Found Stories: Dear Esther


In my earlier discussion on Found Stories, I mentioned three interactive stories that I wanted to examine. This first of these, Ruins, is the oldest and perhaps the simplest in terms of approach. Dear Esther is more recent and takes the form of a dimensional first person, um, well, not a ‘shooter’ as there is no shooting… a first person wanderer? The story begins on a dock at the shores of a deserted island, probably somewhere in the Outer Hebrides or maybe an outlying island of the Orkneys. Without knowing anything about this ‘game’ it would be easy to think that there will be monsters or ghosts or something that will need violent dealing to, but there is not. There is a mystery… but it is not an extrinsic mystery. This is where things get interesting.

Rather than a romp in adventure land, Dear Esther plays into the grand tradition of literary fiction, in that the mystery of the story is an introverted mystery of the self. I remember somewhere once reading that genre fiction is obsessed with exploring the outer world and literary fiction (for wont of better terminology) is obsessed with exploring the inner world. If this is a definition that we are happy to accept, then Dear Esther is without question a literary story.

Where Ruins is a meditation of life and relationships and the possibility of death and loss, Dear Esther is a meditation on the self, relationships and death of a more immediate hue. I cannot be more precise than that rather vague phrasing because I will give away too much of the story. There is, I suppose, something of a twist, although I suspect it is easy enough to predict if you are in story-reading mode whilst playing out this fiction. That said, I confess that when I took myself through Dear Esther I was stuck in the mode of thinking of it more as a game than a literary piece, so the ending floored me. It left me quite speechless. I think I must have spent a good five minutes afterwards staring at the screen, though I’m sure I’d have seen it coming a mile off had this been a short story in print.

Which brings me to thinking about what sort of story this would be if it were in a book. If I were to compare Dear Esther to an author, Tobias Wolff comes to mind: dark, troublingly insightful and sometimes wondrous. A morning of Dear Esther and an afternoon of reading Tobias Wolff would go well together.

A few minor and interesting points are also worth mulling over here. Of the three titles I’m examining all involve aloneness, not necessarily loneliness, but being alone. These are introverted stories. And, curiously, both Dear Esther and Gone Home involve subplots about someone’s not overly successful authorial attempts. Both treatments of the idea of a person putting all their love into a story that the world does not love back are treated quietly, and both subplots are easy to miss… they have to be inferred from peripheral hints… as if the act of interlarding a story about having been unsuccessful at writing stories demands its own quiet and self-effacing concealment. I don’t know if this means anything profound other than that the sorts of people who want to write a Found Story are very likely also the sorts of people who are in love with the romance of being the novelist, which in the end, perhaps should not be surprising.

Next in this series I’ll take a look at the most successful of the three titles I want to examine, and perhaps also the most ambitious: Gone Home.


About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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