Why is walking in Dear Esther boring?
Why is walking through a forest in real life a delight?

Dear Esther mistakes the overwhelming detail present in the real world for a thing of value. It assumes that if you layer on enough hyper detailed textures and visuals, the world starts being interesting. In this regard it mimics the surface elements of a beautiful space without understanding the delight inherent in reality. In the end, after a brief moment of being fooled, we can't help but realize that this fake world with slow movement is literally made out of cardboard cutouts. The walk becomes a boring duty.

Consider an alternate game that also contains walking. Players can wander in Minecraft for hours and never seem to tire of new sights. Is it because Minecraft is randomly generated? I don't think so. As a thought experiment, a hand crafted world that is identical in nature to one of the generated worlds would still yield the same delights. Instead, I think that visuals of Minecraft give insight into strong systems of value. A beautiful ravine is not just a ravine. It is a potential location for a new house where you can watch the sun rise. It is nearby a deep cavern or herd of animals. A walk in Minecraft is a continual evaluation of the terrain in which we compare what we see to some optimum ideal in a fitness criteria. The value system of the game generates an internal definition of beauty.

The same can be seen when walking through the forest. We learn to see. And then we apply that seeing skill to our surroundings. I train my attention on the leaves and wonder what sort of plants these might be. I train my attention on fellow walkers and their conversations and form theories about what they might be experiencing. I watch for birds and play the ultimate hidden object game. Our bodies and senses evolved for this very activity...to make sense of the only solid reality in existence. A walk in the forest exercises a dozen interwoven value systems that contain immense utility. Beauty is everywhere and not even close to boring. Unless perhaps you are a sad soul who has never learned what to look for when walking in the woods.

There is little internally coherent value system within Dear Esther. No systems of systems. As such, there's not much utility to be gleaned from the moment to moment act of walking. It quickly becomes a task, a chore. Perhaps with the proper education in seeing I could understand why slowly moving cardboard cutouts seem so deeply fascinating.

The fetishized hyper realism of Dear Esther reminds me of the gamification movement. Folks take the surface details of points and leaderboards, strip out all systems and think they have the purified essence of a game. Non-games snatch the visuals and the superficial interaction atoms of games and think they've figured out how games generate value. One piece of the puzzle discovered and raised on a pretty pedestal. Many more left to understand.

take care,

PS: Thanks to Alex and Pat for the discussion this morning that prompted these thoughts.

PPS: This essay is only about the walking, not the narrative in Dear Esther. Think of it as a critique of a single atom in an attempt to understand why 'walking' in one scenario is a success. Yet in another context the same basic interaction pattern provokes strong negative emotions. A bad designer might say "Well, walking worked in Minecraft so it should work in Dear Esther." This is blind pattern thinking that fails to capture why a particular system works.
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