Touched By The Hand Of Mod: Dear Esther

By RPS on May 15th, 2009 at 2:45 pm.


[Friend of RPS and General Editor of Resolution Magazine, Lewis Denby, had a revelation about games through Half-life 2 mod Dear Esther. We thought it’d be an idea if he told you all about it.]

Gaming revelations arrive in the unlikeliest forms. Through the thick, sodden haze of British autumn, peeking out past the thrill of zombie infestations and post-apocalyptic wastelands, I discovered a tiny little gem that totally defied my expectations. I’ve sat on this for too long. I want to tell you about it. I need to tell you about it.

Truth be told, though, I’ve no idea where to start. It’s difficult to know how to begin a piece like this, a piece in which you know you’re going to effuse wildly about something few will have heard of and less will have tried out. I’ve written and re-written this opening countless times, discarding each and every one. Too gushing. Not gushing enough. Too vague. Too pretentious. Nothing works, and everything descends into incomprehensible nonsense or obscure cultural reference. None of us want that. So let’s keep it simple:

Last year, a Half-Life 2 mod changed my outlook on games forever.

In a way, that it would be this sort of amateur creation to have such an effect makes sense. The mod scene has the potential to be a land of limitless creative opportunity. You’re not restricted by publishers’ requests, or the demands of your perceived audience, or your own barely competent technology. You’ve an enormous blank canvas to paint on, and all that holds you back is your imagination. But that’s the thing. Most of the stuff out there is bland. A quick trawl through ModDB.com is likely to throw up an endless stream of level packs without context, stories without character. The terrorists are invading. Or is that the aliens? Often, it’s hard to tell and even more difficult to care, which is why Dear Esther is one of the most poignant and important freebies out there. If you’ve a copy of Half-Life 2 on your Steam account – and, let’s face it, you really should have – you owe it to yourself, and to the exciting future of gaming, to download it.

Dear Esther turned me into something of a fanatical child. I was so taken by it that I drafted a thousand-word interpretation of the story and emailed it to the creator. Every time it crosses my mind, I scour the internet for people’s responses to this glorious masterpiece, reading through forum threads and blog posts and whatever else I can feasibly locate. Sometimes, I’ve been delighted that others share my views. Other times, I’ve been horrified by people’s remarks. One player, on a forum I can’t remember, gave tips for speeding the game up. “Bunny-hop around the island,” he said. “It totally destroys the atmosphere, but it’s more fun.”

If you’re looking for fun, I’ve no idea why you’re playing Dear Esther in the first place. This is fearless, classical tragedy. It ends with the sound of a heart monitor flatlining, for goodness’ sake. Lead designer Dan Pinchbeck describes it as “an interactive ghost story,” but the inevitable connotations of that are misleading. This isn’t about bumps in the night or any other hackneyed horror archetypes. It’s deep, heart-tugging, emotional trauma. Dear Esther is indeed ghostly and ethereal, but it’s all thematic notation. Really, the only horror is in realising how truly heartbreaking this tale is.

Some people will tell you it’s not a game. Depending on your definitions, maybe it isn’t. You play as… well, that’s never revealed, and since it’s all in uninterrupted first-person, you’ve no way of finding out. During your time on what initially appears to be a remote Hebridean island, a disembodied voice will read fragments of a series of letters, written to a woman named Esther who we’re never introduced to. And you’ll explore, climbing higher and higher up the mountain in the centre, piecing together the proverbial puzzle and trying to establish, often in vain, just what this place is.

And that’s it.

I’m doing the fanboy internet-browsing thing again. Here’s a comment I like: “it’s an unremarkable island full of something strange.” It goes some way to hitting the mark of describing what Dear Esther is all about. At first, it’s just an island, seemingly uninhabited except for a few specks of wildlife. But as you progress, and as you become filled with the melancholy of this nameless man’s memoirs, you begin to notice things. Obscure patterns carved into the cliff face. Paper boats dumped on a beach. A tiny figure up ahead, peeking through the mist for a split second before darting out of sight once more. You never fully learn what the island is, but there’s more to it than first meets the eye – and, by the finale, you’ll have cooked up a tantalising set of theories, each barmier than the last.

This unrelenting ambiguity arises from a particularly clever mechanism within Dear Esther, one that randomises which parts of the script you hear at a given point. “The gulls do not land here any more,” the opening gambit might inform you. Or the narrator might say, “I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island.” None of it links together in any coherent way, and as the author succumbs to dilerium, so does his writing. His notes become hazy half-memories, contradicting one another and escaping reality. We hear of a tragic accident on the motorway near Wolverhampton, but it blurs and intertwines with a broken leg on the island. We’re told of a driver, accused of being drunk but, in spite of his wrecking guilt, still feverishly protesting his innocence. He becomes a syphallitic shepherd who died decades ago. We’re told tales from the Bible. We see them scrawled on the rock, painted over with complex, obsessive chemical equations. It’s the story of a terribly disturbed mind, and the horrendous inevitability of his demise – and it’s horrible.

I love my Marios and what-have-you as much as the next person, but I still feel games have an incredible untapped potential for negative emotions. Some have tried – Braid stands out for having a bloody good go – but we’re still a little too comfortable with enjoying everything we play. Any stretches of sadness in this medium tend to be restricted to self-indulgence or vapid tearjerker fare, and even they invariably make way for happy endings and bunny fluff.

Dear Esther rejects pretty much every notion of what videogames should do, and instead presents a profound look at what they /could/ be doing. They could be telling stories that, while unforgiving and upsetting, exist within a format that no novel or film could ever reproduce. Stories that take clever audiovisual amalgamation for granted and go the extra mile, allowing the player to explore a tangible world that they would never otherwise be able to visit. In a sense, Dear Esther is pretty much non-interactive: nothing you do changes the course of the fiction, and there’s no element of challenge to speak of. But in another, far more accurate sense, the interaction is totally key. It’s your journey – whoever “you” are – and the intimacy heightens every emotion censor in your poor, overloaded brain. After watching me finish Dear Esther, my girlfriend asked me what it was I’d been playing. I turned to answer her, only to find I couldn’t speak. No words arrived. None mattered.

This is a mod.

And that’s kind of relevant, for two reasons. Firstly, we don’t want to pay for this kind of thing. Hell, look at The Path: people are upset that even exists, let alone that its developers had the guts to charge seven quid for their remarkable efforts. But this is the sort of thing I’d love to pay for. It seems illogical that we’ll all happily splash out fifty pounds for the same old story of science-fiction revenge, yet aggressively avoid anything that encourages us to engage our brains and challenge ourselves a little. Dear Esther was created on a shoestring budget for a research project. It’s painful to think such a thing needs that sort of academic justification just to get made, but I’m gleefully pleased that it did, whatever the reason behind it.

But more importantly, Dan Pinchbeck isn’t a game designer, or a professional writer. He’s a talented researcher and lecturer, but game design isn’t his job. For all intents and purposes, this is an amateur creation – an amateur creation that genuinely left me entirely speechless.

Oh, it’s terribly broken. You’ll get stuck on scenery, and might even fall out of the game world once or twice. Voice clips will trigger over one another, even if you do resist the urge to bounce moronically around the world to kick the pace up. And it is really, agonisingly slow. Too slow. It might all put you off.

But a little birdie tells me Dear Esther could be receiving a complete overhaul later this year; might be rebuilt from the ground-up, removing its fundamental flaws and technical inconsistencies. This is a truly exciting prospect, and leaves me more watery-mouthed than any other upcoming release you might care to mention. As it stands, Dear Esther is a remarkable piece of blemished beauty. To experience something so stunning, but something more complete… I’m not sure I can effectively convey my joy in mere words.

There’s a section towards the end of Dear Esther where the narrator repeatedly refers to the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. As you climb the mountain, the spellbinding music driving you upwards, you read Biblical verses scrawled on the walls. You reach the top, and turn a corner. The word ‘DAMASCUS’ is carved in enormous, chunky lettering ahead of you. Your destination.

I’m converted. I’m not sure how, why or what to, but it’s there.

Give it a go. It might convert you too.

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133 Comments »

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  1. futage says:

    @Lewis

    Depends what you’re trying to make, people make architectural visualisations, simulations, explorative interfaces with 3D engines and there’s nothing wrong with that. You can use eggs and flour to make a cake or use them to make a sauce, but you’re fucked if you try to make a spade.

    There’s no problem with innovation, the problem is with misuse. Trying to push the boundaries of games as a form is great. Throwing out what has been learned in games over the past 30 years and thinking that filling the void that leaves with angsty nonsense is just dumb like a cake-spade.

  2. Stupoider says:

    Oh wow. That was quite a breath-taking post. :o I guess I have no choice but to download and try this mod!

  3. Larington says:

    Umm, I’ll have to give this a try after I’ve finished all my assignments, hopefully by then I will also have forgotten the ending.

  4. Lewis says:

    Trust me, that’s really not a spoiler.

  5. dhex says:

    i look forward to giving this a whirl. nice piece.

  6. Muzman says:

    Kind of interesting how aspirations to “art” typically bring out people refuting the notion even exists or can be defined. But fail to be “game” and you’re screwed because we all know exactly what that is.

  7. negativedge says:

    More PC types need to play Silent Hill 2, which effortlessly did many of the things people are hoping to see in games like The Path and Bioshock back in 2001.

    Hi dracko.

    wait whoa I see dhex! dhex come home

  8. PaulMorel says:

    a nice mood piece, but personally, my reaction to the game was, “meh.”

  9. Thirith says:

    @futage: What’s your take on adventure games? I’m asking because I think that purely in terms of gameplay, they’re pretty primitive – yet a fair number of gamers have found them compelling exactly because of the way they marry gameplay and narrative (or, perhaps more interestingly, narration).

  10. Dracko says:

    Lewis: Striving to be “art” means making bullshit concessions, mostly, just so you get the recognition of an elite.

    But I guess Man strives to be Judged. :(

    And what’s wrong with being a game? What’s wrong with exploration and curiosity? Isn’t that what play is all about and isn’t that what your piece is praising in this mod, warts and all?

    The moment someone says they want to “stir up” the medium by making “art”, the only proper response is to ignore them. Or if you’re feeling benevolent, tell them to try and make a game first. It’s not like those don’t take blood, sweat and tears to craft.

  11. Andy says:

    has anyone got a decent link? Filefront will only give me 30k/s and twice its died at 50% with no resuming :'(

  12. Stupoider says:

    Oh, RPS.. That was beautiful.. <3

    The idea of it. It was amazing. I never imagined a game so simple would’ve been so effective at encapsulating the player (or audience? It certainly felt like an interactive film).

    Kudos to the voice actor. I haven’t heard voice acting so chilling since War of the Worlds.

  13. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    I remember sitting, staring at the screen for about 10 minutes after it had finished the first time I played this.
    You really should download it now.
    Go on, the sniper/spy update isn’t going to be for a few days yet, and it’ll take less time than a campaign in L4D.

  14. Helm says:

    This sounds like something to try. Thanks for writing this and doing it well.

  15. futage says:

    @Thirith

    I’d agree with what you said right there about them, I think. Right down to the narration idea being interesting.

    I think the really good adventure games show that a linear plot/narrative doesn’t necessitate linear gameplay. The game isn’t the narrative, like.

    Love Broken Sword and Longest Journey, me.

  16. Über Nerd says:

    I always thought it as an interactive letter. Not that I ever got to hear all of it without opening the files. I always got lost around the cave with whispers. All it needs is moar landmarks to attrack attention.

  17. IvanHoeHo says:

    It’s a nicw mood piece, but I didn’t get much else from it beyond that.

    Definately looking for a higher quality encode of that soundtrack, though – both in-game and in a soundtrack format. It seems strange to me why the team (and countless others) would commission for such beautiful music, only to destroy it with this terrible compression. I mean, it’s not as if they were constrained by disk sizes with this distribution method. Is it something to do with the limitations of the source engine (or just engines in general?). When I set a games’s sound quality to high, I usually just assume that it is at a quality comprable to 320kbps mp3s, at least, if (probably) not “lossless” – even though I’m usually too busy to notice these things.

    Last time I was this disappointed was when I downloaded the BG&E soundtrack, only to find it in crappy 128kbps mp3 format – exactly like the ones I ripped from the game files themselves.

    Sorry to go off topic like this, but at least I’m not one of those bitching about game as art! *bolts*

  18. Sum0 says:

    I really don’t know what to make of this. To begin with, I was a little bored. The question “Why bother making this a game?” came to mind. If it’s just images and voice-over, why not make it a movie?

    And then I hit the caves. I love caves. I’ve only been through two caves in real life, but I love them for the majesty and warmth of ancient rock mixed in with the coldness and the darkness and the fear. Games never do caves well. But this game had some great caves.

    And that kind of sucked me in. The reason this is a game and not a film is because games do atmosphere and being-there so well. By the time the end rolled around, I was certainly impressed.

    But my word, isn’t Source looking old? Oh, I know graphics don’t matter, and I wouldn’t dream of bashing the maker for going with HL2 as the base of this mod, but this sort of game is about breathtaking looks, and if it was done in CryEngine it could be truly jawdropping.

  19. Melf_Himself says:

    “You never fully learn what the island is, but there’s more to it than first meets the eye – and, by the finale, you’ll have cooked up a tantalising set of theories, each barmier than the last”

    Sounds like it was inspired by a certain irritating yet addictive TV show…

  20. LemmingLord says:

    I’m with the minority of posters here in that while I enjoyed the atmosphere, I hit my ‘mystery limit’ and stopped caring when I realized that I was only going to be teased for the entire story. Maybe it is just my puny mortal brain, but I can only hold so many conflicting threads in my mind, and when none of them are going to be resolved, I just get bored. It seemed like it was going out of its way to be ‘mysterious’, rather than being confident in the story and letting it be intriguing to the player, it felt like the author was just being oblique on purpose. Great atmosphere, and I absolutely love ambiguous storylines, but the whole thing just seems pointless, slow, and irritating. There are some pretty serious game design issues as well, especially when you can walk for a few minutes, get lost, and then start being hurt by the magical killing sand, forcing you to reload. I should not be pushing F6 continually in a narrative ‘game’ like this. I also tend to agree an earlier poster, who wondered why this needed to be a game- I was wondering the same throughout. A great experiment, and I’m certainly glad that it exists, but it was just too slow, too pretentious, and had too many bugs to work for me. Excellent voice acting, though.
    (By the way, who was the person at the end? Ester? Or is it just another pointless mystery that I won’t care about enough to solve?)
    Edit: http://www.hylobatidae.org/modmatic/?action=articleinfo&id=19 This basically sums up what I was trying to say in a coherent and well-written fashion.

  21. Geoffrey says:

    I thought it was pretty amazing. Atmosphere was fantastic, I was only killed by the guardians once, and learned my lesson (if it’s not easy to get there, then they probably didn’t intend for you to try; a hard habit to break, given that people designing game-games do that sort of crap on purpose). For those looking for a second playthrough to nab some new random comments (I went through twice, and it was fascinating hearing… not quite the same thing. But still the same thing. Rocks = alternators. Exactly.), or just finding it a little slow, but don’t want to “bunny-hop”, just crouch. You’re more likely to end up with overlapping dialogue, but only two or three times.

    I, for one, am thrilled they made this, and look forward to seeing what they do next. Thank you Mr. Denby and RPS for introducing me to it.

  22. dan says:

    WHY would you give the ending away?!!

    THANKS!

  23. Sam Combs says:

    I’ll have to give the mod a try now, I’d seen it before but not with such a compelling recommendation.

    @futage: This is probably a bit of a derailing, but what makes a game of chess art? Or, even better, if you had a concise definition of what you consider art?

  24. Pantsman says:

    I think we can resolve the whole “games as/are/should be art” discussion by acknowledging that this thing is not a game at all, not in the usual sense. It’s an interactive computer-generated experience, which is what the term videogame has come to mean so it tends to get called that, but it’s still not a game at all. What it is is something marvelous.

  25. Vinraith says:

    What a peculiar contradiction. So well done from a music/atmosphere/writing/narration perspective, yet so horribly frustrating from a level design (for lack of a better term) and glitchiness perspective as to render its good aspects completely moot for me. I can’t appreciate an atmosphere or become involved in unraveling a narrative when I have to reload this often, nor when I spend so much time just trying to figure out where the hell I’m supposed to be going. I’m glad so many of you enjoy it, but ultimately the thing’s just too infuriating for me to sink into it the way one would need to to really appreciate its better aspects.

  26. MadTinkerer says:

    “You play as… well, that’s never revealed, and since it’s all in uninterrupted first-person, you’ve no way of finding out. During your time on what initially appears to be a remote Hebridean island, a disembodied voice will read fragments of a series of letters, written to a woman named Esther who we’re never introduced to. ”

    It is pretty mysterious for the most part. I think the deliberately sloooow pace is to force you to pay attention to the narrator and think hard about what is being said.

    (I would have preferred they allow you to sprint. Limited sprint power would prevent you from skipping over the dialogue, but would allow you to shorten the pauses between bits.)

    SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I interpreted it thusly: You are Esther. You are in a coma and you are hearing (Paul is it? Whoever wrote the letters.) read out loud his letters that he wrote to you. The visuals are dreams / hallucinations based on your own memories and what’s being read to you.

    The biggest clues to this is:

    The general dream-like atmosphere with odd events like people walking away from you in the distance.

    When the narrator mentions “here are all the letters” and you see a bunch of paper boats in the water. Also, other instances where the narrator mentions things you are seeing, but talks as if you are not at the place he is describing. The most explicit one for me was him pointing out a visual metaphor of the letters but talking about them as if they were literally where he is (and not where you are).

    Listen to the bit at the end. The narrator is distraught. Someone is dying, and the Narrator adresses you as Esther directly instead of reading a letter. You hear the beeps (not just the narrator’s voice, but the beeps of the heart monitor). Everything fades to black.

    Paul has literally been reading his letters to you, Esther, the whole time. He probably hopes you’ll wake up if he reads them. Unfortunately, you never wake up, and succumb to death at the end.

    Due to the slow pace, I’ve only played through it once, but with this in mind, I’d keep an ear out for clues as to whether Paul might be responsible (or at least feel responsible) for Esther’s condition.

    Other questions I have: was Esther ever really on Paul’s island, or were the visuals constructed entirely from what she imagined from his letters? This might already be answered, and I should probably play through it again.

    END SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!

  27. Azradesh says:

    Um….yeah…..wow…..this is something good. I really don’t know what to say about it except that it’s good.

  28. Lewis says:

    For the people who are getting lost a lot: there are quite a few direction markers carved into the rock, etched into the ground, etc. Arrows disguised in the artwork. Or birds flying overhead in the direction you should be going. Try that.

  29. cHeal says:

    The voice actor sounds like Richard Burton in The War of the Worlds Musical. It was interesting, not that spellbinding for me personally and as noted agonisingly slow. Didn’t really get any particularly coherent story from it, except that I was following in somebody elses footsteps, and that he went mad presumably attempting to investigate this Jacob fellow and there was somebody else in between but I didn’t really see his place in the story.

    Really loved the black figure who would appear every so often, that was fantastic.

  30. Fenchurch says:

    @MadTinkerer

    SPOILERS

    Ah! Very insightful! I hadn’t considered that possibility but I think you are right!

    I assumed that it was the reverse; that you as the player were on the cusp of death and when he was saying “Come back” in that cracked, plaintive voice towards the end it was a plea for Esther to be at his side.

  31. Geoffrey says:

    !!!SPOILERS!!!
    @MadTinkerer and Fenchurch:
    I think not, except for one thing. Paul was indeed responsible for Esther being made opaque. My reason for saying “No” to your theory is a particular piece of dialogue I received when I made it into the little cove/pool that is originally visible from the first shack’s window, but not immediately accessible (as Lewis points out, follow the bird).

    Personally, I interpreted the whole thing pretty literally. The only thing I’d leave without a supportable theory is the black figure. Hallucinations from the infection and the diazapam (btw, in the context of the story, the slow movement makes a lot of sense. Sprinting would hurt too much), the ghost of Donnelly, the ghost of the narrator. All seem possibilities to me.
    /!!!SPOILERS!!!

  32. Sunjammer says:

    Just finished it. It’s pretty staggering really, and i don’t think it’s a puzzle for us to decipher. I don’t think the cast correspond directly to real world characters, i don’t think there’s anything beyond a grieving man and his emotions.

    The #1 thing i came out of it thinking was, this is one hell of a great way to experience an audiobook. It’s really like an illustrated short story than a game, and it really made me feel things i didn’t expect to feel. I can impart a lot of those feelings onto the excellent, almost Murakami-esque writing, the wonderful voice acting or the beautiful soundtrack, but it did have a “learning curve”, or rather an indoctrination curve. I spent the first few minutes looking for things to do, puzzles to solve or otherwise MEANING, but as soon as it simply became a question of moving forward and observing the world around you as things are slowly given meaning and context, coming to the point on the cliffside, looking down and seeing the chemical diagram in the cliffs below, everything just resonated with me on an instinctual level.

    Perhaps it requires that you are capable of getting enjoyment out of allusions. It painted images in my head that were far more vivid than the rather crude (but entirely appropriate) visuals. I didn’t get any creepy, lynchian psych-horror feelings out of this at all. I thought the whole thing was sad, and intensely melancholy.

    Escing to the menus made me almost embarassed to see this kind of content saddled with a game engine that is entirely designed ground up for shooting at enemies. The difficulty screen in particular was cringeworthy within this context.

    I need a hug now, where’s my girlfriend at.

  33. Zaij says:

    Alright, well here’s my interpretation. I may have gotten some names mixed around because I haven’t played it in a while, but here we go. A lot of this is going to be disjointed and random musings, but bear with me [spoilers]

    You are Paul.

    Esther died some time ago in a car accident which you initially assumed was caused by Donoly(Donovan? Actually, it may have been another name, I don’t remember.) in a drunk driving accident. In one scene you talk about Paul and donovan meet up and D seems very nervous, but you say you didnt come for an apology or to lay blame.

    I see this story about coming to terms. This entire story is like the thoughts running through Paul’s head as he’s lying in a hospital bed. Within this story there are five sub-stories, as well as musings by the character.

    1. recounting the story of the cartographer. [refers to how unreliable he was (as in an unreliable narrator – the cartographer) and this is what he sees himself as, which is why he’s trying to work this stuff out again]
    2. recounting how he had kidney stones once [I think this is particularly relevent – in a hospital then, in a hospital now (you hear the flatline at the end)]
    3. recounting the accident and Paul’s search for answers as to it’s cause. [This eventually leads to his conclusion that it wasn’t donovan and also serves as the main drive for thinking about esther]
    4. His trip to an island with Esther. [Hence why this is played out on the island]
    5. the syphilis guy/hospital thing [this is Paul, he may not have syphilis but he has some shit that’s eating him up inside, cancer or some such]

    So Paul’s thinking is disjointed and goes off in tangents (as does everyones) while he’s lying on his deathbed in a hospital trying to get to grips with esthers death, he remembers the good times, the ways he tried to deal with his grief, etc.

    It’s 3:30am here and I can’t be bothered writing anymore, but I’ll try and put the rest down tomorrow.

  34. tsoyptc says:

    Like Jubaal (waaaay above) , I’ve tried downloading both V1 & V1.1, extracted each (in separate trials) into my Steam/steamapps/sourcemods folder, closed and exited Steam, then re-booted Steam, and cannot get either to appear in my games list. Starting to feel as dumb as a post, but really want to check this mod out.

    Like Jubaal, I note that the only .exe file in the zip is the uninstall app, and I now have a horrible suspicion that its not possible to play this game if I don’t already have Half-Life installed (which I don’t, and can’t at the moment afford to buy).

    Halp? What am I missing?

  35. Lewis says:

    You will indeed need Half-Life 2 installed – it uses a lot of the game’s content.

  36. Slippery Jim says:

    Gave this a go this evening, got to say I’m intrigued to say the least. I agree some better visual would have benefited the game experience, but I loved the voice-acting, the deep microcosm, the unfathomable story.

    I do believe that more “experiences” like this would be great, at least two a year! I also think that there should be variety, for instance, some more obvious and decodable, some just weird tangles of storytelling.

  37. Dolphan says:

    Firstly – wow. Put me in the ‘completely bowled over by this and sat staring at the blank screen at the end with a lump in my throat and butterflies in my stomach’ category.

    Secondly – I think the mystery/ambiguity aspect is incredibly well done. It’s not just an incoherent mess, as attempts at this sort of thing often are. There are coherent elements in there [SPOILERSISH], the shepherd, the author, the hermit, the car crash, the kidney stones, the white lines. It’s left up to you how they tie in to each other, if they do at all – whether you are the narrator, whether the island exists, whether the narrator dies there or in a hospital, exactly how the crash happens. The underlying themes and emotions, on the other hand – the communication of loss, guilt, loneliness, mortality – don’t depend on any single background narrative, or on any linking narrative at all. It’s a mood piece, sure – but in the best sense of the term. Just enough story, just enough concrete for you to build on, but not too much. If it told you exactly what happened, it couldn’t have the same impact.

    All purely subjective, of course ;)

  38. Dominic White says:

    While the ambiguity is an interesting element, I’d love to see a tweak that lets you force it to stick to just one story for a playthrough, so you only hear the story-snippets from a single thread. All of them seem to tie into the theme of the island pretty well.

  39. Lewis says:

    If anyone’s interested, and doesn’t mind elements being hugely spoiled, there’s a postmortem available to read here (.pdf).

  40. HP Hovercraft says:

    I don’t own HL2 (though I have purchased and downloaded Portal), and I was still able to get Dear Esther to appear in my games list by unpacking it into Steam/steamapps/sourcemods (though Steam required a download of something called ‘Source SDK Base’ before I could launch it).

    From this I assume that this mod is “play”able with any game that uses the Source engine, not just HL2. It’d be interesting if someone who (unlike me) actually knows what they’re talking about could confirm this.

  41. Dolphan says:

    Does it run?

    Not entirely sure how all this works, but SDK Base is a ‘game’ that exists as a basis to build Source mods on – the fact you have to install it to run Dear Esther suggests the latter is built on it and not HL2. Dunno if that means you don’t need HL2 for the models etc though.

  42. Fenchurch says:

    @Slippery Jim

    That’s very nice. :-3

  43. VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    I just played this through. Wow, a really well-told story. I had a strong sense of déjà vu throughout, which added to the uncanny feeling.

  44. HP Hovercraft says:

    @Dolphan:

    Yeah, it ran beautifully. If there were models or textures missing, I certainly didn’t notice them- and there were many items strewn about that I know didn’t come from Portal…

  45. Lewis says:

    The redevlopment I mention: http://www.moddb.com/mods/dear-esther/news/dear-esther-complete-overhaul

    Headed up by Mirror’s Edge level designer Robert Briscoe. Sounds pretty exciting, don’tcha think?

  46. Arvind says:

    I played this mod a while back, on a friend’s recommendation in steam chat. I must say, it is very atmospheric, and achieves its aim very well, glitches and my confusion notwithstanding. But somewhere along the line, I don’t agree that games should be going in the direction Dear Esther is taking.
    I’m all support for immersion, atmosphere, storytelling of the highest quality, but one thing that in my opinion should be fundamental to games is preference to action rather than narrative. Being an indie myself, I feel the problem with the industry these days seems to be that we are falling over ourselves to prove that games can be art, almost as if we suffer from an inferiority complex. And the solution seems to be copying other artistic mediums rather than realizing it is the difference that makes us special. It might be a personal thing, but while games like Esther are a breath of fresh air, I won’t want to breathe it all day long.
    Despite my complaints, it’s a brilliant piece of work, and an incredibly engaging experience. I would have loved it better as a novel though.
    A must download for all the arty types and the cool alternative crowd ;)

  47. Dracko says:

    Lewis, congrats on that, man. I look forward to seeing the result.

  48. Diapason_Normal says:

    I’m going to grab this tonight! Sounds really interesting.

    I’m also going to give my $0.02 on games/art. What constitutes art to start with is a hairy subject. A pile of bricks at a constuction site isn’t a work of art, but what happens when that same pile of bricks is moved into a gallery and exhibited? I’m not putting any value judgement on either of those piles (I’ve also seen the reverse; famous art displayed outside of a gallery and gone completely unnoticed), but demonstrating that often ‘becoming’ in Art has to do with the object ‘becoming’ itself only with context/concept.

    The other important part of art being Art is perception. Games that become close to being considered Art are almost always games that force the player out of thier comfort zone, causing them to engage rather than just interact on a predefined superficial level.

    No body really considers Doom art because we’ve all played the typical FPS shooters so much that they fit into a tidy self sustaining concept/genre. I think most of us can pick up a FPS finish the game without having any need to interpret or consider the underlying concepts. Even Bioshock with its rich underlying concepts doesn’t involve anything other than ‘Huh, thats pretty interesting’ moments while playing. However, if you were to take all (or even just most) of the combat out of the game the experience would be completely different.

    Dear Esther as art and the source of this debate comes from being presented with a game that doesn’t conform to our preconceived notices of ‘what a game is’ and evokes unexpected emotional resonance. When this happens, and we can’t relate it to previous experiences with games, the invariable result is a debate on ‘Games as Art’ VS ‘Games is games and arts is arts’.

    Anyway, my opinion is that games are an exciting and young medium for both entertainment and art. And that art was always there, sometimes it’s hiding behind the couch, though.

  49. Vinraith says:

    @Lewis

    Thank you. Armed with that knowledge (and being in a better mood to try something like this) I played through it and found it very affecting. It’s remarkable the level of emotion evoked by an interactive experience that is, in essence, barely interactive. Quite an achievement, I’m glad I gave it another shot.