Have You Played… Dear Esther?

Perhaps the prototypical walking simulator, Dear Esther is a source of some division among the RPS Hivemind – John’s not at all taken with it – but I often catch my mind’s eye returning to its maudlin Hebridean coast.

Dear Esther is the essence of loneliness and regret, and pins by turns evocative and startling sights onto those universal emotions, augmenting them and also validating them with a vision of pretty purgatory. When I feel low, I long to retreat to rural solitude, rather than a poky suburban bedroom. Dear Esther makes misery noble rather than wretched, weaving music and environments into far more affecting an experience than any description could capture.

Not for everyone, I realise, but as an example of games trying Something Else, I think Dear Esther is hard to argue against.

91 Comments

  1. The_Player says:

    inb4 comments “not played because isn’t a game”

    I, personally, have deep sympathy to the project, regardless of how you name it; game, art installation — that’s not the point, because what it does — tells personal story of a wounded man — it does great. Kept inside that invisible cage, that prison, drowning in the deepest thoughts of you if you keep moving to far out the bounds of your very personal mind but also free and remaining on that beautiful island without time. The smallest details revealing a whole universe inside its core to explore.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Dear Ester is not a great game… It’s more like a good art film that happens to have an interactive camera. In that sense, saying it’s not a game isn’t even really a negative criticism… but it is actually a game.

      The problem is that we’re used to games where we control the protagonist directly, and the game mechanics are presented primarily as a means to defeat the antagonist (In action games, that’s usually the final boss, in survival games the antagonist is the environment, etc.). In Dear Ester, there is a story, but we control the viewpoint of a character whose relationship to the story is vague instead of being explicitly the protagonist from the start.

      (In a game, antagonists are never controlled by the players because protagonists determine the outcome of the conflicts presented by the antagonists. In Dungeon Keeper, the Keeper is the protagonist and the “heroes” and rival Keepers are antagonists. In a Deathmatch the protagonist is all the players’ avatars at the same time.)

      Dear Ester is a game, but it’s also 100% fair to complain about it not being like a game from a game theory and/or narrative theory viewpoint. In a game where you are clearly A Stranger Trying To Figure Out What Is Happening On This Island, there’s the start of a story complete with protagonist-antagonist relationship right there. However, Dear Ester makes vague the identities of all involved, and that’s why people who say it’s not a game do have a legitimate point, even though they’re not expressing the point correctly.

      It’s definitely 100% a simulation of walking, and what else it is, is set up as a conflict between the player and designer. Despite the designer not intending the conflict to be hostile, some players become frustrated and (correctly) realize the source of their frustration while (incorrectly) thinking that the game is unsolvable and therefore unfair. The intended solution to the frustration is for the player to discover one of the possible legitimate interpretations, but if the player doesn’t realize there are multiple real solutions, and that they have actually “beaten” the mystery presented by the designer + random number generator on the particular playthrough, the frustration over whether they are even resolving a conflict remains.

      It’s like Clue/Cluedo. There is no canonical killer, even in the movie. Dear Ester is like that, except there’s no canonical protagonist, antagonist or narrator. There’s a structure to the story: there’s always whoever you are, the Narrator is always speaking, reading, or writing to someone named Ester, the Narrator has always been to the island at some point before the protagonist arrives, and there’s always some kind of tragedy. But it’s just a structure to help the player discover who Ester is on the particular playthrough, not a single canon.

      Dear Ester IS the game.

      • Gonefornow says:

        What definition of a game are you using here?

        • Geebs says:

          I think that Madtinkerer is, here, defining a game as the result of the combination of an acid with an alcohol.

      • 8-Bit-Dick says:

        It was good, but could use a base jumping mod :)

  2. Kirilenko says:

    I have not played Dear Esther. And neither have you. Not a game that one.

    • The_Player says:

      Called it.

    • Pazguato says:

      Ditto.

    • Continuity says:

      Game or not I have “played” it and loved it. At the end of the day that is all that matters to me. I’ll leave the pedantry to those who spend more time talking about games than playing.

    • doggly says:

      if we’re going to be all semantic it is a game, regardless of whether you enjoyed it not

    • tumbleworld says:

      OED: “Game, n. … 3. a. An amusement, diversion, pastime.”

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      This is like a boring pantomime.

      “Dear Esther is an interesting game—-”
      “OH NO IT ISN’T!”

      It is almost 2015, I cannot believe I still have to read stupid knee-jerk reactions like that.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Well you’re almost right. Dear Ester at face value is more like an art film or a puzzle, but it is a game because there is a conflict, a way for the player to resolve the conflict, and the resolution of the conflict is the goal of the game.

      (In fact, in this sense Dear Ester is more of a game than Gone Home, because in Gone Home, the conflict for the player to resolve has nothing to do with the stories presented. In Dear Ester, once you discover the conflict you realize the story presented is 100% about resolving that conflict.)

      To be fair, the game itself never explicitly tells you what the goal is, and without a goal there is no game. In that sense, everyone who says Dear Ester is not a game is correct. But there is a goal. The goal is hidden, but it’s there. That’s why it is a game.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I disagree. It has supreme levels of interaction with the environment pioneered by cutting-edge shooters such as the most recent Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games.

    • sophof says:

      I have never understood people who somehow think this matters. Either you enjoy it (on whatever level) or you don’t. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else than what it is, so why bother with this ‘argument’ every time? All I can think of is some irrational fear.

      Literally everyone understands what Dear Esther is, arguing semantics can not possibly actually be about the meaning of the word ‘game’.

  3. Post-Internet Syndrome says:

    I played it, I liked it.

  4. Horg says:

    I’ve been avoiding this because I feel my subconscious expectation of gaming conventions would ruin it for me. Give me a book or some music that’s trying to evoke similar emotions and I can immerse myself in them without issue. Put me in a first person game and i’m just waiting for the crappy jumping puzzle or not so subtle directional hints to appear. We’ve been trained to think of these things as standard, and when they don’t appear its a minor culture shock that could knock you out of the moment.

    • Continuity says:

      I didn’t have too much of a problem with this, I went in not know much about it other than it was indie and the flavour of the month with critics, for the first 20 minutes or so I felt my way around seeing what I could interact with, expecting to be able to pick things up or something but I quickly realised my interaction with the environment was limited to simply moving though it and for me that wasn’t a problem, frankly I was intrigued. I finished it in one sitting and it was one of the best 4 hour gaming experiences I’ve had to date (I’m a veteran of about 400 games).

      This said it is DEFINITELY not for everyone, some people are just unable to get past the lack or mechanics, or just don’t appreciate the narrative style.

      • Alberto says:

        I knew what I was about to play and I felt cheated by it breaking its own arbitrary core rules.

        You can thow yourself off a cliff and nothing happens. But you are supposedly leg-broken, narrator says with a perfect “I’m not on painkillers at all” academic voice.

        You “die” if you throw yourself in certain deep holes, but not if you do in others equally deadly in its size and looks. And givem that the end of the game is what ot is, what’s the point of you-can’t-do-this-until-you-arrive-here?

        The narrator is pompous and I wish he shut off his mouth as soon as I figured out the story. The prose is not hermetic it’s just hollow and pretentious.

        There are chapters but there’s no autosave so you must begin again from the beginning if you can’t finish it in one go. And suffer the stupid narrator again.

        The surroundings are beautiful, yes but the whole effort is wasted. I’ve never wished a “run” button more than in this game.

        The main problem, mind it, is that I came from another Walking Simulator: The Stanley Parable, which is BRILLIANT and surpasses DE in every sense. Had I played them in the inverse order, I vould have enjoyed Dear Esther.

        • AyeBraine says:

          You’re not actually doing things the narrator describes. These things happened over years, and (in the case of conflating the experiences of prior inhabitants of the island into the narration) over centuries. You are no more leg-broken in the actual game process than these cars are actually lodged into the sediment in the deepest caves.

        • Continuity says:

          If you wanted a run button then DE definitely wasn’t for you. I spent extra time in the environment, just walking round, looking, understanding, each area I moved on from I did so with a tinge of regret. If there was a run button, I wouldn’t of used it once.

          “The narrator is pompous and I wish he shut off his mouth as soon as I figured out the story. The prose is not hermetic it’s just hollow and pretentious.”

          Once again, DE clearly is not for you, there is no story, there is an experience.

    • Zwebbie says:

      @Horg: This is what actually happened to me during my first playthrough — I couldn’t think of anything as merely decorative, so I kept trying to figure out what to do at the cabin in the opening sequence for the first few minutes. It was also difficult for me to form an opinion on Dear Esther, because I had listened to all the audio in gamey manipulative clue mode, instead of an emotional mode. But then I played it again, knowing what to expect, and loved it.

  5. Melody says:

    I went in expecting it to love it like nothing else, and… I didn’t. I loved Gone Home to bits, but Dear Esther wasn’t a satisfying experience. It left me relatively cold and indifferent.

    I mean to replay it, to see if I just couldn’t connect with it in a moment of stress, when I played the first time. The style of writing didn’t manage to capture me, and I didn’t feel the sense of space, exploration and wonder (?) that I think the game was trying to convey either.

  6. DXN says:

    I found the poetry of it pretty crap, but I love the ambition and the way it got people talking, plus the visuals are pretty amazing. Not especially inclined to play it again, but very glad it exists.

  7. morbiusnl says:

    posting in a “IT DOESN HEVE ASSPLOSIONS SO IT ISNT A GAME” thread

    • Jalan says:

      When you start said thread, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of sarcastic memetext?

  8. BooleanBob says:

    The point where it clicked for me was reading an interview in which Pinchbeck likened his strategy for the game’s narrative elements, such as they are, with a song rather than a story.

    Song lyrics are a funny thing. You can find examples of stories replete with beginning, middle and end, certainly – but that’s far from the dominant mode. At the other end of the spectrum you have words only arranged for their rhythmic or ‘musical’ value rather than the meaning they hold, or nonsense or even made-up language; scat or glossolalia. And in between you have all sorts of fragments, diatribes, snatches of sentence and sense which can serve to paint a picture in the mind of the listener, or a situation, or a riddle, or a joke, or an emotion, or a mix of all or none of these.

    Thinking of Dear Esther in this way – as a song, rather than a story – made me a lot more comfortable I had originally been trying to agonise over placing all the characters and events into a neat timeline, something I’m certain is intentionally impossible. Just answering questions like ‘who could have painted these elaborate symbols everywhere if they’d just done an improvised self-kidneystone-ectomy?’ was dragging me out of my suspension of disbelief.

    Instead, like Alec, I was able to treat the ramblings and observations of the narrator as a sort of complement to the impressively bleak scenery and soundscape, and use that as a jumping off point to allow my thoughts to wander, much as I do when I’m walking somewhere with my headphones in. I didn’t get the same things out of it that I would other games, but I got something out of it nonetheless and was glad for the experience.

    If I had any criticism to level at the game it would probably be that those famously sumptuous visual vistas you stumble across are a little too beautiful, a little too sublime, and as such the whole experience teeters at times on tipping into out-and-out scenery porn. But your mileage will vary on that.

  9. Jalan says:

    I have, I enjoyed it (gasp!) and will forever longingly wait for the Unity conversion.

  10. Eight Rooks says:

    I have played it. Scenery was lovely, if somewhat more lo-fi than I was hoping (I still remember when it came out and some developer tweeted – paraphrased – “Apparently Dear Esther has crowned me Lord of the Flowers, because they’re all turning to worship me”). But the writing was awful, and the story wasn’t remotely deep or complicated enough to justify the purple prose or the randomised narrative. I doubt I’ll ever go back. I have no problem with it being called a “game”, it’s just been done much, much better elsewhere. Eidolon may not have someone doing dark magic with the Source engine, but it knocks Dear Esther into a cocked hat in terms of non-linear storytelling, breadth of emotion, ambiguity, layers upon layers of meaning and so on.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Aerothorn says:

    I love Dear Esther (2008) – the original mod release.

    The retail release, I strongly admire – but it’s much more guided. It randomizes the narrative less, and it has that incredibly overt “in case you didn’t get it” scene (I won’t say what for spoilers) that, while very cool, takes a lot of the pleasure away from me. Dear Esther is a fragmented poem, and I played the original many times trying to parse its meanings. Dear Esther (2012) really only has the one canonical interpretation, at least of the main thread.

    • Premium User Badge

      Aerothorn says:

      Which is not to undersell Robert Briscoe’s incredible work in turning the game from a made-by-an-academic-and-it-looks-like-it mod to a truly beautiful place.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        Huh, I really loathed what little randomness there was in Dear Esther (2012) since it had no purpose other than to randomly withhold parts of the story. I can see a game doing that succesfully (especially if you think of it as poetry, as you suggest) but DE was not it.

        • AyeBraine says:

          I agree. I ended up listening to all the sound files in order through a music player, then I walked away fully content with the game. These narrations are awesome.

    • kwyjibo says:

      I don’t think the randomization added anything.

      I played through the mod exactly once when it came out. Not touched the full release, which I just assumed to be a graphics pack.

      I think a lot of players have only been through it once, and have no desire to return to it. So they would never even notice the randomisation, it’s only there to create ambiguity in forum threads.

  12. HyenaGrin says:

    Dear Esther is about as close to pure poetry in game form as I have seen. It makes no concessions to traditional games (unlike, for example, Gone Home, which is at its core a very (very) loose puzzle game). It is something you explore, attempt to understand, attempt to empathize, and to let it wash over you. It is a poem. A well-crafted, lonely, occasionally breath-taking poem. If the idea of poetry being something valuable makes you balk, this game will probably also make you balk.

    It really isn’t for everyone. But the incessant buzz of ‘not-a-game’ really grates on me. I won’t get into that tired argument though. It is enough to say that I disagree with that noise.

    • Loopy says:

      That’s pretty much the way I saw it too, I thought it was a beautiful experience. :)

    • Synesthesia says:

      I th ink the game that really really pulled what you describe off is thirty flights of loving. The dinner scene is absolutely fantastic, and let me just watching the screen in awe. Fucking beautiful. Can’t wait for the hacking one.

  13. PikaBot says:

    Regardless of what one thinks about it, I don’t think there’s any denying that it is an absolutely gorgeous piece of environment work. I still remember when I first stepped inside those caves and had my breath taken away by how incredible it looked.

    • Premium User Badge

      particlese says:

      To me, the story was just a thing that was there, mostly forgotten, but yeah, the scenery was really something else. And it wasn’t just shiny (metaphorically speaking) and full of detail: Each new location seemed pre-framed as a well-composed, very pretty (albeit moody) photo. I’m still amazed they were able to pull it off that well and that often, given your ability to roam about a fair amount. I liked the music and ambient sound, too, but jeez, those visuals…

  14. CantankerousDave says:

    I’ve always liked the term “FPA” — First Person Audiobook. It’s descriptive without being as inherently condescending as “walking simulator.”

    • captain nemo says:

      I think you’re onto something there. ‘Walking simulator’ does not capture the heart of it.

      I really enjoyed it

      ps – If you like DE, then Eidolon may be up your alley

    • GameCat says:

      Try applying this term to Proteus.

      • MadTinkerer says:

        I think of Proteus as a really, really, really good screensaver, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          You are not mentioning the music/sounds then though, and they deserve to be noted.

  15. Just Endless says:

    I have zero problems with gameyness, I just think that compared to the world of currently existent short fiction you could be reading, Dear Esther has weak writing. And I think it’s a waste of time.

    EDIT: Hella pretty though. And any time comments come from someone with very little time for games, so this opinion recurs 1 in 4 times according to my steam library sorting. Still. Ugh.

  16. Monggerel says:

    It’s a game that tries something else and is also fecking cork shite. So far up its own bunghole it has its foot in its mouth.
    Bleh.
    Kinda like Machine for Migs.

    I think I really don’t like thechineseroom’s brand of intellectualism.

    …yeah, “game”. Walking simulator is a pejorative no matter how much some would like to just accept it and not fight about it. Don’t need to call it “game”, any old name will do but what place it comes from is of importance.

    • MadTinkerer says:

      Yeah, even as someone who likes it for what I think it is, I rate it as merely “good”. Like pretty much all games that try to be that different from established norms, it’s not the best example of the possible genre and comes with a high likelihood of frustrating players.

      Donkey Kong is utter rubbish, no actual jump physics and not nearly as good as Mario Bros. Quake level design is terrible (because many of the levels were made for a completely different game which happened to also be called Quake), but the game is saved by an action formula originally established by pre-id 2D maze shooters. I ragequit Half Life and never finished it, though I did finish Half Life Source with the help of cheats.

      There are lots of terrible games totally worth playing. Except Donkey Kong, but YMMV.

    • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

      I agree with your opinion, but:

      ” Walking simulator is a pejorative no matter how much some would like to just accept it and not fight about it. ”

      No. People created ‘walking simulator’ as a pejorative term to mean ‘this is a game in which all you do is walking’. It’s been reclaimed by people who want to make these kinds of games by saying ‘yes it is’. That is, instead of arguing that there are things to do in the game other than walking, they are arguing against the underlying assumption that a game should have more exciting verbs in it than ‘walking’. I can’t see how a dev using it to describe their own work, or journalists like Alice using it to group a kind of game that they enjoy, can be sensibly thought of as pejorative.

  17. DeepwellBridge says:

    I did play Dear Ester and it wasn’t my cup of tea. It wasn’t the lack of traditional gameplay that bothered me. I bought it because of the trailer. In that trailer I was hit by some lovely prose. This intrigued me. I thought I was going to be playing through a deep and meaningful story sort of like what “Welcome Home” did a few years later. What I got was a mismatch of well-written poetry that had no cohesive journey behind it. There was no plot to follow, no connection with the character I was or what he was mourning for. It saddens me because the setting and cues set up what could have been a very deep and meaningful tale, but I just couldn’t piece together what was happening. The writers of Dear Ester hid the plot too well.

    I honestly don’t mind a little fuzzy wuzzy confusion here and there. I’m not a fan of hand holding in games, but Dear Ester went to the opposite extreme. It tried to be so nontraditional in its storytelling that it lost the story it was telling… and while playing the thing I got the sneaky suspicion that the writers didn’t even know where to go with it all. They just hid the plot holes with beautiful prose that by themselves make good poems, but fail to capture a cohesive journey for the player. This isn’t being clever it’s being lazy.

    SPOILER: for example, the ending… without any true setup I turn into a bird and fly away. How magical. But they could have hinted at this throughout. Have my character come upon a bird house and then my character talks about how he loves birds and freedom. The only visual cue that I remember is seeing a random bird here and there. It’s been a while since I’ve played so maybe it was in the prose, but I didn’t feel any connection to the poetic language. They should have been something more visual with connecting those prose to the game, a symbol that I could follow throughout. Don’t just show me random birds flying about. Let one land nearby and look directly at me. Let me run into random paintings of birds. Make the island a little more obsessed with the creatures, then once I climb the top of the tower and take a dive become one with birds, it will have more baring and meaning. Without that setup the ending just sort of felt like a Des Ex Machina. He dives to his death… and magically POOF he’s a bird! How swell!

    • MadTinkerer says:

      “The writers of Dear Ester hid the plot too well.”

      Yep. But the real problem is that they don’t tell you that putting the plot together for yourself is the real goal. Ultima III kept Exodus’ identity a secret until the end (spoilers: Exodus is a computer, not a demon), but it at least told you that the goal was to go beat Exodus.

      If Ultima III was made like Dear Ester, it would have you finding lots of letters that Lord British has written to Exodus, but no clear indication of whether you are really Exodus, whether you’re meant to fight Exodus, and so on, and the answers would be different each time you played. Sometimes Exodus would be a computer, sometimes Exodus would be a demon, sometimes Exodus would be Lord British, and sometimes Exodus would be a mirror.

    • joa says:

      What makes you think he turns into a bird? I think you’re taking it a bit too literally. There’s not meant to be some big overarching plot or journey – it’s more about the mood and atmosphere.

    • AyeBraine says:

      He doesn’t turn into a bird, he just dies with some degree of peace. If anything, the whole walk was just this – a pre-mortem “soul walk” through years of wandering through the island, and before that, reading about it and thinking about the past. It’s like a living diary / hallucination moments from death.

      Making a game “just a dream” is a far-from-perfect plot device, but here it is rather justified. The character of the story is, indeed, a man who completely confuses physical reality and his thoughts, his own memories and the memories of people he thinks about – both because of his decades-long obsession and because of his awful wounds that put him into wild fever. For him, every moment of his life and every memory exist simultaneously, and the notion of an island ties them together neatly.

      • DeepwellBridge says:

        Your take on the game is very intriguing AyeBraine. If they would have made this idea more clear to me I would have enjoyed the story much more! I guess it is hard to be clear cut about something so unclear, especially if the main character/narrator isn’t reliable and clear about it all himself.

        If there were more satisfying gameplay elements then I would have been fine with the disjointed story arc. I’ve played many great games with meh story-lines. But to me this game was beautifully dull. It gave me a hunger for something else and didn’t leave me satisfied.

        I would probibly enjoy the game as is on the Oculus Rift though. This I feel is the best place for an immersive experience like Dear Ester.

        • AyeBraine says:

          Well, it’s kind of a trap =) If I try to describe what you’re “supposed” to get from the story, I would start throwing around book and movie titles, and this is not good, because everyone has different tastes.

          Nevertheless, it is a fact that there are poems, stories and movies where it doesn’t matter if something’s real or not. Not because it’s a silly fancy, a mushroom hallucination or a bad trip. But because the piece operates in its own reality. That reality MUST be understandable – it has to remind us of our own thought process, our emotions, or situations in life – but it can morph and change, like a dream.

          So in Dear Esther, everything you meet (or hear) is part of your thoughts. So if you see a 50-feet hand-written sign on a cliff, you think about who might have felt compelled to do such a thing; what does it mean; and at the same time it’s just an “important thing”. Like, you loved a girl, and you loved her so much that you WOULD paint her name over and over again in uninhabited cliffs if she died.

          So all these formulas (all of them are formulas for alcohol), all these quotes from holy texts, all these stranded cars and boats-without-bottom, all of these are reflections of what this man thought. He thought about that night when some nice, silly drunken man accidentally killed his wife on an intersection of highways. And he became a hermit, first visiting the isle again and again, and then moving there with minimum of supplies.

  18. Jeroen D Stout says:

    It is just the time to replay it. Such an excellent game.

    I wish there were more games like it—just poetry, landscape and music. Such beauty.

  19. Gap Gen says:

    SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

    To people who say that the writing is bad, that it misses the point – just go away and kill someone in an accident that was largely your fault, *then* you can come back and say it’s no good.

    • Premium User Badge

      james.hancox says:

      Utter nonsense. That is like saying that to criticise Call of Duty’s writing, you must first go shoot a thousand people.

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        oops posted in wrong place

      • Gap Gen says:

        Well, thanks for telling me that *now*.

      • AyeBraine says:

        That would be something. Imagine a bevy of Call of Duty reviews by veteran SF combatants and governmental mass murderers.

  20. scottyjx says:

    Alec’s WIT has a line in it that will stay with me forever. “I would have jumped anyway.” I think I’ll play this again later, to break up all the scary games I’m playing.

  21. Wret says:

    I think it does something different, and not very well. I want games to try different things, but that doesn’t put them above or below criticism.

    The game was very pretty, but I felt so very distant from the game. “But that’s the point!” and it’s kind of dumb. I basically fell asleep leaning forward on the W key. The water slide was fun. I woke up when I saw the end and realized “oh dear something is about to happen”, teared slightly and…realized the game had taken control away from me. Really? You have me manually give the character gas all the way here and in this one final part you decide you can just make it a first person cut scene? Go to hell. I am serious I was revolted at that point.

    My feelings for the game are very complicated and have little to do with what I’m assuming it’s creators wanted me to care about. It’s like someone offered to tell you a story for $10 and then starts drinking and sobbing heavily while leaning against (or falling into) you on your stools, getting the attention of everyone in the bar and you just MET this man and have no reason to be attached or invested in him other than losing someone in a car crash and feeling guilty about it is universally horrible.

    It’s very uncomfortable.

  22. AyeBraine says:

    I’ve found that the prolonged session of listening to all of the game’s voice files, like you would play an audiobook, allowed me to round out my impression of the game. I’ve played it through a couple of times, and it was unlike anything else – but I got my answers, and the whole story, from deciphering the whole thing (the game varies the chunks of voiceover it gives you depending on playthrough). Of course, it doesn’t “decipher” in a definite sense, but all the bits and images are strongly interconnected.

    Basically, I got 2 for 1 – a unique game and a devastatingly good audiobook/radio play.

    It’s as if Kislewsky made his “Three colors: Blue” as a single internal monologue. (Yeah, sounds very snobbish, but the movie is great, and kinda accessible really).

    And this “…come back! Come back!” line is the best “invisible wall” in a game that I’ve ever seen.

  23. Heliocentric says:

    My favourite secret seagull game of the 2010s.

  24. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    Played it, found it boring. Not ‘ugh all you do in this game is walk’ boring (I loved Bernband) but ‘ugh if I have to listen to this guy trying to display what he believes is his massive intellectual girth by drawing spurious literary connections between everything he knows a bit of and a death he lacks the emotional fortitude to move on from for ten more seconds I’ll have to go to a college and start beating up Lit majors’ boring. It was an interesting experiment, but a failed one.

    • AyeBraine says:

      But he didn’t boast his literary knowledge! The quotes were part of a story. Like he became obsessed with the island, then found an unknown 19th century syphilitic author who also became obsessed with the island (for different reasons), and was basically the only person who ever read his book. And he felt that this island is the reflection of his desperation and alienation even more. It’s like audio diaries in System Shock, but two-tiered =)

      And this is not the only layer that show in the narration – there are traveler’s cynical notes, but the traveler recounts a story about a shepherd who was out of luck and returned to island and died from cold, gathering his cattle (I think so, maybe it goes a little different). Thing is, it’s just connected images, like in a book or a poem. And considering you are the view/soul/whatever of the guy who obsessed over this cold death, it is not at all superficial to the game!

  25. jellydonut says:

    I like it a lot, it’s pretty.

    I wish more games could be like this – perhaps a bigger game where the story has characters and choices.

    I’m tired of having to go through shooting galleries to enjoy a story. Not every game needs combat.

  26. Loopy says:

    I have to say I enjoyed the “experience” of Dear Esther a great deal. No it’s not a game in the traditional sense, but it was, for me at least, a very interesting interactive experience with a terrific atmosphere… and I found the end sequence in particular very moving in it’s own way, it certainly caused me to ponder many things about my own life for a while afterwards.

    It’s not something I could recommend to everyone, but if you come to it with an open mind I think it’s quite rewarding in it’s own quiet way. It also has an awesome soundtrack. :)

  27. anHorse says:

    Sod the gameplay or lack thereof, the biggest issue for me with DE was the writing which was not good at all.
    Quite frankly DE has to be a game because I doubt it would rise to acclaim in another medium where there would be less of a desperate desire for a “mature” experience like this.

  28. empty_other says:

    If we took, lets say Modern Warfare 2, and removed all the shooting parts inbetween, would that still be a game? What if the walking and the cutscenes was the only interesting part of the game? Its weird, they spend all their money on making cool cutscenes, fantastic levels, then between that they force us to play a mediocre shooting gallery game while moving down some mediocre corridors where we have to occasionally sit behind some crates for half a minute to avoid being forced to retry it. Very occasionally they change it up by placing a terrible out-of-place but easily solved puzzle.

    The way i see it, Modern Warfare-style games barely have any gameplay left in it to be called games at all. So why this anger at Dear Esther for having removed the boring parts of a first person game? The best part of both Mass Effect and Dragon Age series was talking to people in the cities or on your team, or explore the cities and reading lore. And there was a giant disappointment on the internet forums when the second Watch_Dogs trailer contained gunplay when the first promised high-tech spygaming. Both games could have cut away a lot of boring parts and been better of.

    Despite Dear Esters (subjectively) crappy story, it was refreshing for once not be commanded around on silly puzzles or dragged along everywhere. No pressure to survive or try again. But i prefered “Gone Home”, a game in the same style but with a proper story and a bit less “path-like” earned it a spot on my favorite games list. I pray and hope it will soon be replaced by a game like it.

  29. Darth Grabass says:

    Played it, loved it, and I guess I’m old enough to be somewhat surprised at the “But it’s not a game” reactions. I cut my teeth on games like Gadget and The Dark Eye, which are apparently ancient forgotten artifacts at this point in gaming history, but they helped form my ideas of what games can do.

  30. Premium User Badge

    Don Reba says:

    Outstanding game, that one. One of the most beautiful things to ever grace the screen of my monitor.

  31. CookPassBabtridge says:

    In Dear Esther you are coming to the slow realisation of what happened to the narrator, whose madness makes the story opaque (at first) and whose last moments you are walking through. Albeit in a very roundabout way, you unearth the reason he went mad and ultimately chose to end it all. Its discovering a tragedy, played on endless loop as a ghost story.

    Perhaps you need to be in a certain emotional place when you experience it but I think empathy for what happened to him and grief was what I felt playing it. That made it important for me. I think if you didn’t feel those feelings though, no – you would be wondering what the hell all the fuss was about.

    • Chorltonwheelie says:

      Yes, very much this.
      Criticising the writing then demonstrating you’ve really not understood in the next sentance (“turn into into a seagull”?) probably indicates the game isn’t for you at your time of life.
      The literal kills art.

  32. Dwarph says:

    ahhhhh cant fully express my love for this game/experiment/walking simulator/art experience/art installation/interactive audio book/stop trying to define things

  33. Hauskamies says:

    I hate the term walking simulator so much. I don’t care if people decide that dear esther and it’s ilk aren’t games but for the love of everything that is good, can we come up with a name that’s main purpose isn’t to degrade the said media.

  34. tomimt says:

    I tried to enjoy it, but I came into conclusion that I’d love to have even a tiny bit of game in my walking simulators, hence I enjoyed Gone Home much more. In the end the real question with a product like Dear Esther is, whatever you want to watch a movie or play it as an interactive narrative. Somethin like DE I’d be more happy to watch as a movie.

  35. gartioni says:

    It’s all about ‘expectation management’. Approach Dear Esther with your expectations low and you’ll be rewarded.

    For me the real value was in the atmosphere and the way it made me feel. There are some lovely moments when you’re wondering whether you saw something or not. By the end I felt a strange mixture of being really impressed with the experience, but it lowered my mood and I couldn’t stop thinking about it and its message.

    I was really disappointed to see the spiritual successor (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) is PS4 only. I can’t imagine a less suitable platform for this type of experience!

  36. Geebs says:

    Now that there are actually good walking simulators, Dear Esther should really just slide on into history. It’s badly written, badly implemented (you’ll only throw yourself off when we say so, even though our terrible prose will make you want to drown yourself within seconds of starting), and it takes a wretchedly pretentious approach which totally ruins any real feeling that it might try to wring out of the hopelessly hackneyed plot. Game or not (it’s not; video games are unique in the interaction between player and creator, and there is none to be found here), it’s bad art.

    And the mushrooms turn to face you at all times like it’s 2005 or something.

    • AyeBraine says:

      You didn’t recognize my joke about the women who conquered Athens then, and took me for a mysoginist.

      And I don’t agree with you now, not at all. The writing was good, and final “throwing yourself off” justified. It’s like saying Faust shouldn’t have listened to that ol’ Devil and just walked up to the girl.

  37. Scandalon says:

    Yes I have. Both the original mod and the updated release.

    To repeat a large part of what others have said, I rather enjoyed the first, by the time the new version came out, I appreciated the updated visuals, but I’ve not finished it. Yes, there are issues and things that have since done one aspect or another better, but The Original Dear Esther should be praised and remembered for being the first (well known, at least partially successful) attempt at something like it, the remake for the impressive visuals wrung out of the aging engine, and proving there is a “market”, desire, niche for things like it.

  38. Carighan Maconar says:

    I did, and I felt it was a waste of time. Whatever the devs were going for it didn’t work out. Later games iterated on the idea and did more with it, but Dear Esther was a bad showcase to start from. And it resulted in a slew of copycats which don’t do anything but look pretty, either.

  39. Oktober Storm says:

    I love it, it touched me. Too bad there’s so far between titles like this one…

  40. sophof says:

    One of the few ‘artsy’ games that does it for me. I can’t put my finger on it, but this game just works where others fail. I’d love to play it with a Rift in the future as well.

  41. drewski says:

    Yes, I have played it. Rather enjoyed it. Loved the atmosphere and the scenery. Thought the “story” got what it needed to done. And it set the path for so many more interesting games.

  42. Reignable says:

    I lived on the Hebrides for a year. Dear Ester is nothing like it at all. Way more dull in real life.

  43. ffordesoon says:

    Played it once for a few minutes, didn’t like it. That I had a panic attack immediately afterward (not related to the game) probably didn’t help, but I do try not to make Dear Esther the cause of the panic attack when I think back to my time with it. I spent that time alternating between frustration and boredom.

    It’s funny, though; for something that is so often accused of not being a “real game,” my biggest issues with Dear Esther are quintessentially game-y:

    – The key mechanic – walking, in DE’s case – feels undercooked. I realize the game was originally a Half-Life 2 mod, but if you’re going to make a game where literally all I do is walk, the least you could do is make it somewhat tactile. I’m not saying there need to be run and jump buttons or whatever; I get that the player character is not the usual omnicidal übermensch. My issue is that taking a PC FPS engine and slowing down the movement speed a bit isn’t sufficient to convey the physical state of the protagonist. You feel like the floating camera you are.
    – No manual saves, awful checkpointing.
    – Level design that emphasizes beauty over readability. The amount of times I bumped into an invisible wall preventing me from exploring areas I absolutely should have been able to explore…
    – Game-breaking bugs. The reason I quit playing the game is because I got stuck on a bit of scenery and couldn’t escape. At which point I remembered that the game only had checkpoint saves, because fuck me and my time.

    I also didn’t think the writing of the narration was all that good, as prose, poetry, or prose poetry. I don’t like to use the word “pretentious,” because it’s too often used as a blanket dismissal by people who steadfastly refuse to engage with a work they don’t immediately grasp, but if there’s a better word to describe Dear Esther’s narration than pretentious, it’s not a word I know. Despite some stellar voiceover work, I repeatedly came away from the narrated excerpts feeling as though the writer was trying for profundity and falling short.

    I love that the game exists, and I have nothing but respect for what it’s trying to do. But I think it’s a noble failure at best.

  44. Pippy says:

    I need a walkthrough for this. I’m stuck on the beach.

  45. Zero_hu says:

    Yes, I played it, and I didn’t like it. Gameplay-wise, it’s worse than a QTE-infested interactive movie. It’s an interactive _book_, where the interaction has mostly nothing to do with the narration.

    And I supposed to “play” it through multiple times to hear all the voicover? No thanks.