What I Alternatively Think: Dear Esther

By Alec Meer on February 15th, 2012 at 2:07 pm.

Not pictured: John Walker's soul. BECAUSE IT DOESN'T EXIST.


John’s already presented his verdict on thechineseroom’s first-person ghost-esque story Dear Esther, but I’ve a thing or two I’d like to say about it myself. And not just because I like to oppress John at any opportunity I get. It’s because Dear Esther really did work its dark, metaphysical magic upon me.

This write-up will contain spoilers unbound; do not read on if you haven’t played (and intend to play) Dear Esther.

I played Dear Esther on my own in a dark room, headphones on, distractions banished, night outside, and subtitles resolutely turned off. I also had a glass of lovely beer to hand, but I’m less sure that’s relevant. The other stuff absolutely is: I found Dear Esther to be a broadly magnificent and genuinely moving experience, and that was almost entirely on a sensory level. Deciphering the plot – the nature of Esther and the narrator’s fate, who’s alive and who isn’t, how long you’ve been on this island, if you’re really still on this island at all, where the car crashed and what caused it to crash – simply isn’t of interest to me.

Not that it isn’t interesting, but I don’t see it as a puzzle to be pieced together. I do not believe Dear Esther is the search for an answer, or even for a meaning. I believe it is an experiment with the senses and the emotions. It is a Lonely, Guilt-Stricken Man Simulator. It is a journey through morbidly beautiful emptiness, a maudlin cocktail of sight, sound, implication and metaphor designed to conjure up a feeling of purposeful despair.

When you venture beneath the island’s grassy surface and behold the luminescent, otherworldly beauty of the caves, it works not because it’s a pretty graphic but because of the startling juxtaposition with the clear sadness of the narrator’s/your situation. All this beauty, but it means nothing. You can’t do anything with it. There is no reason to. Your reasons for anything are gone. The bioluminescent rock formations glow softly and the skeletal piano music tinkles unseen ivories softly and, with my headphones on and my light turned off, my senses told me how I should feel. I was alone and besieged by powerful regret for undefined mistakes and losses, on a journey to a final destiny. To that dread red eye I could never escape, that would always be staring and beckoning. Once in a while, it was frustrating to be so crudely restrained from heading in the direction I wished to, but really, I only wished to go towards that awful light anyway.

My only interaction with this place was to look at it, to experience it. To react to what my own mind summoned in response, not to on-screen prompts or physical reflexes. Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it.

Of course I was being emotionally manipulated. But I was being manipulated with scalpel-sharp subtlety; implication, not the anvil to the face obviousness of watching a character die or choosing to save someone at the expense of someone else. Dear Esther doesn’t need to tell me anything, nor does it really attempt to in its fractured, contradictory lines of (occasionally over-florid) dialogue. Dear Esther only needs to make me feel something, and oh how it does. My situation, and the events that led to it, is self-evident enough through implication alone. One look at the washed-out hillside, the empty and devastated buildings and the harrowingly obvious lack of any other life whatsoever tells me almost all I need to know. Night slowly fell, and it fell with good reason.

When Dear Esther did try to say and do something directly – when it wrestled control away in the final minutes and forced a suicidal plunge upon me – it was weaker. It was no longer a sad, ambling voyage through sight and sound and broken memories, but instead a mandate. I don’t know why control was taken away.

I would have jumped anyway, once I reached the top of that mast. It would be the only sensible thing to do. The only right thing. I was alone. I was guilty. Whatever exploration of this island I could do was only ever delaying the inevitable. Why not let me wander it at my leisure, spend as long in this pretty purgatory as I needed to before I said my goodbyes to it, to the world, and to dear, unseen yet – I know, oh I know, oh so terribly important Esther?

Still, as my screen climbed me up that iron ladder, as it dropped my gaze to the rocky shore below, as grass fluttered softly in the breeze, as the candlelights at sea level twinkled, as the narrator uttered his regrets and his resolutions, my heart did soar in dark triumph. (Ach, who am I to accuse this game of excessively purple prose?) Esther. I never knew her, but I knew Esther was every mistake I’d ever made. Goodbye, Esther. This was the only right thing to do, the only way for this to possibly end. The pixels on my screen moved, but I did not. But my mind was busy, creating a perfect image of myself, arms outstretched, diving, smiling, and then…

And then that was it. I do not understand why anyone would ever play through Dear Esther a second time. It ends. It is supposed to end. Why repeat something so final? The pursuit of different lines of dialogue, plucked at random from a small database of voice samples, seems futile to me. Perhaps there is one clear, true, absolute tale to be slowly pieced together, cutting through the contradictions, the confusion and the narrator’s insensible grief, but if there is I don’t wish to know it.

The meaning I created for myself, both early on and then again come the resolution, is more than that could ever be – yet it is nothing concrete or even describable. I feel a great swell of pity for people on Wikipedia, GameFaqs, forums et al who have attempted to clarify all, and indeed for anyone who rolled their eyes and thought ‘well, this is obvious’. They do that because they surely can’t have experienced the body-blows to the senses that I did.

Given I have no wish to play it again, nor do I understand why anyone else would, at $10 Dear Esther does seem, by standard metrics, too expensive for a mere 90 minutes or so of slow journey through a Hebridean island wilderness with only one possible outcome. Then again, the same money would buy me an hour and a half of going to watch a man dressed as a superhero punch some special effects. Why would I not pay the same for an hour and a half of admiring and wondering at stark beauty, and feeling dark corners of my brain whisper dark secrets about myself to me? I climbed that tower, I jumped from it, and I did soar.

Dear Esther is out now.

, , , .

59 Comments »

Sponsored links by Taboola
  1. Premium User Badge

    VelvetFistIronGlove says:

    Thank you, Alec. Usually I find John’s opinions overlap with mine the most, but you have written the way I felt.

    Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection. Ever walked along an empty beach at night? Sat alone on a hillside on a cold winter morning? Where did your mind go? Wherever it was, that’s where Dear Esther can take it. If you let it.

    • SuperNashwanPower says:

      Agree wholeheartedly. DE brought tears for me, not many games do that – but I had to put aside any ideas of achieving, getting, doing, winning. Its an experience that you bring your own baggage to, and I think thats what makes it. My own feelings of loss mixed with those of the narrator, and so yes – it hit my senses quite powerfully.

  2. Stupoider says:

    Flowery review with little substance. A lot like the mod!

    • kastanok says:

      If you would prefer a technically accurate review, the system requirements are available on the Steam page.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      Kastanok just rendered all past and future accussations of pretentiousness in reviews obselete with that one line.

      So elegant.

      So simple.

      So Kastanok.

    • N says:

      Gotta’ agree with Stupoider, “flowery with little substance” pretty much sums up the mod really.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Colthor says:

    Two opinions on the same game? But how will we know which is objectively correct?!

    • cjlr says:

      Alas, without scores to compare to the metacritic average, we may never know.

  4. CaspianRoach says:

    Second screenshot from the bottom looks kind of like a rollercoaster ride.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    “Why would I not pay the same for an hour and a half of admiring and wondering at stark beauty, and feeling dark corners of my brain whisper dark secrets about myself to me?”

    Yeah. The scale we use to evaluate game prices is a bit strange sometimes…

    • CaspianRoach says:

      Well… the movies are more expensive to make than games so you gotta consider that as well…

    • AlephAleph says:

      Except they are not.

    • Premium User Badge

      skalpadda says:

      “the movies are more expensive to make than games so you gotta consider that as well… ”

      No you don’t. You’re buying an experience, not doing charity. From the consumer point of view, what you get for your money should be far more important than what it cost to make.

    • Igor Hardy says:

      “Why would I not pay the same for an hour and a half of admiring and wondering at stark beauty, and feeling dark corners of my brain whisper dark secrets about myself to me?”

      Well, I could just go outside and do that there for free.

      Not that I feel there is anything wrong with the price.

  6. Brun says:

    The thing I’m taking away from all of these reviews/comments is that Dear Esther is like a modern Myst, but without the puzzles.

    That doesn’t really sound all that appealing to me.

    • Resonance says:

      It pretty much is yeah.

      I bought it but grew bored after a mere 10 minutes – the narrative and the environment / gameplay just didn’t work for me – I failed to see how they compliment each other.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      I was just thinking this. It seems like Myst with a free camera. Granted, a free camera would improve Myst into the realm of “playable,” but not all the way up to “decent” or even close to “fun.”

      I’d rather just go take a stroll at a nature preserve to see nature’s beauty and reflect introspectively with my own internal software.

    • Dervish says:

      The makers of Myst had the sense to realize that players might want to get to locations quickly, lavish details notwithstanding.

  7. kastanok says:

    Alec opened with an important and revealing pre-amble:

    I played Dear Esther on my own in a dark room, headphones on, distractions banished, night outside, and subtitles resolutely turned off. I also had a glass of lovely beer to hand, but I’m less sure that’s relevant.

    As with a good book, CD or conceptual film, the player in any game or interactive experience that hopes to present an experience must prepare themselves for it. Many gamers accumulate hours not just making a game playable but tweaking the anti-aliasing, the shadows and lighting and downloading mods to adjust visual and auditory effects but the world beyond the computer must be properly arranged too.

    Even supposedly non-interactive experiences require complicity on the behalf of the one experiencing it to put themselves into the frame of mind where they are most able to feel. Dear Esther is perhaps the game (I still do not like that word in this context) that most requires this complicity.

    As for the beer? I entirely disagree, it was completely necessary, though may be replaced with a mug of tea or a glass of whisky if so desired.

    • Seraph says:

      I agree.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      This is a fantastic point well put. It reminds me of that screen at the start of Amnesia (yeah, I realise that has come up quite in relation to Dear Esther, wonder why) that tells you to put headphones on and turn the lights off. I love that sort of thing.

    • sassy says:

      Didn’t RPS once do a report on that Amnesia screen? IIRC it was an article about game developers telling you how best to experience the game and encouraging this behavior.

      Since I rarely find myself time to play games nowadays when I do it has to be special. So I put quite some consideration into the game to play and the environment which I believe will best enhance the experience. Which is sometimes as fun as playing the game itself. Like building a fort out of cushions and sheets, then setting up monitors, keyboard and flightstick in a specific manner just to give a feeling of claustrophobia and loneliness (plus block out all light and noise), all this just to play some space game.

      Sure I don’t suggest everybody go as far as that but really put a little effort in. Maybe it seems eccentric but the game will be better and you’ll have a bunch of additional fun on the side, plus who wants to live a normal boring life?

  8. RagingLion says:

    Last night was indeed spent in blissful melancholy for me. I’m atuned and receptive to the tone that Dear Esther creates so I know it meets me in a way it won’t for other people but it was an amazing experience for me.

    And I have to emphasise that the caves section for me was without hyperbole the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in a game – just utterly, utterly beautiful. I was frequently mouth agape, just saying “wow”, and complemented by the music those moments were really special.

    The deliberate walking pace that is all Dear Esther allows meant that at the end someone who was watching me play said “I just feel like I’ve walked across an actual island this evening” and we had. In a very real way we had made that journey that felt like a real-life one.

    I’m still trying to piece together what I think about whether it delivered everything as effectively as it could and whether the randomisation of audio clips and a deliberately obfuscated story makes sense, but wow, what an experience it all was.

    • scottyjx says:

      I feel the same way about those caves. Just finished the game. Those caves, man.

  9. chumm says:

    It is important to note, that the mod itself is free. If anyone wants to experience Dear Esther and not pay the price tag, the mod is just as haunting as this. I purchased this Day 1 and had no regrets. It managed to improve on the original in every aspect and the story-telling was even more bizzare.

    The price is justified. It’s more of an experience than a game, from start to finish. There wasn’t a moment which made me feel like turning it off, I wanted to continue to explore more. The island is beautiful, it is obvious that they took a lot of time and care into tweaking every last bit. I enjoyed my journey, I can honestly say I enjoyed it more than I’ve enjoyed games that I put a lot more hours into.

    • sassy says:

      The original mod was fantastic but it doesn’t reach the same heights as this version. The subtle refinements as well as the environment improvements really just blow the original mod away.

      I would not recommend the mod to anyone anymore. This game is an experience, how could I possibly recommend an inferior experience when this is so cheap?

  10. Cooper says:

    For some reason the first time I posted this it did not appear.

    Anyway.

    I’m still wondering how the hell game length is a justifiable way of valuing a games.

    Moreover, this is clearly, as the otherwise excellent words from John and Alec show, so much more than “90 minutes of gameplay”. It an engaging and emotional endeavour.

    The comments both these pieces end with regards to its pricing devalue games, devalue creativity, devalue a willingness to try something different. Those comments devalue the artistic work that’s gone into making something like Dear Esther by reducing the worth of this effort to how long it takes to get to the end.

    It’s an arbitrary way of valuing games. Had there been a door that was locked for 30 minutes, would the game be worth $5 more?

    Sure it may be clunky and may not be perfect, but Dear Esther is trying something different. Something different in the face of (depsite the resurgence of indie values) a game space dominated by conservative gaming models and static concepts of mechanics and narrative devices.

    If being different, and yet producing something of merit, even if being somewhat awkward for trying so, is something no longer valued by RPS, then something’s changed for the worse.

    By comparing it to a movie Alec gets close to the absurdity of suggesting $10 is too much for 90 minutes. Why not push this further? Should the argument not be that $10 is a bloody good deal for something like this?

    • Alec Meer says:

      Except I tackle exactly that issue at the end of mine, albeit a lot more briefly.

    • Unaco says:

      For $10 I can get a mass market paperback. That’s 5-10 hours of complete absorption, and, if the book/author is decent, a rewarding reread somewhere down the line.

      Should the argument not be that $10 is ridiculously overpriced for something like this? Especially considering the original mod is free?

    • Eddy9000 says:

      It’s an interesting idea throughout the world of cultural expression isn’t it?

      I mean why someone would pay millions of pounds for a Turner sunset when you can see a real and more impressive one out the window for free deomnstrates that art materials, labour time and creative ability (whatever that is) are only small aspects of how a piece of art (broadly speaking) is priced.

      Interestingly in Germany provision is made in the buying and selling of ‘picture’ art for the cost of the materials and the estimated labour hours of the artist, as if they were building a wall. Makes me wonder what the analogue would be for games pricing! Perhaps some kind of formula using monetary investment and man hour in development, divided by game length and quality (measured by metacritic natch!)?

    • Premium User Badge

      skalpadda says:

      Is 8€ a reasonable price for a unique and beautiful experience? I think it is and I’m not sure why you would need to make comparisons to other games or media to justify it.

    • Alec Meer says:

      I agree it’d be a better world if price didn’t come into quality judgements. But in DE’s case it is an essentially unavoidable point right now. They consciously gambled by opting for a high price; the good news is it seems to have paid off – 16k copies sold in 24 hours…

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Blarg. “For $10 I can get a mass market paperback. That’s 5-10 hours of complete absorption” etc… This sort of calculator-speak doesn’t help anyone at all.

      Contrary to my intitial reaction to the pricing, I think that the £6.99 tag shows that this game wants to be recognised as a legitimate purchase, not just another casual £2.99 indie curiosity/impulse buy. This is pretty brave I think, and I hope it pays off. As it were.

    • Unaco says:

      “This sort of calculator-speak doesn’t help anyone at all.”

      Really? No one at all? Why is that? I’d accept perhaps that it “isn’t very helpful”, or “a lot of people don’t find it helpful”, but some people do make judgements and decisions based on numbers like this. And that’s a Scientific Fact. In fact, we all do, at least subconsciously.

      My comment was essentially in response to the last line of the OP…

      “Should the argument not be that $10 is a bloody good deal for something like this?”

      I don’t see how the OP comes to this conclusion, and not the other side of the coin, that it’s vastly overpriced.

    • Cooper says:

      Unaco: You’re right in the comparing it to books that $10 may seem a bit much. But what about a 90 minute long album, or DVD?

      In anycase, I wasn’t trying to suggest these comparisons help us judge the cost of a game, but rather highlight the absurd arbitrariness of using length of time from beginning to end of a game to judge how much it should cost.

      I actually edited my original post after re-reading Alec’s end bit and realising what he was actually getting at with the movie comparison. Even so, I think the movie comparison doesn’t so much help justify the $10 price tag as force us to look for other ways to think about pricing of games.

      I’m glad Dear Esther made as much money as it did. And I think it’s a sad state to be in when the potential revenue for high volume low cost is taken as the dominant model.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      @Unaco: Yeah, sorry that was a bit of a sweeping generalisation. I guess I share Cooper’s frustration with the idea that the length of time you’re diverted for is a primary factor in determining the value of a piece of art.

      I like comics, but the average trade paperback lasts 100th the time of an average length novel and in some cases costs three times as much. If I cared about that stuff I’d have missed out on some of the best experiences of my life.

      Or another silly simile: if I go on a whale watching tour am I happier with an uneventful 3 hour cruise, or a more expensive 40 minute trip during which I’m splashed in the face by a sperm whale?

      Oh god… that wasn’t even meant to sound… sorry.

    • Cunzy1 1 says:

      Shirley in your case Alec the purchase was worth it because now RPS has had at least four posts on it and we all know how you Ad-whores here get paid by the word by THE MAN and THE MEDIA.

    • sassy says:

      For some of us a $10 purchase is something that needs to be considered, weighed and valued. If I can get a superior or a longer but slightly inferior experience for that value then it needs to be considered. The vast majority of my steam library was bought for $10 or less and that is a lot of games (300+), few of which give a shorter experience and many of which will provide a more enjoyable experience.

      Price and length are important to many of us, as unfortunate as that is. Some of us don’t have much disposable income and if that is the case, then value for money is the primary concern.

      With all that said, I thoroughly enjoyed Dear Esther and recommend it for it’s current price.

    • Bobtree says:

      I just don’t care about short games. If a game only lasts an hour or two, there wasn’t really anything worth learning or any real challenge or depth in it. A game that’s worth my time is worth my money, but a game that’s very short generally isn’t worth either. Because I’m an exhaustively experienced gamer, my bar for interest and novelty is much higher than average, and I want much more than a short diversion. Any truly worthwhile experience is also worth repeating.

    • Dervish says:

      I don’t know why it’s so hard to simply mention the length of a game without using a word like “overpriced,” which is presumptuous about the amount of money in our wallets and prescriptive about how we should spend it.

    • dsch says:

      (Very late to the party, so probably no one’ll read this.)

      It may surprise some to learn that you are not buying a 5-6 hour ‘experience’ when you buy a novel; you are buying (for a certain subset of novels) something that will change the way you live.

  11. Premium User Badge

    tobias says:

    Glad to see this, thanks. RPS should do more second opinions. Particularly of John’s WOTs…

    (Not that John’s opinions aren’t worthy and valid, y’see… they just never resemble my own. Not that I need validation… oh dear, I’m digging… Love you, John!)

    Oh, and incidentally, I thought DE was an beautiful experience in many respects, but most particularly in that it’s the first game in which my brain has subconsciously expected an odour, and I’ve noticed it’s absence (in the meadow early on). Very weird.

  12. Jesse L says:

    I bought it without having played the mod. I had heard of it before but didn’t know what it was about, other than walking around a place with a strong ambiance and listening to someone speak. The description of the game on its Steam page told me everything I needed to know about whether I should try it, and whether it was worth my money.

    I hope it does very well, because I want more games like this – weird visions some talented person has, and moreover has the ability to share, but ONLY in this one particular medium that I love.

    Also: AGAIN someone suggests that, instead of paying for [some cool, chill little indie game], we should just go outside. WELL THANKS. Even if I didn’t live in a horrible shitty neighborhood in Chicago with barely a single tree per square mile, even if I had a whole seaside forest to go walking in anytime I liked, I would still enjoy going to new places. I would still enjoy having the freedom to do so from my kitchen table in the middle of the night, in winter, in less than 30 minutes. Hey, if you’ll code me a great, inspired, creative environment to take a walk in, I’ll pay YOU $10 for it, too.

  13. Jesse L says:

    Also, for those who did enjoy Dear Esther, you might like this too:

    http://atomsmotion.com/amvshows.htm

    A podcast. For a minute I could have sworn the same guy wrote and performed both the game and this show. But the podcast is better written and often quite funny. Listen to Mailbox in the Woods. You especially, Alec! Turn off the lights and listen to it in the dark.

  14. Premium User Badge

    skalpadda says:

    On replay value, I’ll probably play through it again if only just for the experience of walking through the caves again.

  15. pakoito says:

    I demand my W key to be replaced for a new one.

    • Premium User Badge

      Comptess says:

      I concur. I triple-checked the options for a damn autorun key.
      Other than that it was a deep and eerie experience.

  16. TheGroovyMule says:

    I’d say you’d have to be receptive to this kind of thing to like the game, certainly not for everyone. I personally loved it, not only for the art, music and narration, but how they all seemed to work towards this underlying sense of sadness. Not the wallop you in the face best-friend-killed-by-space-aliens kind of melodrama, but a much more subtle, lingering feeling, an atmosphere. It was the kind of feeling that kept me quiet through the entire playthrough and I felt all elements contributed to that. To be honest though, I found the end a bit sad as I feel a reconciliation, or redemption by the end, though I suppose that still matches the tone. With that, I find it’s more about the experience, then the story, though certainly the story does bring the experience into context.

    Regardless of length, or price, it’s rare to find games that try to engage you with a negative emotion. I left the game feeling sad, and a bit exhausted. Which some might say is a point against DE, but I find any medium that makes me feel -something- has succeeded in some way.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Hidden_7 says:

    The “no replay value” comment is one I find odd. Do you not ever want to watch a show, a movie again? Read a book again? After all, all those things are exactly the same every time you watch/read them. Judged on the scale that games are, every single movie has zero replay value.

    It’s fine if you don’t happen to revist things. I’m not saying that’s wrong. But I do find that odd, as I will rewatch things, reread, replay things all the time. If you don’t happen to do that, then I find it odd to single Dear Esther out in particular as something you’d never want to replay or that you can’t see anyone else wanting to ever replay. Seems like that comment would need a provisio that you don’t own books, or have a movie collection, because it’s a waste of money, just watch them once.

    Now if it’s not the case that you will never rewatch/reread anything, which I suspect is the case, then that means there’s something unique about Dear Esther that makes it a very worthy experience, but only exactly one time. I’m not entirely sure from your impression what that might be. Maybe I’m the odd one now, for not seeing how that can be this way, since my reading of “would not watch/read/play/eat/etc. again” means “because it is bad and I didn’t enjoy the first time.” If I didn’t want to experience something again after the first time, I would absolutely not recommend it to anyone.

    In any case, I wonder if Alec, or anyone that agrees with him, could enlighten me as to why Dear Esther, presumably different from other things playing in its same broad niche, is worthy enough to warrant one playthrough, but no others.

    Even if it seems super obvious, and I’m just being odd for not getting this, I’d appreciate hearing what sort of qualities in things make people not want to revist them, even though, and perhaps because of, how much they enjoyed that first visit.

    • Stupoider says:

      Is it odd that people find the ‘game’ boring?

    • Premium User Badge

      Hidden_7 says:

      Nope, that’s fine, I’m in no way confused by that. Different strokes.

      What I find odd is if people enjoy the first playthrough, as Alec seemed to have done very much, so much so that they would recommend it to others, but never want to play it through again, and not see how someone else could. I’m wondering if this is true for him of all static media (e.g. it does not change from experience to experience), or if it’s something unique to Dear Esther, separating it from the likes of books, films, TV shows, etc.

    • Stupoider says:

      Sorry if that response came off a little passive-aggressive by the way, I’ve had a bad few days.

  18. edelnar says:

    There is a reason for replays, and it’s not only dialogues and random spawn objects. For my second play-through I’ve unlocked hidden “flashback” part in the third chapter, it changed slightly in third playthrough, and the “ghost” of Esther herself finally appeared in the forth chapter, as she did in original mod. Who knows what else can be changed in replays? There are lot of triggers on those levels and some do not have clear purpose without decompiling. But that’s where magic fades away.

  19. BlueZed says:

    I came away with a completely different ending. I have no doubt that the ending was the same but the story leading up to it must have been different because I don’t know how Esther could have been a mistake.

    • jaypettitt says:

      Esther doesn’t have a story as such, it merely suggests that you invent one. It straps you to an island shaped chair, doses you up and performs a series of randomised stim / response experiments on you in an order that roughly apes a narrative structure. Any story you take away from the experience is your own and entirely illusory.

  20. NUSNA_Moebius says:

    I saw this title on Steam and my initial interests were due to the “Source Engine being pushed to it’s limits”. After reading the description, I became intrigued, and I became reminiscent of my experience with the Far Cry mod Tuesday and Ark.

    This “game” or rather experience really was quite compelling, and allows one to argue games can be art, but then we must ask if this is a game, of which I would say yes. You can die (sort of) and it’s interactive, at least in terms of movement and pacing (since the player will define both). While I was playing initially I wanted some interactivity in terms of picking up objects, etc, but eventually you learn to appreciate the lack thereof.

    To be perfectly honest, I’m still trying to wrap my head around what exactly was going on, but the mystery, exploration, and sheer seclusion of the island keeps you going, as well as my interest in seeing how hard the Source Engine was to be pushed. By the fourth chapter of Dear Esther, your interest and emotional involvement is peaking and you feel that you must finish. What is also of note, is how inspired I was as I played to create my “experience” in a similar manner, or perhaps a game involving a lonely island. I love how such creativity spawns others to be creative too.

    All in all, a wonderful experience, and totally worth the $10 investment.

    Now I want someone to make a full on remake and better fleshed out Tuesday and Ark. Far Cry could always use more mod lovin’.

    • MrWasuji says:

      While I would agree that it was a lovely looking visual “short story”, I would not call this a game. Can you control the pacing? To a degree, sure. Is it interactive? Again to a degree, sure.

      The game is very deliberate in how and where you go. The cave is really very pretty to look at. You can look at moss covered rocks all you like. You can tell the creator spent considerable time on how things look. Where paint cans and old trash was stored.

      However, interactivity does not a game make, nor does controlling the pacing. I would ask, could this have just as easily made into a “Let’s Play” video while retaining the core elements of the experience? Absolutely. The major elements of the experience are primarily visual. We are shown very lovely and detailed areas but can’t interact with them. The walking pace is deliberately set to require us to pace methodically through these areas ( though if you watch carefully, as you progress it seems like you move quicker and move quicker). The progress is always linear and defined.

      This differs from say Pac-Man where I could watch a “Let’s play” video and get an idea of the experience but can’t really say I’ve played Pac-Man.

      The Steam page says the every play through is different with a semi-random story generated. I honestly don’t know if that is true, since I’ve only gone through it once. Perhaps others could comment. I am honestly disappointed, since I was expecting a mystery to unfold and that I would be actively trying to solve the mystery.

      Instead I got a very pleasant looking rails story experience, where the only mystery is “Where am I supposed to walk next?”

    • kobriel says:

      Somewhat starting from there, more to add to the MrWasuji’s and Moebius’ argument really, although from a slightly different point of view… Disappointed? Not interactive? Not a game? It mostly depends on player’s previous experience with this kind of storytelling and his/her expectations, indeed, especially regarding the interactivity degree. For some, is quite easy to figure out what’s happening, others clearly missed the whole point, even with the help in the end, when (and for me it seems the only way to make the story work, sorry to disagree with the reviewer, who’s done a great job otherwise) the story becomes or reveals itself as what it actually was from the beginning – independent of player’s will. I strongly believe that death is against any instinct one may have, it would be unnatural to live the option to the player. This, the entire journey is the dude’s last split second. There are no letters to Esther; there are just remembrances and regrets, whatever may pass vividly enough thorough the confusion and the hallucinations of a moribund, in that ‘special’ logic of the dying brain.

      There are clues everywhere, which complement each other. The narration helps the player/dying dude to understand what’s happening to him and reluctantly accept that he actually has no free will, that he is just a passenger, between two worlds. The visual clues, the apparent free will and the journey (a very strong archetype) through the desolated island (another very strong archetype) help the player understand the narration bits. I mean – a photo surrounded by candles? The inscriptions on the rocks? The scattered parts of a vehicle on an island with no roads? The crash on the highway when diving in the cave? The remembrance of one man’s fever and the convoluted cave/ own body? The fading memory of Esther, on the other hand, helps you understand the armada of the 21 never written letters visual piece. The guy says something about a road to Damascus? Here it is – on the rocks. Whenever you die in the game there is a whisper – come back! – which brings you back from the darkness… And so on. After the diving in the cave and the crashed vehicle’s red light scene under the water, the symbolism of the blinking red light on the cliffs should be obvious already. The player should be aware, by now, what’s happening here. And that only adds to the story, a whole new plethora of feelings invades you – I mean – dude! I’m dying and I’m alone in the night on the highway!.., It’s not about trying to solve a certain, expected (why?…) kind of mystery, well known to you from previous games, like a mathematical equation, or classic puzzle, but trying to do your own, more personal math, search for answers inside you. It’s this kind of mystery that unfolds, as others pointed out.

      To resume the whole point – what would be, most likely, your last thought in such an event? Hence, Dear Esther fading away, diving among all kind of bits regarding whatever the guy saw/read/heard/thought right before the crash. If you are a movie goer, you may think of The Fountain meets Stay meets Donnie Darko meets etc. Nothing really new in arts, generally speaking, but indeed unusual in games. And, for me, a great success. I love this game. It adds a layer that I’ve always felt as missing in the movies, the closest relative to a video game, and puts me right in the middle of everything abruptly, from the beginning. I go with the story at my own pace and I can clearly understand the whole thing entirely in my first pass through. It haunted me afterwards, just as those movies I talked about did. However, unlike those movies, where at a second sight you may found scenes that you overlooked or didn’t understand the first time, in this game you may actually find bits of story you didn’t hear/read/see at all the first time, and this is a plus, too. It won’t change anything, but enrich the story and make you feel that a second walk through (the irony!…) worth the time spent.

      To answer the questions I started with – come on, seriously? If it’s not what someone expected, since when a movie is restricted to the ’60s Wild West genre only because this is the only one I ever watched or enjoyed and all should be the same? Since when The Cat in the Hat is the only sort of literature permitted? There is a thing called ‘evolution’. I love equally The Longest Journey, Civilization, The Witcher, Deus Ex, Operation Flashpoint (the original ones), GTA, Mechwarrior, Master of Orion etc. AND Dear Esther. If I didn’t, that wouldn’t necessarily mean they were bad games, or no games at all – just that I didn’t like them, or perhaps I didn’t understand them, or I wasn’t in the mood for such games, or I just didn’t want them to play ‘unusual’. I can understand and never try to argue with people having whatever reason why they did/ didn’t like it or felt disappointed. After all – what would be a world where all the people have identical preferences? But it’s really too bad that many people say ‘I didn’t like it’ without actually understanding it. I saw, for instance, a comment somewhere: ‘it’s a walk simulator for lazy people’. I think they missed a great experience here. I wish I was surprised this way more often by various games, or whatever’s one’s preferred word for this kind of interactive thingy. For me, anyway, ‘video game’ seems to be the most appropriate classification. I don’t think so, but maybe it’s time to redefine some forms of interactive arts, making classes and subgenres more specific and restrictive? This way people who don’t like surprises and new ways to do things would know exactly what to expect?…

  21. scottyjx says:

    ” I don’t know why control was taken away.
    I would have jumped anyway.”

    This is why you’re the pro writer and I’m the reader. Great Wot I Think, Alec.