Game review: Dear Esther

But is it a game?

Game, interactive story experience or pretentious twaddle? the commercial release of the former Source Engine mod, Dear Esther, promises to divide its audience.

I’ve been playing games for far too long. So long, in fact, that I rarely actually have an original gaming experience. Most games are basically derivative efforts that I’ve seen before. I’m not saying that as necessarily a bad thing, it’s just truly original ideas seem to be getting few and far between these days. Dear Esther seems to be a change from the gaming norm.

The pre-release blurb for PC game, Dear Esther, suggested that it may be the sort of thing that a jaded gaming type like me should check out. The game is a re-tooling of a Source Engine mod of the same name, released back in 2008, and apparently promises to be some sort of interactive novel.

The Lighthouse
The Journey Begins!

When it comes to my sort of game the plot is everything. I’m long over shooting for the sake of shooting, sideways scrollers or annoyingly addictive Tetris-like affairs. A game, for me to enjoy it, has to have a plot. It doesn’t have to be deep or profound; it just needs to be relevant. Some of the best movies that I’ve never seen have been video games. Even Call of Duty, with its bat-shit-mad, Michael Bay-inspired shenanigans totally does it for me.

For the uninitiated, Dear Esther sits at the opposite end of Tetris on the gaming periodic table, being all plot and no game; at least not in the traditional sense. Dear Esther is more of a visual novel than a game. There are no enemies to kill, no puzzles to solve and no points to be won. And some folks are gonna get very upset about this.

Dear Estherstarts with the player standing at the top of a boat ramp on an small island in the Outer Hebrides (that’s off Scotland for the geographically challenged), looking up at an abandoned lighthouse and its equally decrepit outbuildings. To the left, in the far distance, a flashing red beacon atop an aerial mast suggests your ultimate destination.  The controls are simple: forwards, backwards, left, right and focus. No running, no jumping, no firing and no interaction. Your task is simple: to explore the island and discover its secrets for yourself.

Beautiful environments!

Wondering around the island will trigger the narrated voice-over, an Englishman describing a life-changing event in his past that begins with a salutation, the titular Dear Esther. The narration is quite bizarre, skipping between the profound details of a car accident to the history of the island and the vista surrounding the player.

The lack of a run button means that the trip across the island is quite leisurely,obviously by design; it’s not intended to be a time trial. Whilst the slow pace can be a tad frustratingly, especially when you find yourself having to retrace your steps, players are given plenty of time to take in the island and spot subtleties that would be otherwise missed.

Were the graphics any less than the superb visuals on offer, the hike around the island could wear a little thin. Thankfully the island is rendered in such glorious detail one can almost taste the sea air. It is incredible that, even after all these years, the Source Engine can still hold its own against newer graphics engines.

the cavern
Under the Mountain!

The sound design draws the player into the experience. The wind and rustling of the grass helps to recreate the ambence of a Scottish island. The haunting piano and violin score wells up unexpecidly giving the game a sense of the epic.

Dear Esther takes the player on a journey that explores desolate hillsides, rugged beaches and grotto-like caverns. All the while offering visual conundrums. As the sun goes down strange markings in luminous paint glow from walls and rock faces, chemical formulas and electrical circuit diagrams, all clues to the story.

The game presents players with a level of atmosphere that would be simply possible if it were a tranditional game. Whilst some will see this as a cop-out,  limiting the players interaction to exploring the island results in a carefully controlled player experience that would overwise be shattered by a user created random action; somewhat akin to a reader deciding to write his or her own chapter in the middle of a book. The question is have we got something sublime or are we simply experiencing a long interactive cut-scene?  The answer to that question will depend on the player.

the figure
Is that a person up there?

Dear Esther is going to disappoint a few people. Whist the world is incredibly detailed, the path though it is very linier. The lack of challenge as you glide unimpeded across the landscape is going to be too much for some to deal with.  If you like your gaming hardcore, give this one a miss unless you really fancy a change of pace. If you like a good mystery novel or are one of those folks that likes to just wonder aimlessly around open-world games Dear Esther is worth a try.

The game is quite short; a casual walk around the island will only take a couple of hours. But the narration isn’t always the same with each playthrough and nor are some of the other things that you may spot. Now, whether the developers intended you to play it more than once, I’m not sure. I know that Quantic Dreams never intended their Heavy Rain game to be played more than once, wishing the experience to be unique to the player; something that would potentially be spoilt by seeing all the possible.

the mast
That's very tall!

Personally, I enjoyed playing though Dear Esther a second time. Listening to the additional narration and seeing little details that I missed the last time allowed me to understand what was going on a bit more. Infact, I’d suggest at least two playthroughs to get a good understanding of what is going on. The world is so detailed that you will miss things. If you try and get the most out of Dear Esther, you are looking at a fair few hours of exploration. But once you’re done with the game and unravelled the meaning, that’s it. As loverly as the island is, you are as unlikely to return to it again as you are to read a novel once more.

I can help but think that Dear Esther is the beginning of another form of interactive entertainment, one that puts you into the narritive as a partisipant rather than being just the observer. Dear Esther leaves you with more questions than answers, like the end of a David Lynch movie. Don’t be ashamed if you feel the need to visit a forum to discuss what on earth happened.  Unlike other games you may experience, the puzzles and mysteries of Dear Esther aren’t played out on the screen, they are played out in your head and continue to do so long after you have switched off your PC.

Dear Esther is available now on Valve’s Steam service for $9.99 and in my opinion worth every penny.