Thoughts On “Dear Esther” and other Walking Simulators

I was halfway through the haunting storyline of Dear Esther when a curious thought swam its way through my skull:

“Should Bioshock Infinite have had less fighting?”

This was an odd thought to have for many reasons, not the least of which being that they are two completely unrelated games.

Except for all the ways that they aren’t.

Dear Esther, like indie darlings Gone Home and The Stanley Parable, is what many refer to as a “walking simulator”. It’s one of those designations where the definition really depends on who you’re talking to. But whether it’s used as a term of convenience, a grinning tilt of the hat, or a mocking jab, the result is always the same: there aren’t a heck of a lot of flamethrowers or zombie Nazis. Focused on storyline and atmosphere, the vast majority of games like these tend to be spent slowly peeling back the layers of a world and a plot.

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There are some who argue that these games aren’t really games at all. Their reasons for this range from the lack of interactivity, rules, and puzzles to the lack of flamethrowers and zombie Nazis. All of which are decent arguments. But I stand by the “gameness” of Dear Esther for the same reason I adore many other walking simulators—the sense of play.

We’ve become immensely absorbed in the rules-heavy interactivity of games in this day and age. And that includes everyone—not just what we would see as a traditional hardcore gamer. Taking a step back from video games, anyone can tell you that we’re in something of a board game renaissance. Hell, even your weird aunt plays Settlers of Catan, and she got arrested for burning Harry Potter books at your local Barnes and Noble, claiming they were “queerbait witchcraft on par with a three-penised Freddie Mercury”.

So with everyone caught up in fourteen pages of rules and trading bricks and sheeps and what not, it’s easy to forget what “play” is really all about: it’s about pretend.

Which brings me back to my original, seemingly-out-of-the-blue question: Should Bioshock Infinite have had less fighting?

This is a question of love, mind you: Bioshock Infinite was more than your average mindless shooter—especially to me. It was my favorite game of 2013. It was filled with rounded, fully realized characters strung merrily in a complex and beautiful plot line. It is officially the first game that ever made me cry tears that weren’t directly related to the frustration of playing something that was mildly more entertaining than an aneurism.

It is a beautiful game with a storyline that made me sob like an orphaned Russian mouse. Those tears were bottled as a marital aide, and are currently circulating through the black market in Jakarta. Bioshock Infinite is a blissful package of story and character that absolutely enveloped me in its world, and I’m certain it wouldn’t have been a quarter as popular if not for all the bullets and flesh-eating crows.

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But would it have lost its emotional impact with them? I seriously doubt it. Because the element of play was so infused into what you were engaging in that those moments of blowing open robot presidents and dodging tin bird golems often felt like filler. Exciting filler, sure. And there’s even an argument to be made that without your visceral fight to protect the lovely Elizabeth, you wouldn’t feel as invested in her relationship with you. Which is valid. But couldn’t that investment have just as easily come from any number of other options? Maybe—maybe not. But I think we can all agree that the shooter choice was the correct one in order to get this story to as many people as possible—at least in the FPS-centric world we live in today.

But it’s important to recognize that it isn’t the only option.

Which brings me back to Dear Esther. Which is indeed a game. Because play is about taking on a role. Whether that is the role of a Navy SEAL executing terrorists or the role of a tormented man who misses his dead wife doesn’t matter. In both Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Dear Esther, you’re being taken for a ride, and occasionally you get to steer.

Dear Esther and other walking simulators like it are the game equivalent of Weezer’s “Come Undone”—you take the thread of the sweater and walk away with it, unraveling and unraveling until Rivers Cuomo is topless and exposed to the harmful UV rays of the sun. And like those proto-emo, sun drenched nipples: it’s not for everybody.

It is a laborious, arduous process that involves making your way across a scenic and gorgeous island as the story is slowly made known to you. It is beautifully written and filled with the same tragedy, love, and hope that so enamored me to Bioshock Infinite: thus the constant comparisons. There is no opportunity to hold down a button and run your way through it, either—so take your time. And choose a time that you’ve got an hour or two to devote to it: Dear Esther can be finished in one sitting, and really should be for the sake of absorbing everything it has to offer.

It’s a beautiful game: one with a story that makes for a unique and wonderful experience. And it is a game. A game that is equal to so many films, television shows, plays, and works of literature I have experienced in the past. And unlike many of those other works of art, I felt like I was a part of it. I was the one turning my head and taking it all in. I could have been done in an hour or I could have been done in ten hours. I felt absorbed by it. I was a true part of its hope and strife and tragedy and beauty.

Tell me how that would have been greatly improved by a minigun.

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