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Friday, July 13, 2012

Dear Esther

If you haven't heard of Dear Esther - which you may have, since it came out this past February - then you've missed out on one of the strangest, most magical islands since the original Myst, with a story and experience no less significant or breathtaking.

If I were going to do this review properly, I would have done it in February, when Dear Esther came out. If I were really going to do it properly, I'd have done it back in 2008, when the game was being developed as a mod for the Source engine. Even after this all this time some people still haven't decided whether it should really count as a "game" - it doesn't have the puzzles or challenges games usually have. What it does require is engagement: it is a story whose pieces are not presented, but must be found. If a "first person game where you shoot things" can be called a "first-person shooter," then Dear Esther is a first-person listener, or a first-person rememberer, though any genre is going to be too narrow to adequately describe what developer thechineseroom has so delicately and elegantly crafted.

If you know the "memory palace mnemonic" - where you picture yourself walking through a house, associating important facts with objects or rooms - you have a sense of how the story of Dear Esther plays out. You are on an island, with no up-front explanation, and as you enter a house or glance at a distant cliff face, your character muses on the significance of these places, giving a glimpse of a story. The effect is something like walking a familiar path after years of absence, with details suddenly sparking vivid memories. The character shares these memories with you, and though his prose is a bit florid, the one or two places where it feels overwrought can be forgiven for how evocative and beautiful it is elsewhere. The world you're exploring feels old and real; the places you're exploring feel discovered, or remembered, more than created. It's hard to remember a game that evokes such raw emotion; with no mechanics or gameplay tension to distract you, it's easy to give yourself over to the story and the visuals. The less I tell you about the story, the better; not only because there are elements I don't want to ruin for you, but because the story is most successful in what it omits, leaving the details to the player's imagination. You'll be better off filling those in yourself, finding your own interpretations of the emotions the game elicits.

The official trailer (above, and on the game's website) says everything you need to know about the graphics and sound. Even if they didn't do a smooth job setting the mood - which they do - they would still be inviting and beautiful. There's nothing pushing the limits of what's been done with video game graphics here, but the details all feel necessary, and the attention payed to each view is seldom seen. Jessica Curry's soundtrack is wonderful and unobtrusive and sad, and even if it's not the easiest stuff to whistle, it'll hold you to the game, and always feels at home under the narrators reminiscences.

Questions about whether Dear Esther qualifies as a "game" might be interesting from an academic point of view, but they're irrelevant to the experience. Certainly, if it's an "experimental" game, the experiment is a success; Dear Esther is taking steps into uncharted territory and finding something amazing there, and I hope it changes the opinions of devs, gamers, and non-gamers alike about what's possible in the medium. Given what an achievement it is that thechineseroom's creation works at all, it's exciting and wonderful that it works so well.

If I were to give one piece of advice about Dear Esther, it would be not to approach it expecting a game - not because it isn't one but because it doesn't behave like one. Don't be expecting the kind of excitement that comes from a shooter or the strategy that comes from an RTS. Arrive at it with as few expectations as you can have, and let it take you at its own pace. There's no hurry - the way the light catches the cliffs, or the stream passing by a barbed wire fence, or the strange scrawlings on a cave wall are the soul of the game, so take the time to enjoy it. There's something to be found here that no other game has yet tried to offer, and it'd be a shame to miss it.

Website:  http://dear-esther.com/
Steam download: http://store.steampowered.com/app/203810/ (Steam's summer sale is going on, so keep checking back - might be available on the cheap!)


  1. It also sounds like something that someone like me (who does not really enjoy games) would like.

    I'd recommend linking to the game's site at the bottom of your entry. So, you know, someone like me could check it out and buy it. :)

  2. Good catch, thanks Rachel! :)

    I think it's something that people who aren't usually into games could find deep and worthwhile on its own merits, yes. I guess I'm so overwhelmed by what it does differently, and how it affects my gamer-brain, that I forget what it might do for non-gamers. But yeah - even if you don't like video games, give it a try! It might show you a different side of the medium.

  3. I hadn't looked into Dear Esther before seeing your review, but I have to say: I'm very intrigued. I think you're spot on to bring up the early Myst games -- and not just because of the island thing.

    I remember playing those games way back before PC game genres had really crystallized into what they are today. It was a whole other generation. Myst came out in 1993, the same year as Doom. More than any of the games that were growing up at that time, though, what I remember most was that Myst didn't demand anything of the player, and it didn't really follow conventions either. One of the most interesting things about the game, I think, was just how much it wasn't goal oriented. Most people I knew that played the game never even made it to the end!

    I wonder if a game like Dear Esther indicate that a similar kind of "exploratory" or "experiential" genre space is opening up in games today. Obviously, these experiences have always been with us in some form (adventure games never died, after all), but they've lived at the margins of gaming for some time now. I hope this game keeps getting attention. It would be nice to see things shake up.

    P.S. Here's a great article talking about similar themes re: anti-indie bias and "what counts as a game."


  4. Wow, so that was awesome. I'd be very intrigued to find out what the developers think the story is. So far I've been convinced of two different theories neither of which were my first impression of the game. They don't even agree on who the player is controlling.

    Great game, and one of the few artistic games that manages to land solidly in the realm of art without feeling like it's trying too hard. It'd be like if Braid had had the good sense to simply end after the final level and trusted the player to come to their own conclusions. The entire time I found myself trying to fit together the bits of information I was being given.

    I wish I could write a more educated comments, but honestly it's so affected my mind that I think I need to step back from it for a while before I can say anything more than "HNNNNNNGG GREAT GAME HERDERP" Also, I might play it through a few more times if I can get over the walking speed @_@

    (this is Ian btw)

  5. @Ian - well, if all you can say is "HNNNNNNGG GREAT GAME HERDERP" then at least you've found a more succinct way to say it than I did in my post :) I have some theories, but I found that I didn't really need to know to enjoy the game; I liked just letting it wash over me.

    @Eli - I think those are good points about Myst; the fact that it's experiential and exploratory helps make it one of my favorite video games of all time. And maybe we are seeing a renaissance of that kind of game now, where people say "You can interact with this, but you don't need to do it in the way the industry's conventions suggest." I hope, certainly, that we see more experimental/experiential games, and that we learn a little more about what makes a compelling experience out of an interactive medium. I think Dear Esther shows us, though, that it's not all about challenge and accomplishment.