The Beauty Of The Barren: Dear Esther

By Adam Smith on January 19th, 2012 at 11:36 am.

If this screengrab were taken a second later it would have a quote from 'Rock Paper Shotgun' emblazoned across it. Just think!

The fancy-dan version of Source-based island adventure Dear Esther causes ripples of excitement whenever it raises its haunted head, nowhere more so in recent times than at the IGF where it has received four nominations. However, there are important matters to take care of before its Valentine’s Day release. To that end, I have prepared several boxes so that we can put our heads together and decide which one Dear Esther belongs in. Perhaps a trailer will help us to choose?

Before placing your eyes all over the video below, observe these boxes. The first is a shimmering thing whose edges are ever-shifting and ill-defined. It says ‘Game’ on its topmost surface, when that bothers to exist. The next container is constructed of cogs and valves – a collection of rivets spell out the words ‘Modified Mod’. The third carries a plaque reading ‘Interactive Art Journey’. It’s less of a box and more of an experience. And then there’s a matchbox that someone has written ‘Un-game’ on in Crayola. The sounds of scripted terrorism blare from within.

It is imperative that Dear Esther be placed in one of these containers as soon as possible.

I am building a box out of smiles and the spoken word, then writing ‘lovely things’ on the side.

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65 Comments »

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  1. JohnnyMaverik says:

    Gah… cannot wait >.<

    • abigbat says:

      Very excited about this – exactly the sort of project I enjoy. A good friend of mine did the initial concepts for this and it’s nice to see they’ve retained the isolated art direction throughout. Can’t wait.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      This game made me feel something that other games have not made me feel for quite some time. I can’t quite place what it is. Ah yes, thats it. Emotions.

    • Italia says:

      I’m beyond excited. It gives me chills. At first I thought this would be a game that dabbled in fear, but now I’m just prepared for what looks like an excellent story.

      MAYBE I CAN EVEN GET MY GIRLFRIEND TO WATCH ME PLAY A GAME FOR ONCE!

  2. MadTinkerer says:

    I wishlisted it on Steam a few hours ago. :)

    Very much looking forward to this one.

  3. D3xter says:

    I could not care less about any of those issues, all I know is that I will buy this game as soon as there’s an “Add to Cart” button and that people should compare that trailer with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSYRQF1MtTc&hd=1 and then once and for all stop with the “graphics don’t matter” insanity.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Funny thing is, the original’s maps really aren’t bad for a one-person amateur team. It’s just that the several-person pro-team maps of the new version are on par with AAA games. I still find it hard to believe it’s running in Source and not CryEngine2 or something.

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      skalpadda says:

      AFAIK, Robert Briscoe is just the one person.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Robert Briscoe + original Chinese Room work on original levels = several people. At least a couple, anyway.

    • Azradesh says:

      Wrong reply.

  4. Khemm says:

    Forgive me my ignorance, I never played the original Dear Esther mod, but I’ve heard it has no real “gameplay” to speak of, no puzzles at all, it’s basically a tech demo with a narrator.
    True? False? Something in between?

    • CMaster says:

      There’s a “puzzle” in the sense of figuring out the story being told my the narrations, although there aren’t any gameplay mechanics.

      While I liked it, I have to say I never saw it as as earth shattering as many others seem to find, and I certainly don’t see what this remake has to add.

    • Resonance says:

      Pretty graphics basically.

    • EhsanKia says:

      It can be best explained a train ride. You experience the story at your own pace, control where you want to look at. It’s pretty much a movie where you can choose where to look at and when to advance to the next stage. In practice, it’s supposed to help you immerse yourself in the story and enjoy it more. It works for some, doesn’t for others. It’s a very subjective thing, really.

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      skalpadda says:

      @Khemm: I always thought of it as an exploration game. You’re exploring a story through exploring an environment. That’s good enough to be called a game for me.

      @CMaster: As a concept I guess it doesn’t add much new, but it looks like it’s been rebuilt from the ground up rather than just receiving an “HD makeover”. Getting visuals and audio that properly convey the atmosphere of the story and setting are pretty huge in a game that is all about story and setting.

      @Adam: That last line is beautiful. Thank you.

    • NathanH says:

      It’s a Something. I don’t see why people who like Somethings who also like games want to call it a game. It seems to be a Something rather than a game. Similarly I don’t see why people who like games but not Somethings would want to sneer “not a game” at it. While this is definitely true, the fact there is something in a game engine that is not a game but rather a Something should not cause any game-loving Something-hating folk any discomfort whatsoever, hence no sneering needed. I am not interested in Somethings, but I do not feel threatened by their existence. Something-lovers are welcome to them.

      if I may be permitted a small book-analogy. Books are the medium. Within this medium you have distinctions between fiction, non-fiction, Where’s Wally, etc. Within each of these distinctions you have then things like genres. For us, a video game engine is a medium, and what we’re looking at here the distinction at the next level: you can have a Game, a Something, and Some Other Things. It seems to me more meaningful to make the distinction like that than to say that everything is a game.

    • Khemm says:

      I see, thank you all for the explanations. I originally imagined Dear Easther to be something “adventurish” like Darkness Within 2 or Penumbra, but I’m still interested to give it a try when it launches. Hope it won’t cost 10 euro. 10 euro =/= 10 US dollars.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Think of it less as a tech demo (because showing off tech is the opposite of the intent here) and more of a literal series of letters written to Esther that you’re remembering / witnessing / dreaming as they’re being read. Who Esther is, who the narrator is, why you can hear the narration, and the true nature of the island are all meant to be slightly subjective, but hints as to which answers are more likely are hidden throughout the narrative.

      In other words, it’s like a shorter version of LOST, except the ending is much better.

      The narrative is also “shuffled” slightly each time you play, so you can play it again and get a few different stories / letters.

    • Urthman says:

      “Exploration game” falsely implies that it has open, branching territory to explore and secrets to find.

    • feighnt says:

      Urthman – actually, while there’s not many examples admittedly, there *are* a few branching paths and secrets to find (in terms of curious sights and extra monologue).

    • frosty2oo2 says:

      @Khemm – more like a story brought to you via the medium of the source engine

    • Azradesh says:

      It’s not a game, but then I would say the same of Half-Life 2 of the most part (single player). Both are just interactive stories with degrees of interaction. I think the term “game” really hurts the advancement of the medium as it implies they must be “fun”. Many very good films are books are not fun, in fact they can be extremely unpleasant and yet still good.

  5. LennyLeonardo says:

    This looks really lovely. Aren’t some things more engaging when you don’t know exactly what they are?

  6. Theoban says:

    I adored the mod and I will be buying this with both hands when it comes out. I can’t wait to wander that stark island again

  7. Cinnamon says:

    I always thought of it as the craggy island bunny hopping simulator. It’s ok, play it if you want.

  8. Hydrogene says:

    I’ll put it in a box with the word “lovely” on it. Or even “very lovely”.

    The real question for me isn’t the nature of the “thing” but how much it will cost.

  9. mrwout says:

    One of the suggestions after that trailer was “Skyrim my little pony dragon mod”….awesome !

  10. Teddy Leach says:

    It looks quite pretty, but is there anything else to it?

    • Resonance says:

      Not really no – in terms of gameplay it’s very shallow.

    • feighnt says:

      it’s well written and well acted.

    • Vinraith says:

      In terms of gameplay it’s non-existent, in that it really has no gameplay. It’s beautiful and damned atmospheric, though, so as long as you realizing what you’ve got (and therefore not expecting a game) I think it’s quite enjoyable.

      It’s a “wander around a landscape, exploring, while listening to narration” thing, sort of an interactive art piece.

    • wearedevo says:

      @feighnt It didn’t seem that well-written from the trailer. Wordy and overwrought does not equal good writing. Then again, it’s just the trailer of course, so it’s too early for me to judge.

  11. EhsanKia says:

    > And then there’s a matchbox that someone has written ‘Un-game’ on in Crayola.
    I chuckled at this
    > The sounds of scripted terrorism blare from within.
    I bursted out at this one. This is why I love RPS.

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    dangermouse76 says:

    The film industry uses the word film generally as it’s descriptor. But film, is an inadequately precise word to describe what films represent in terms of there content. The word film is simply ( mostly ) the medium upon which the movie ( also being short for moving picture ) is placed. It doesnt mater that it is not very accuate as we prefix film with other descriptors.

    Action movie
    blockbuster film
    horror movie
    documentary film

    etc etc. So the words film and movie have become ( accurate or not ) the name we use for the genre.

    Now we have the word Game for digital games. The word game may not be accurate to the spread of the genre so we prefix it. Esther for me tries to play with the conventions of what curently games do in terms of presentation and purpose.

    Not neceassarily even to confront those conventions but merely to explore other forms of communication with-in the genre. In film we already have a genre like that I think, which is arthouse movie.

    So for for me Esther is an Arthouse game.

    But the truth is that a genre description for it is pointless, the game will aquire one over time by the osmosis of it being played by the public.

    It is almost better when something cant be tagged, which I think is what you are getting at. Simply experiance it and see what happens.

    • NathanH says:

      As I argue above, I think we need 3 levels rather than 2.

      In film, the top level is Film. In our case, the top level can be Video Game Engine, or, if you want to be a bit more broad, User Interface (e.g. we could include a spreadsheet program in our top level).

      At the second level you have Type. Films with plot could be a type. Documentaries could be another type. The point here is to distinguish between things using the same medium to do wildly different things. On computers one of your type is Games, then you have various other types that are mostly quite new so hard to define right now.

      Then at the third level you have genres as usual.

      This distinction unties “game” from “game engine” in a way that a two-layer system does not. I think that’s a more informative way to make distinctions.

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      dangermouse76 says:

      Fair enough can you give some specific examples you would define in a 3 layer system. I have to say I showed my thinking ( as my math teacher would say ) above but my point is really that a name for something can sometimes be inherently uninformative, but that is not really an issue because with a culture we understand it’s wider context i.e film and simply build on it. Semantics ruins many a good discussion I find.

      I think it is slightly over complicating things to come up with a 3 level system to describe games. Like when I here my music nazi freinds arguing about the differeance between post 70’s punk rocko billy, and post 70’s punk psycho billy genres.

      But I am happy to be enlightened, can you name say 4-5, 3 layered descriptors for games or somethings as you call them.

    • NathanH says:

      The medium of video game-style engines isn’t one well-explored for non-games so far, so it’s quite hard to come up with types other than Games, because there just isn’t enough to work with yet. Things like Dear Esther, I don’t know what to call them. The vocabulary isn’t really there yet, it’s too early. It’s an interactive Something in an engine usually used for video games.

      The question is, why does anyone want to call it a game? It doesn’t seem to satisfy any of the normal requirements to be a game. Is this justification just “it’s in a video game engine, so it must be a game”? That’s locking your definition to the medium, which doesn’t seem like a good thing to do. For instance, there are many other media that can incorporate games. Books can be of the type “game”. What is special about this medium that means everything within must be of type “game”?

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      dangermouse76 says:

      I get that and yes in the future that may well change. Langauge evolves for ever so either you will get a new word or genre or sub genre or maybe not.

      I would say that I dont think there is an obsession with calling these things games, just that some do not worry to much about what it is called at all. My degree is in English Language and I love language and how fashions change in the use of words.

      In the UK the word LIKE as well as it’s original meaning ( as in one we recognise from the last 30 years or so ) can now also mean ” said ” for example he like what are you doing / and I was like it’s non of your buisness.

      Like, in the Medieval times was high sarcasm for hate. I like your house very much meant the complete oposite.

      I am lazy in language I would much rather transfer or let the the meaning of words transfer than come up with new ways of describing them to fill a whole in there inability to be defined. But thats just me. Game has changed it’s meaning over the years like many words.

      But I do accept your point, it will be interesting to see where this thing developes.

      But I would still argue that to an extent arthouse game covers Esther ……. for now.

    • Chris D says:

      NathanH

      “The question is, why does anyone want to call it a game? ”

      I’d call it a game because I think, to borrow some terminology from a recent Sunday Papers article, computer games owe as much to the fantasy axis as they do to the frame axis. Or, to put it another way, intrepreting “let’s play” as “let’s pretend” is just as valid as “let’s compete.”

      I think that inclusive definitions are generally more useful than exclusive ones, especially at the top level of the discussion. If we exclude a category of thing from the discussion I think we narrow the scope prematurely and lose out on what games like Dear Esther can teach us about games in general.

      I’m not sure on what grounds we’d disqualify Dear Esther from being a game anyway. No set victory condition? We’d have to lose Dwarf Fortress as well in that case. You’re still manipulating the game’s systems to achieve you’re goal (to see everything, presumably), it’s just that it’s really easy to do that. I don’t think lack of difficulty makes the difference between being a game or not.

      If we want precision in our discussion we can still have that but I’d rather we do that by coming up with a term to describe this category of game rather than excluding them from the conversation.

  13. zeroskill says:

    I know the original mod used the source engine, however, does the final release still use the source engine? If yes, thats impressive.

  14. hosndosn says:

    How the hell do they do that with the Source engine. It blows my mind.

  15. Bobby Oxygen says:

    I don’t know…
    I did enjoy the mod, the writing and atmosphere was excellent. However, the complete lack of interaction did not sit well with me. Surely you can add something more to engage the player, other than walking to the spot where the next VO clip triggers. Something meaningful and relevant to the story, something that doesn’t involve combat or combining items to solve a puzzle. That’s what I feel is missing from DE, some gameplay to back up the amazing story, to make you feel like you’re participating, not just walking and listening.

    I don’t think I’ll be buying the HD version, as good as it is at what it does, it just doesn’t do enough for me. That said, I’d still recommend it to anyone who haven’t experienced it yet.

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      stahlwerk says:

      I liken it to a kind of complicated book with drawings and diagrams in a language you only think you recognize some fragments of. The 3d-Viewport is like the reader’s gaze on the pages, only pulling piecewise information out of the material.
      Yet I wouldn’t fault the book itself for not being malleable or interactive.

    • Bobby Oxygen says:

      If all the other books I read had those qualities, I would fault the book.
      Christine Love’s Digital springs to mind as something similar-ish, but it managed to involve the player in the story via a handful of different interactions. And those interactions made sense, they felt like they belonged. Limiting you to wandering around the landscape in DE just feels like they didn’t even want to try. Which is a shame, because meaningful interactions could only strengthen the impact of the story.

  16. bokeh says:

    Bind 1 “npc_create npc_zombie”
    Bind 2 “npc_create npc_antlion”
    mat_monitorgamma 2.0
    Impulse 101

    :-)

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    Bluerps says:

    I’ll put it inside the box that is labeled with “Stuff I like”.

  18. povu says:

    This mod has come a long way. Remember the original trailer? http://www.moddb.com/mods/dear-esther/videos

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    stahlwerk says:

    Woooht, new(ish) soundtrack. Digging the strings!

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    Man Raised by Puffins says:

    “I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat, without a bottom…”

    *snicker*

    Been looking forward to this for a long while, good to hear that it’s finally imminent.

  21. John P says:

    Pop it in the Asset Tour box.

  22. Network Crayon says:

    Yes.

    This is more like it..

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    Looks amazing, and it’ll be worth the ten bucks (or GBP equivalent) to me.

    The music, the narrator’s voice… it’s like a film in many ways, but the mod was a great experience and I can’t wait to see it with an extra bit of polish.

  24. feighnt says:

    oi, Dead End Thrills apparently has access to the game, and has posted some shots!

    http://deadendthrills.com/

    (if you havent heard of Dead End Thrills before, i’d recommend checking it out – really lovely in-game photography, basically)

  25. Chris D says:

    To be on the safe side I would take Dear Esther and place it in the Mod box and then I would take that and place it in the Game Box. I would take the Game Box and place it in Adam’s box marked lovely things but I think the last one is all it really needs.

    Dear Esther may be beatifully written but this article certainly is.

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    Nero says:

    Hearing the smooth voice of Nigel Carrington warms my heart and it’s getting very close now to experience Dear Esther once again.

  27. Zwebbie says:

    Concerning the ‘Un-game’ label, Tale of Tales have coined the term Notgames and there’s this whole Notgames Fest thing going on, so there’s little point in calling anything an un-game when we’ve already got this. Not that Notgame is a particularly good word for it, but they’ve at least put in a bit of effort to outline a genre of digital media, so I think it might be worth looking over it to see if you can take over that framework. It would keep us from having this discussion over and over.

    Edit: Also, I nearly forgot: Yay, Dear Esther!

    • John P says:

      Different connotations. Notgame is fair enough, because it refers to things are deliberately not games. Ungame is reserved for slop like Call of Duty, which passes itself off as the most successful game in the world, when it’s not a game at all.

  28. Kaider says:

    The first time I played Dear Esther I was drunk, and I’m pretty sure I was tearing up by the end of it. That was a pretty intense day.

  29. DrunkDog says:

    It’s like the letters section on “That’s Life” all over again…