Dear Esther, this week I have encountered several island ghosts

I’ve just finished playing Dear Esther, a critically acclaimed interactive story / computer game made by Portsmouth University spin-out and indie games maker, thechineseroom.

You can see the beautiful trailer here. The premise is, well, I don’t know. You wash up on a “Hebridean” island that looks sort of generically Scottish, rifle through an abandoned shack, and then start pootling round the island. WASD, no jump or run: pedestrian-only movement. Random snippets of dialogue are geo-tagged to certain locations, so you get a garbled story of sorts popping up wherever you go. A woman called Esther may have died in car crash on the M4. Was she your wife? Horizontal incisions in the chalk cliff warn that plague once ravaged this island. A man named Jakobson lived in a hut you stumble across – he died old and unloved on a cold, rocky beach. How do other hermits get here? Your femur may be broken, or it may be a gear stick; swallow more drugs and carry on.

The dialogue is J.G. Ballard meets earnest AHRC-funded scribe. Which isn’t a bad combination really. Although the temptation to critique the “paper boat” (see trailer) pretension of a lot of the snippets of chat is ever-present, this is easily kept at bay by the beauty of the landscape. Perhaps because there is nothing that demands your snappy, mouse sweeping attention, you slow down to dawdle when you hear grass rustling in the wind, or see moon-shadow actually arcing with your progress across the bay, you halt to inspect some fluorescent algae on the cave wall (no bad guys to shoot: ironically, the game began as a Half Life mod).

So for the second time this week, I found myself caught up in a ghost story set on a Hebridean island.

In this one, at first the island seems tangible: though ruined, it may be real but simply forgotten. Then, you catch a few glimpses of ghosts; shadows on hill spurs, or figures just around the corner. When you descend to the “cave” in Act Two, and stare at neon scrawls – “up unto the body of Damascus: a city no more” – your physical footing slips. Where and who am I? You may be a ghost yourself. There are no answers.

The ending is, well, see it for yourself. It is magnificent.

But is the landscape of Dear Esther ultimately a glitzy stage that floats free of the guts of life and death? It may be pretty and beguiling, but there are no stakes, little at risk but a pricking of your own sense of melancholy. There can be no “reveal”, neither rug nor carpet to be pulled.

Vallay, on the other hand, is an actual island that is windy, dreich, and properly Hebridean. It was, for a time, home to the Beveridge family, a story which my colleague Fraser MacDonald narrated in a truly great academic seminar last Thursday. Unlike the finely rendered landscapes in Dear Esther, his story of the Beveridges and their house has provenance. It is anchored, for now anyway, in corroding archival fragments which have been gathered together through years of painstaking research.

The story of the dissolution of a “family and its estate is a slow business”, and best not truncated here. Read here instead.

Fraser’s “Beveridge story” at once follows and transcends the strictures of academia. It has fidelity to the mundane tragedy of a linen-merchant’s family ruin, while rejecting the subordination of that story to the demands of explanatory history. Yet, at the same time there remains a desire for an audience: an urge to raise the tale from specific and forgotten local melancholy to wider recognisable tragedy, and thus claim significance and, perhaps, an authority of sorts.

Why else would we care about the Beveridges, if it did not shed light on our own mortal predicaments? No: too myopic. One take-away from the talk was just how much damned hard work it is to be faithful, as a researcher, to the testimony of someone who is long dead, who you have never met, and probably wouldn’t have liked anyway… This is not a question of the make-believe madness of Jakobson in his hut on an imaginary spur of land in Dear Esther, but of Errie Beveridge, dis-avowed by his family and committed to institutional mental care for 50 years of his life. Errie once lived; Jakobson is mere script. The imperative when we face the unknowable past is to be ‘just’, whatever that might mean, to the unknown dead. But how does that need translate to imaginary characters who never lived on a fake/possibly-real island? In the end, might how we think of Jakobson matter as much as how we think of Errie?

Ironically, a comparable (no, it is not comparable but comparative – see future post on academic metrics) amount of labour went into making both a computerised rendering of an imaginary island and an archivally-rooted evocation of Beveridge’s Vallay. One is a descendant of scholarly curiosity and ‘Big House’ monumental architecture, the other is a descendant of AHRC relevance-panic and the corporate indie-games-making University.

Both are really great.

Perhaps the past, both imagined and real, is undead – not alive and vital like the present, but in possession of its own kind of dull energy. If so, the past is yet susceptible to a Warrior-Priest and a good roll on the D20, and can be vanquished by the lowliest of characters.