Damascus and Golgotha

Spoiler Alert!

Dear Esther resolutely, and I think intentionally, resists any kind of complete analysis, but over the months since I first played and replayed the game, a kind of shape has been forming in my mind, one that grows and builds upon itself each time I go through it. The narrative in Dear Esther is famously opaque, but hopefully this commentary on the dialogue and events within the game will help to flesh out the underlying themes of the work, if not the specific narrative details.

From one of the opening letters:

Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis. I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim.”

The island and the Narrator are closely related. Somehow, he believes that this lonely place can offer him solace and meaning in the face of the loss of Esther. To understand the island, for him, is to understand the death of his wife.

The mount is clearly the focal point of this landscape; it almost appears so well placed as to be artificial. I find myself easily slipping into the delusional state of ascribing purpose, deliberate motive to everything here. Was this island formed during the moment of impact; when we were torn loose from our moorings and the seatbelts cut motorway lanes into our chests and shoulders, did it first break surface then?

I am drawn by the aerial and the cliff edge: there is some form of rebirth waiting for me there.”

The mount and the beacon come up again and again. It’s particularly relevant that its position seems so intentional to the Narrator, as if it’s something he must approach and scale. It represents the culmination of his search. The meaningfulness of seemingly random events is a theme in Dear Esther, even in the gameplay structure itself, which makes random changes each time that it’s played. It’s a theme that will reemerge later.

It’s also important to note that while the narrator speculates that perhaps the island was created by the catastrophe that killed Esther, he also notes that the aerial is strangely permanent. “I was expecting just the aerial and a transmitter stashed in a weatherproof box somewhere on the mount. It had an air of uneasy permanence to it, like all the other buildings here; erosion seems to have evaded it completely.” The aerial has a kind of eternal quality about it that hints that whatever it has to do with the narrator’s suffering, it cannot be his alone.

This theme is reinforced as the narrator begins to draw connections between the suffering of his own body from the kidney stones, the island, and the car crash. All suffering, physical and psychological, becomes one, becomes the overwhelming question the narrator pursues.

My neck aches from staring up at the aerial; it mirrors the dull throb in my gut where I am sure I have begun to form another stone. In my dreams, it forms into a perfect representation of Lot’s wife, head over her shoulder, staring along the motorway at the approaching traffic, in a vacuum of fatalistic calm.

Dear Esther. I have found myself to be as featureless as this ocean, as shallow and unoccupied as this bay, a listless wreck without identification. My rocks are these bones and a careful fence to keep the precipice at bay. Shot through me caves, my forehead a mount, this aerial will transmit into me so. All over exposed, the nervous system, where Donnelly’s boots and yours and mine still trample.”

The game brings up again and again the theme of rational determinism versus transcendent meaning. A bible on the ground next to a science text book. Chemical and anti-lock brake diagrams painted on the walls next to scriptural verses. The rational elements attempt to explain the physical causes of Esther’s death: the brakes giving out on Paul’s car as he drove towards them, the alcohol molecules that may have impaired Paul’s or the Narrator’s judgment. The scriptural verses, on the other hand, point relentlessly forward. They are scrawled again and again on the caves and the cliff faces, and mirror the events of the car crash closely.

And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing; and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.”

The answer, the passage claims, does not lie here. They lie ahead, through blindness and suffering. Damascus is the place where all will be revealed, and Damascus is also the aerial, as is clear from the writing on the cliff. The passage to the cliff, however, leads through the caves beneath the island, and parallel the blindness of Saint Paul in particular, and the dark night of the soul in general. “To climb the peak, I must first venture even deeper into veins of the island, where the signals are blocked altogether. Only then will I understand them, when I stand on the summit and they flow into me, uncorrupted.”

This journey through the caves is marked by three falls, a parallel to Christ’s three falls on the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Suffering, which leads to Golgotha. Further symbolism is found at the bottom of a pool in the caves, where Roman coins are scattered, an allusion to the story in which Christ draws a Roman coin from the mouth of a fish to pay the tax, saying, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” an apparent response to the tension between rationality and transcendence witnessed before in the game. The player also plunges into and re-emerges from water three times within the caves. The sacrament of baptism, as well as its death/rebirth symbolism come to mind.

The fall into the caves has gravely injured the narrator’s leg, breaking the femur, and the last leg of the journey is make in excruciating pain, up the side of the mount to the aerial. Like Christ’s accent to the top of Golgotha, the narrator knows that he will die once he reaches the summit. However, in doing so he in some way realizes that his suffering was not in vain, that it came from a place, not of coincidence but of overwhelming purpose.

The stones in my stomach will weigh me down and ensure my descent is true and straight. I will break through the fog of these godforsaken pills and achieve clarity. All my functions are clogged, all my veins are choked. If my leg doesn’t rot off before I reach the summit, it will be a miracle. There are twenty-one connections in the circuit diagram of the anti-lock brakes, there are twenty-one species of gull inhabiting these islands , it is twenty-one miles between the Sandford junction and the turn off for home. All these things cannot, will not, be a coincidence.

Blind with panic, deaf with the roar of the caged traffic, heart stopped on the road to Damascus, Paul, sat at the roadside hunched up like a gull, like a bloody gull. As useless and as doomed as a syphilitic cartographer, a dying goatherd, an infected leg, a kidney stone blocking the traffic bound for Sandford and Exeter. He was not drunk Esther, he was not drunk at all; all his roads and his tunnels and his paths led inevitably to this moment of impact. This is not a recorded natural condition: he should not be sat there with his chemicals and his circuit diagrams, he should not be sat there at all.”

Suffering and purpose come together. Esther’s bitter, unjustified death, the Narrator’s own despair and guilt, the pain of his kidney stones and shattered leg, all participate in an event far greater than themselves, which provides for them the purpose they so desperately need. Although the narrator may not realize it, the fact that his journey has ended at Golgotha makes it clear enough to the player what this event must somehow be: the suffering and death of God. Dear Esther is videogaming as passion play.

Salvation is not the primary concern of Dear Esther, understanding is. The narrator’s journey, whether ghostly, metaphoric, or dreamed, is one that is never entirely complete. Along with the narrator, the player is invited to return endlessly to the island, spiraling closer and closer around the culmination at the aerial, wrestling with its contradictions, given no pat answers. Only the last letter offers the player some hint of consolation.

Dear Esther. I have burned the cliffs of Damascus, I have drunk deep of it. My heart is my leg and a black line etched on the paper all along this boat without a bottom. You are all the world like a nest to me, in which eggs unbroken form like fossils, come together, shatter and send small black flowers to the very air.

From this infection, hope.

From this island, flight.

From this grief, love.”

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