gamer_152's Dear Esther (PC) review

The Interactive Poem

Dear Esther is the antithesis of the traditional video game, to the point where it’s debatable whether it’s a game at all. The only player actions are moving through the world and looking around, while the only thing close to a gameplay goal is to progress through the environments until you reach the end. Dear Esther doesn’t aim to engage you through action, strategy, or puzzles, but through mystical surroundings, poetic narration, and haunting music.

In many ways the world of Dear Esther itself feels deliberately lifeless.

The “game” takes place on an unpopulated island in the Outer Hebrides, where as you hike across the wind-blasted cliff tops and through the damp underground caverns, you listen to a series of letters addressed to a woman named Esther being read aloud. These letters don’t simply impart a story, but consist of carefully constructed metaphors and evocative imagery. The tale they tell is somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation, but they clearly point to an event of a certain nature in the author’s life. Themes of discovery and melancholy run throughout, as do recurring reflections on the subject of death. Occasionally the metaphors feel forced and the game feels like it makes some slightly uncomfortable stretches to achieve a lack of clarity in its story, but taken as a whole it's a rather powerful piece of writing, especially because of the way it ties into the aesthetics of the experience.

The environments of Dear Esther are more modest and reserved than those of the average video game, but do sometimes verge on the fantastical. There are locations such as large open caves daubed with fluorescent paint, presenting a beautiful and mysterious element to the island, but the majority of the areas, which are grassy desolate coastlines and quiet beaches strewn with the rusted wreckage of boats and cars, build with the story towards a memorable sense of loss and loneliness. This is only amplified by the echoing choral music and sorrowful piano and orchestral pieces of the game’s soundtrack. The sombre tone of Dear Esther is one that sticks with you long after you’ve walked away from your PC.

A lot of talent and effort has clearly gone into creating this game.

As affecting as Dear Esther can be, there did come a point where I began to wonder whether a video game was the best format for the experience it’s trying to create. By putting you in the driver’s seat, Dear Esther allows you to explore as much or as little of the environments as you want, but there’s only so much in the way of diversions, the game is a largely linear affair, and pacing remains roughly the same on each playthrough, with there being a very fixed speed at which you can move. I’m all for games that are trying to push the limits of the medium, and the interactive element certainly helps colour the experience, but when you realise that almost all your left hand has been doing for the last 45 minutes is holding down the “W” key, you start to wonder how integral your input really is to what’s going on. Given that you can complete it in under an hour without rushing, I don’t think Dear Esther fully justifies its £7 price tag either.

In pricing and providing engaging interactivity, Dear Esther has its issues, but for those who’ve wanted to see a game that escapes the standard fun and empowerment of most interactive entertainment, and replaces it with lingering sadness and poetic presentation, Dear Esther is a journey you can’t afford to miss.

10 Comments
Posted by Bollard

This is the first time I have ever received a new notification for a user I follow's blog/review post. I am pleased!

The last statement seems remarkably positive considering the score you gave; how much would you say it is worth then?

Posted by Gamer_152

@chavtheworld: Yeah, it's awesome to have the notification system working. Scores are something I often end up struggling over, but the 3 stars is mainly because I don't feel the bit where you actually interact with Dear Esther holds up that well. I have also been trying to break away from this thing where everyone is scared to give a decent game less than four stars/seven out of ten. Obviously how much the game is going to be worth to you will depend on your income and whether you'll want to replay it, but I'd say a better price would be about 3 or 4 pounds.

Moderator
Posted by Bollard

@gamer_152: I think I'd be willing to give this a go for £3 for sure. And the only reason I questioned your score was the statement that this is a game, if you are the right person, you can't afford to miss somewhat seemed at odds with saying the game doesn't justify its price tag. The rest of the review was more in line with that score for sure, however.

Posted by Gamer_152

@chavtheworld: I get what you're saying, but I think something can be very important for a certain kind of audience to see, while simultaneously not fully justifying its price overall. Thanks for the feedback.

Moderator
Posted by Bollard

@gamer_152: That's alright! I don't know if I said this already, but nice review.

Posted by Mento

Yay, I'm so glad we're getting notifications for reviews too. Too long have they gone unacknowledged. Just lists to go, I suppose (unless they get notifications too - I think I'm the only one who makes them these days).

Fine review. I've yet to play the game (it's on the docket for next year's May Madness though - weird and short, just how I like 'em) but this and games like To the Moon seem like natural extensions of the old graphic adventure. Instead of the point-and-click/inventory puzzle medium for storytelling we're getting more unorthodox presentations like this that generally don't force you to jump through as many hoops to enjoy its story.

These games are kind of neat in an anti-establishment "what is video game?" sense, though this subgenre (if it can be called that) is obviously still in its proof of concept infancy in some ways. If the developers were a bit more confident with their take on transforming a game into a purer storytelling medium, the game might be a whole lot longer. (Or maybe not, if this just happens to be the length of the story they wanted to tell.)

Moderator
Posted by Gamer_152

@mento: Dear Esther actually feels very confident in what it does to me. It would have been easy for them to dial back some of the dialogue for fear of it being called pretentious or over-the-top, but they didn't and for that I respect them. I think the length of the game more likely comes from either the common indie issue of limited time and resources, or as you said at the end there, this being the length they wanted the game to be. While they might be able to flesh it out in some interesting ways if it were longer, I think it feels the right length for what it presents.

It's definitely something that pushes the boundaries of interactive fiction, but I don't see it as an extension of adventure games or transformation of games in itself, because it is much less of a video game and much more of its own thing. There's been a certain amount of debate as to whether it is a game, and once again I don't think those debates actually give us much meaningful information, but even if you decide it is, it can only be called so in the very loosest sense.

It certainly removes the hoops from experiencing the story, graphics, and music, but when you take the game part out of a video game, I think that opens up a whole new question of how much your art or entertainment piece really benefits from its interactivity. I think pieces like Dear Esther could be significantly influential on video games, but that the real pioneers in games are going to be the ones who work out how to fit meaningful and nuanced stories like Dear Esther's around actual game mechanics.

Moderator
Posted by Mento

@gamer_152: Sure, perhaps "not confident" was the wrong term to use there. "Feeling their way", perhaps? Sure the length is dictated by the fiction, but they could've picked a longer piece of fiction to base a game on. I definitely can't say for sure either way though, so I'll retract all that.

But yeah, I've liked this recent debate about what to call these things if not video games. To throw around a few hypotheticals to no-one in particular: If they're not "games", are they just novels with elaborate "turn the page" buttons? Precisely how much "game" is required for something to qualify as such and not as something else entirely? And can a really high quality, immersive piece of video game fiction exist without mandated "game" bits getting in the way, such as forcing you to put aside a deliberately-spun mystery narrative intermittently to help Luke poke some matchsticks around for fifteen minutes? Judging by the amount of scare quotes I just used, I evidently have no idea. I'm looking forward to reading more about this as more of these interactive doohickeys show up with proponents to defend them.

Moderator
Posted by Gamer_152

@mento: You might be right about them feeling their way, but yeah, there's little way to know. I think the questions you're speaking about are interesting. Just from a personal perspective I believe creations like Dear Esther are more than novels with interactive page turners. Novels don't have graphics, novels don't have sound, and novels don't let you linger for as little or as much time as you like in one place or looking at one thing. Heck, it's even been said that the fact you have to slowly trudge through the world of Esther is an integral part in creating its atmosphere.

Whether something is a game or not you'll ever get everyone to agree on, there's no one definition of a game, and there are a lot of vague judgements to be made. I think it's quite like the games as art debate, where discussing can be interesting, but ultimately it doesn't bare as much fruit as people act like it does. Whether the piece fits the criteria of "game" or "art" it doesn't actually change the content of the piece or the experience it creates, and you can argue until you're blue in the face, there will always be multiple definitions of those words.

I think whether games can tell great stories without gameplay and story conflicting really is the million dollar question though. Developers are still testing the waters with this one and are probably going to be doing so for a long time, but I think one of the most promising, if not the most promising approaches to the issue is in using gameplay mechanics and story that compliment each other. A very basic principle in movies is that certain imagery can make audiences sad and certain narrative can make audiences sad, so if you use the two together they can have a powerful effect at making the audience sad, or sometimes the imagery can even act as a metaphor for what's happening in the story. I think video games need to do a similar thing with gameplay and their other components, and to a certain extent they already are.

You can see it in survival horror games and action games and so on, but an example of it being done in a more nuanced one is the way Braid does it. Particularly the moment when the protagonist says his ex-wife's wedding ring seemed to make time slow when he held it, and then that's literally what the ring does when you use it in gameplay. It makes you feel what the narrator was talking about in a way that no other medium could. Unfortunately, the biggest setback in trying to create this compliment of gameplay and narrative is that most gameplay is built around simple empowerment and fun, and outside of this we haven't found many ways to make gameplay engaging. This means that trying to get story and gameplay to build to the same goal leaves you with stories that are very restricted in what they can do in terms of depth and emotional range, while the alternative is to have gameplay and narrative that feel weirdly disconnected and isolated from each other.

Moderator
Posted by Claude

I played Dear Esther before it was polished and still free. I didn't enjoy it as I didn't understand the narrative at all. After reading your review, it would still seem that the game is not for me.

Other reviews for Dear Esther (PC)

    A Story for Melancholy Moods 0

    Download Size: 1.5 GBTime to Finish: 1 hour, 40 minutesMost Impressive Level: The CavesPrice I'd Pay: $5Steam Price (2/15/12): $10Like a good horror game, Dear Esther insists upon being played at a certain time: a half-hour before sunset, with the lights dim, when you won't be interrupted for 2 hours. It is for thoughtful times, those periods where you don't feel like doing anything but pondering the path you've taken so far. It's not so much a game as it is remnants of a story you silently wand...

    9 out of 9 found this review helpful.

This edit will also create new pages on Giant Bomb for:

Beware, you are proposing to add brand new pages to the wiki along with your edits. Make sure this is what you intended. This will likely increase the time it takes for your changes to go live.

Comment and Save

Until you earn 1000 points all your submissions need to be vetted by other Giant Bomb users. This process takes no more than a few hours and we'll send you an email once approved.