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The Unique Experience of Dear Esther

February 15, 2012

Yesterday marked the release of the long-awaited Dear Esther re-release, and I was quick to jump on it: I brought my laptop to work to download the game so it would be ready to play by the time I got home. Before I talk about the game, though, it’s worth mentioning that Indie Fund, which is a group of successful indie game developers who aim to finance other indie projects (and who helped finance this one), earned back their $50,000 investment in under 6 hours. That’s good news for developers, and I’m excited to see what else Indie Fund will support in the future.

Dear Esther was initially a Half-Life 2 mod, and it garnered quite a bit of fame when it was released in 2008. By the time I heard about it, the standalone remake was already in the works, so I chose to wait for the new release. I also avoided reviews and commentary on the game (or the original mod), to try to stay as unbiased as possible. But let’s skip any remaining introduction and dive right into my thoughts.

Here there be spoilers.

A Game?

A number of people have already questioned whether Dear Esther can really be called a “game”, and I think that it’s a legitimate question to ask. The entirety of the experience is your walking along fairly well-defined paths, looking at the world, and listening to fragments of letters from the narrator to—as we seem to gather from them—his deceased wife. Beyond the movement, though, there isn’t any interactivity: you never once affect anything in the world, a fact that caught me off guard when I walked into a stack of paint cans, expecting them to fall over, but instead finding them immovable. The level of interactivity isn’t much more than that of a book: progressing through locations on the island and letter fragments is analogous to working through a book’s pages at your own pace.

To this end, then, I hesitate to call it a “game” by today’s standards—but that’s exactly what’s in question here: is our current definition of “game” sufficient? And Dear Esther, at the very least, stands to stretch the boundaries of games. In their post announcing the release of the game, Indie Fund said:

We expect public reception of this game to run wide: some will love it, and others will be very concerned about whether this thing can be called a game and what that means.

We like that there’s such a big difference of opinion because it means the game is breaking new ground. It’s playing in territory that is not safe; there is no established understanding there.

If games as a medium is to grow, then we need games like Dear Esther to help us figure out what’s possible. So for that reason, I’m very happy that it exists. …Though I do have my doubts about how deep the story is.

Depth

I played through the game last night (I intend to replay it later to see what’s different each time), and it’s been on my mind for much of the day today: there’s no doubt that this game has affected me. Given that my thoughts on the game are so fresh, my opinion of it may change, but at present I have doubts about how much depth and meaning there is to the story. As best as I could gather, it can be summarized thus: Esther, the narrator’s wife, was killed in a car accident, and the narrator has since been stricken with grief and kidney stones. But as he grew in sickness and sadness, he finally saw fit to end his own life by jumping from the aerial on the island, to which he was (and we were as players) hypnotically drawn. And all of this brings up several questions, such as whether we play as the narrator, or as another visitor to the island—at times we can see a figure in the distance holding a lantern or candle. Also, the narrator spoke about the island metaphorically at times, so it is uncertain whether it actually exists. And of course, there’s also the question of whether he’s a reliable narrator to begin with.

So there are certainly questions to answer, but that doesn’t mean that the story actually possesses any richness. This afternoon I was exchanging emails with my friend Wesley, who, like me, bought the game within minutes of its release. I like the way he put it:

I feel like it suffers a bit from “there’s lots of random unexplained shit everywhere, ergo my story is deep” syndrome, but generally I liked it.

At this point, I’m not yet convinced that the events of the game will prove to be profound, or really have any affect on my own life or my perception of things—that is, I don’t think it’s quite as thought-provoking as I’d like—but it was a satisfying experience, and one that I’d really like to revisit. I did, in fact, get shivers at the end.

The Highlights

With all of this being said, I would hate to imply that the story is the only important factor here. The game has also been praised for its beautiful scenery. In particular, I really liked the luminescence of the caves and the moon. I don’t normally take screenshots in games, but I was compelled to do so when playing last night, and I’ve put in a few of my favourites below (they’re all 1440×900, so I recommend clicking them to view them in all their splendour).

Dear Esther Screenshot 1

The glow from the biolumniscence (blue) and candles (orange) made for a beautiful contrast.

But it’s not just the visuals that stood out to me: the sound design was remarkable. In the starting area, you spend a lot of time on sharp cliff edges, with the wind gusting about. The ferocity of the wind brought me back to my visit to the Cliffs of Moher in the west of Ireland this past May. There’s a certain feeling of uneasiness you get when standing next to sudden drops, and it’s only exacerbated by sudden gusts: Dear Esther recreates this feeling rather well.

Dear Esther Screenshot 2

The caves open up a number of times. Gorgeous.

Additionally, there are a couple of occasions when you’re submerged in a pool in the caves, with a waterfall flowing into it. The sound was muffled but harsh, once more creating an anxious feeling from the violent thundering of the waterfall. The music, too, was very nice, and that’s one of the things I look forward to paying more attention to on my next playthrough.

Dear Esther Screenshot 4

Bright moonlight: notice its reflection in the stream below.

Conclusion

On the whole, the experience of Dear Esther was a notable one, and I would like to state plainly and clearly that I enjoyed it, look forward to playing it again, and am especially happy that it exists. As I said above, I believe that this exploration of new areas in gaming is important and healthy for the medium, so it delights me to see some developers trying something very original. I’m hoping that over time I’ll grow to enjoy the story more (I did like the element of the parallel lines etched in the cliffs, and their recurrence in the story—I am eager to understand their meaning, if there is one), but I’m already content with the visuals and audio alone.

Do you think that Dear Esther should be classified as a “game”? What was your take on the story? Drop a comment below: I’d love to chat about it.

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