Damascus and Golgotha 5


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.” 


Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.

  • Petroveetch

    That’s a great arti­cle mis­ter! I’m delight­ed to dis­cov­er this blog by the rec­om­men­da­tion of Gamasutra.
    As I said this kind of inter­pre­ta­tion is per­fect for Dear Esther. Your alert­ness for the sym­bol­ic tracks for sure give me a bet­ter insight and key for under­stand­ing the game. On the other hand that reas­sures me in the charge again­st Dear Esther, as it mar­gin­ilizes the dis­tinc­tive game com­mu­ni­ca­tion forms. But hey, thats a great chance to show it to non-gamer friends inter­est­ed in pop­u­lar art (…if not the fps con­trols).

  • Very well said. This is along the lines of some­thing I’ve been want­i­ng to write for a few years now, but have never been able to put into words. In any case, even if I did write some­thing, it wouldn’t be quite as elo­quent as this. The par­al­lels to Christ have man­aged to slip by my analy­sis so I thank you very much for this new, refresh­ing per­spec­tive. I also think there is a lot more that can be done on sub­ject of reli­gion and Dear Esther, espe­cial­ly con­cern­ing the story of Lot’s wife and how it relates to the nar­ra­tive. I don’t care whether Dear Esther is a game; it is one of the most bril­liant, emo­tion­al sto­ries I have ever expe­ri­enced and if it wasn’t a game I may not have dis­cov­ered it. I wish more peo­ple wrote arti­cles per­tain­ing to Dear Esther because it is just so fan­tas­tic and com­plex and I enjoy the game so.

    • Ben Milton

      Thanks, I appre­ci­ate it. I agree that the Lot aspect needs devel­op­ment. Hopefully oth­ers will come along to work on that ele­ment. I’ve been very sur­prised that no one else (that I can find) seems to be writ­ing about these themes in Dear Esther. The game is scream­ing for some in-depth inter­pre­ta­tion beyond the stan­dard “guy’s wife gets killed, then he goes crazy and com­mits sui­cide,” but no one seems to be inter­est­ed.

  • Hi Ben,
    I don’t know if you read these com­ments any­more… but I hope you might see this. (I’m also email­ing the main onto­log­i­cal­geek email as I have just dis­cov­ered them and love what goes on here!)

    I just played Dear Esther for the first time last night. The thing that BLEW MY MIND was the depth of bib­li­cal allu­sion through­out the game. In all the pre­views, reviews, and praise I had never once heard any­one men­tion spir­i­tu­al con­tent in the game. 

    I am a Christ-follower (are you as well?) and imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized the vers­es from Acts, the ref­er­ences to Lot’s wife, even lit­tle things like the mast of the bro­ken boat before you enter the caves that stands like a cross in sil­hou­et­te again­st the sky.

    I have co-founded a min­istry with anoth­er gamer friend of mine (www​.apolo​me​dia​.org) and would LOVE to talk more, fea­ture this arti­cle, maybe even write a new Dear Esther to it as I think there is a lot of untapped sym­bol­ism and spir­i­tu­al con­tent here. That is real­ly our focus: find­ing the spir­i­tu­al con­tent in games and using it as a door­way to get gamers talk­ing about it.

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