Dear Esther

Written by Dan Pinchbeck, music by Jessica Curry
Music Beyond Mainstream
Usher Hall

Dear Esther

In terms of types of entertainment, there are few that would be seen as more opposite than a theatrical performance and a video game. The idea of a relaxed sitting in a warm theatre sits at odds with the notion of the bright and frenetic interactivity normally associated with the idea of playing a console or computer in the comfort of one's sitting room.

But, as Music Beyond Mainstream is eager to show, that isn't necessarily the case. This is in part due to the nature of the semi-somnolent and dreamlike nature of Dear Esther, the video game that acts as the basis for this multimedia stage experience.

At this point, a little background is probably useful to help parse the concept of Dear Esther, which at first seems a counter-intuitive and unusual creation. The game was an early creation of games development studio TheChineseRoom at The University of Portsmouth.

Eschewing the usual design concepts of video games, points scoring, objectives and the like, Dear Esther instead used the form of a video game to create a form of artistic installation, transporting the player onto a bleak and barren Hebridean Island where they could traverse a wide but ultimately linear and curated path through, under and over the space, all the while being subjected to Jessica Curry's sombre and haunting score and fragments of narrative written by Dan Pinchbeck.

The use of first person perspective in a conflict-free, exploration-based game was somewhat revolutionary and helped give rise to the modern genre that has somewhat derisively become known as "walking simulators".

This abstracted form of storytelling allows Dear Esther to capture a rich and atmospheric sense of place and story, as the stark but believable visuals combined with the ever-present coastal wind battering at the player adds to the sense of disconnection. It's in this state that the story is unfolded through fragments of letters, addressed to the late and titular Esther, from her heartbroken and increasingly more wistful husband.

It's a curious and fractured tale that mixes stories of visitors to the island with wild and seemingly maddened rants about the man's obsession with finding the exact place where his wife died, and seeking meaning in it, in the island, and the significance of everything surrounding it.

While the journey is narrated by Oliver Dimsdale with a depth and sincerity that keep the more abstract and strange tracts from sounding overblown or ridiculous, ultimately, this is a musical experience. The stage is populated by a string quartet, piano, synthesiser and the soaring vocals of Joanna L'Estrange echoing throughout the auditorium while onscreen, behind the stage, the game is played out in real-time by Thomas McMullan, acting more as a cameraman than anything else, leading the path that takes the story on its aural journey.

Jessica Curry's sombre and haunting score is teased out in parts throughout the short performance time, as befits a happy medium between the game being rushed through and erring on the side of paucity, and the score does not fail to impress, from the tortured and stripped-back tragic lament that marks piece such as, "Moon in My Palm", or the staccato and trippingly eerie "The Bones of Jakobson". The music moves and stirs and spins a web of searching lament as well as it ever did.

That said, there are some issues with the concept of this performance as well as some slight nitpicks about the execution. Dear Esther is at heart an experience about exploring a barren island, in no form of hurry, itself a divisive game that is labeled by as many monotonous and without any real point, as it is praised for the ingenuity and beauty of its storytelling. In removing the interactivity, and prescribing the route and speed of the experience, there creates a removal from the experience. And I couldn't help but note more than a few glances at watches from those sitting in the rows around me as the experience hit some of the quieter moments.

On a more technical level, the game itself isn't well suited to being played live and, for all the considerable skill of McMullen's operation, there were moments of jarring movement and camera flips that broke the immersion somewhat, while the audio mixing also led to the swelling music drowning the narration out almost entirely at some points, which in such an abstract and strange tale only made the deciphering of the story that much more difficult.

It's still a fascinating experience and well worth experiencing, both to the theatrical audiences who would see it in the auditorium and for those who might play such a game. For the latter, however, it would certainly be cheaper and more enlightening to enjoy Dear Esther in its original form, from the comfort of your own home.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan