Dear Esther

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.

23 Comments
24 Comments
Posted by Coreymw

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.

Posted by SamFo

Great write up. I think It will be in a few top 10 lists at the end of the year, for the pure fact that it is something different and something special.

Posted by Breadfan

Really enjoyed Dear Esther. Went in cold, knowing nothing about the whole 'game vs interactive story' thing. Anyone looking for a nice change of pace from the average game should totally check it out.

The spundtrack is fantastic as well.

Posted by Breadfan

*soundtrack. Damn you, mobile site.

Edited by CornBREDX

My only issue here is you (other people too) keep referring to it as a game. I know why, its hard not to. You sit down and you have to hold a key to interact with it. Your brain keeps telling you to call it a game. It's not a game though, there is no challenge or punishment. You move forward, and it tells you a story and shows some amazing things. All you do is move forward though. Even if you move off the path you cant get lost- you will always get from point A to B. It is an interactive story telling experience. 
 
Far more compelling, in the same vein, was Journey. Which actually is a game and I felt much better evoked emotional response  (beyond confusion, which it partly had that too but I felt handled it much better which laid way for other feelings through out).  
 
I think the only thing that holds Dear Esther back, as a non-game experience, is its pretentious nature. As much as I love it, I feel it as more of the beginning of something interesting, but not necessarily great in and of itself (although really gorgeous and what I consider a really good museum like experience).  
 
 I would definitely be interested in more interactive experiences like this, though. We also need to give it a damn name so we don't keep calling it a game by accident (I do it too, when explaining it to people. Like I said- I think its just your brain automatically saying game even though that's not what you mean) =P

Posted by Coreymw

@CornBREDX: I think maybe you missed the entire first paragraph where I said it wasn't a game, but an experience.

Posted by CornBREDX
@Coreymw: no. I didn't. I was commenting on how sometimes people accidentally call it a game (I thought you did, but at the moment I cant check and its totally not important). =) 
Posted by Coreymw

@CornBREDX: Oh, well okay then. But just so you know, I clearly stated several times that it's an experience, not a game. Just sayn...JUST SAYING!

I love you. I love everyone today. It's a happy day.

Posted by CornBREDX
@Coreymw: indeed. I more then likely misspoke =)
Posted by Coreymw

@Breadfan:Did you download the soundtrack? If not, here's the link. It's legitimate and fantastic. Also it is free.

http://www.gamefront.com/files/11027990/Dear_Esther_Soundtrack.zip

Posted by Breadfan
@Coreymw It's free? Dang, I bought it off iTunes.
Posted by Coreymw

@Breadfan: It was released for free. But, there's nothing wrong with paying for it as it's worthy of the money. If I used iTunes I would have purchased it as well.

Posted by FilipHolm

Dude you should play Journey..

Posted by Coreymw
@FilipHolm I would kill to play Journey. I don't have a PS3 though.
Posted by Buscemi

My middle finger died after about fifteen minutes of walking. Then I changed the keys so that I walked by pressing the right mouse button, but that was a big mistake. Now the middle finger on my right hand was dead. What the hell am I supposed to do with two dead middle fingers? All the people I could have flipped off...

Posted by Breadfan
@Coreymw Yeah, I don't mind paying for it. Amazing soundtrack and I don't mind helping the composer by buying it.
Posted by Coreymw
@Buscemi And to think you could have used a 360 controller.
Posted by Coreymw
@Breadfan If you don't mind me asking, how much was it?
Posted by FilipHolm

@Coreymw said:

@FilipHolm I would kill to play Journey. I don't have a PS3 though.

Well, one of my co-workers have been annoying me lately...

Posted by Coreymw
@FilipHolm Name and address. No but seriously, I'm doing what I can to get a hold of a PS3 to play it.
Posted by FilipHolm

@Coreymw: Do whatever you can. It's a brilliant game, had me absolutely spellbound.

Posted by Breadfan
@Coreymw $10 I think
Posted by Buscemi

@Coreymw said:

@Buscemi And to think you could have used a 360 controller.

Never in a million years. Don't try to fool me with different controls. Dear Esther was a forced experience as it was.

Posted by FilipHolm

Hey, just played this game! It was amazing, I love when games try something new like this. A piece of art.