Dear Esther is an experience. There's no semblance of a game to be found. I do not “play” the experience and I cannot affect the space around me. I am, quite literally, along for the ride. There are no enemies, switches, levers, doors to open, or crates to smash. I am a lens into a ghost world. The island is riddles, metaphors, euphemisms and an experience I won't soon forget.
But how to define the experience. It is Myst without puzzles, Amnesia without foes. It is a walk down memory lane with nothing to impede my progress. It isn't of the horror or survival genre as gamers know them. In all three of my treks Dear Esther evoked despair, loneliness, angst and a host of other feelings I associate with the horrors of reality. Standing at the edge of a seemingly bottomless chasm terrifies me. But because Dear Esther knows I want answers it entices me to stand at the edge of that chasm, hoping to find what I'm looking for. It's not unlike a friend nudging me closer to that cliff edge in hopes of curing my fear of heights. I may think the friend is trying to kill me, but it's really their way of helping.
Imagine you draw a line and mark one end as “film” and the other as “game”, you would find the peg that is Dear Esther listing heavily towards the former. When I hear of film directors dabbling in game development, this is how I imagine the end product. Jennifer Hepler, a writer for Bioware, posited that some gamers may want to skip combat all together and get to the story. At first I was skeptical, but after experiencing Dear Esther I'm warming to the idea. If a game can provide an engaging story and dare me to resolve its riddles without the impedance of clumsy gameplay, I'll board that wagon. The thought of a game getting out of my way so that I may enjoy what it has to offer is enticing. Let me explore and experience things at my leisure, do not impede my progress with your misguided attempts at challenging me. If you have a story to tell, get out of the way and let the world tell it.
I would like to blame my lack of enthusiasm for shooters and rpg's on old age, but I'm only 25, maybe 26. I enjoy a good shooter now and then, but less each year it would seem. Games like Dear Esther work my brain in ways other games do not. That isn't to say Call of Duty and Skyrim aren't good, only that I've grown tired of the ways in which they tell their stories. I turn my brain off when I play them, but in order to make sense of Dear Esther I have to think. At this point in my life a thinking game is more appealing than a shooting game. The only thing keeping me from progressing is me, not clumsy or frustrating gameplay.
Dear Esther is a short experience typically lasting about two hours. But in those two hours it evokes more emotions and I've done more work than in any other game. I put more effort into finding and decoding paintings and messages than when I'm forced to shoot people for 6 hours. It requires me to find and read excerpts from the Bible, to research history, and to learn about chemical compounds and electrical engineering. Even after doing the research I'm still not sure what it all means. And upon finishing it dares me to come back for more. Each time through more secrets are revealed so that I may work to unravel its mysteries.
To a degree it is more than a game, more than an experience. There are those rare moments when something transcends what it set out to be. For some it will be a fun distraction, for others it can be a place to be introspective. I've often dreamed of retiring and moving to hedgerow country, far away from civilization. Thus far, Dear Esther has proven to be a nice placeholder. As I venture, I learn as much about myself as I do the island. I could spend eternity wandering its serene landscapes. In much the same way a book or film can influence someones life, Dear Esther is more to me than a mod for an old game.