Review: Dear Esther

DearEsther

Some people want things to be more than what they are.  Philosophical fans will look for a deeper meaning in baseball, an expression of life in what is actually a simple diversion.  Women sometimes think that what was just a random tryst was really a gateway to a new and wonderful lifelong relationship of caring and sharing.  Usually it isn’t.  Fortunetellers say they will divine a message from a greater spirit to the drinker found within the patterns of tea leaves that settle at the bottom of a ceramic cup.  But it is likely that the real cause for the strange patterns is that the brewer didn’t bother to use a tea bag and there is a lot of movement in a tea cup which can displace floating materials into any number of final patterns.

The things that these three kinds of people have in common are: 1) that they are expecting one thing or ascribing meaning when they interact with something when there is no meaning; and 2) invariable disappointment.  Honesty – perhaps from a handsome, third, neutral party at VGBlogger – can clear the air to allow people to encounter what is actually there.  With clarity, the fan can just enjoy the baseball game.  If the woman had been led to fully understand that it was nothing but a fling, with no hope of ever seeing the temporary partner again, then she could either enjoy the sensations of a one night stand or tell the offeror, “I am not interested in just that, thanks for the drink.”  The fortuneteller’s client could either enjoy the tea and conversation or refuse to pay twenty bucks for the torn out contents of a bag of Lipton.  Perspective replaces assumption and choices become informed.

The reason I point all of this out is that Dear Esther is now available on Steam, lumped in with Kingdoms of Amalur, Civilization V, Super Meat Boy and rather a lot of first-person shooters.  The trailer and screenshots show environments from the first-person perspective in a way that could just be another game developer showing off their fancy tech.  It is not clear what this thing is before dropping monies into Steam, downloading a bunch of data, and double clicking on the Dear Esther icon on your desktop.  One would assume that since it uses WASD controls and that because it is on Steam, that it would be a game.  It is not.  A child that goes to a farmer’s market, sees all the organic food attractively displayed would assume that everything there was safe to eat.  An unsupervised kid is liable to pop some homemade soap into his mouth because it looks like a big block of cheese, and it has the same basic display as all the food in the food market.  There is no sign that says “WARNING: NOT FOOD.”  If you didn’t read this review, or another one somewhere else (perish the thought!), and expected a regular game for your dollars, you’d end up with something yucky in your mouth.  But, just because the product in question available for purchase is not tasty nourishment, does not mean that it cannot be otherwise used and enjoyed.

The reason Dear Esther is not a game is because there is no real way to win or lose nor is there any gameplay to speak of.  From a purely mechanics perspective, like a traditional first-person shooter or adventure game, the goal is to get to the end of the four levels, using traditional mouse and keyboard controls or a controller.  Unlike a traditional first-person shooter or adventure game, there are no guys to shoot or objects to interact with, just moving forward until the screen goes black and either the next chapter loads or the piece is over.  If one tries to go off the beaten path, into deep water or right off a cliff, the screen goes black, a few random images flash out, the narrator whispers “Come back” and you’re put back into a position close to where you made the decision to try to break the experience.  The only way to fail is to stop playing.  There are no interactive elements, no rocket launchers, puzzles, switches, nothing.  As users move through the setting, narration is played, but if the sound was off, the “game” would be to run along a few paths until the screen goes black.  The goal or purpose is to finish the experience, not to win.  It is more like a book or movie than a video game.  The only commonality with a game is that the user can direct the perspective, absorbing all that there is at his or her own pace.  Instead of a game, it might be more accurate to call Dear Esther a fully featured and downloadable art installation. You know, a FFADAI (pronounced “Fah-DIE”).  Catchy, no.  Accurate, yes.

That is what Dear Esther is not, let us turn to what it is.

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The piece is a dynamic experience of a man dealing with loss as embodied and told with a long abandoned island.  The man, as narrated to the user and seen from what is assumed to be his perspective, reflects upon his situation, his time with Esther as well as the first man that visited the island and tried to establish a life there, a man who failed.  Parallels run throughout all as moving to particular areas triggers new narration and context for both the immediate setting as well as the state of mind of the man.  Without giving too much away, he at one point comments that the fever that plagues him is not from a base virus, but from the product of an internal combustion engine and cheap fermentations.  There are a few side passages to explore, which I was compelled to see and dreaded to view at the same time.  Towards the end, it becomes very clear why the man is as sorrowful and desperate as he is, and the Easter Eggs, if that’s what you want to call pictures and scraps of a life, are powerful shrines to his loss.  At times literally depicted as shrines.  Just as I did not want to see them but was compelled to, the man was compelled to put them there in the first place.  The chapters start on a grey beach and descend into caves, in sync with the narration.  The ending, while somewhat predictable given the prominent aerial, pulsing red in the skyline, is effective nonetheless. 

The narration is well done.  At the start I was put off by the generic-sounding British adventure game character voice blasting out of the speakers, but by the end the performance had varied enough to the point where I empathized with the man.  The visuals also get progressively better.  The first two chapters–the first half of this story– look nice enough, but really no more impressive than Half-Life 2 with a lot of grass and shrubbery everywhere.  It is a fairly nice walk in the park, the sound of the wind and the occasional musical track emphasizing what is shown, but largely an empty space.  As the story goes down into its third chapter, The Caves, one’s jaw cannot help but drop.  Thousands of stalactites coated in moisture, aglow with the cool colors of luminescent fungi and moss, all with the omnipresent sound of moving and dripping water, frame some of the most visually impressive environments I have seen in a game.  A certain part of me thought that it would be really great if the cave had a few goblins in it and I had a heavy mace, but that part had to be reminded by another that that is not what this is.  This is something else.

On a technical level, the “game” does have a few limitations.  After looking through the Options page, I was unable to find an audio option that allowed me to experiment with the mix.  At a few points it was difficult to clearly hear the narration over the musical score or at times the tunes would fully drown out the environmental sounds.  Maybe this was by design, or maybe thechineseroom should have put in a standard interface feature so that players could optimize their experience.  Also, as stated, the only way to complete all of the chapters is to move forward.  Using the keyboard, my middle finger–the W key finger–started to get a little sore after holding the key down for so long.  Many traditional games that involve a lot of walking have an autorun feature.  I didn’t see one here.  At times I wished the man could walk faster as some of the locales are not as impressive as others and I just wanted to hurry up and see the next thing.  Those criticisms aside, Dear Esther was a completely smooth experience with no crashes or noticeable drops in performance.  The scenery looks very nice but it is not a hyper-advanced engine so most PCs should be able to run it just fine.  The developer has made a world that looks nice at a distance, but when the ground or any building is zoomed in on, the age of the technology at play becomes apparent.

Ten dollars is a lot of money to spend on an hour’s worth of entertainment.  At that price, it is approaching my personal standard of entertainment value which all media should strive to beat: the movie ticket.  Dear Esther is a fairly unique experience that you are unlikely to have elsewhere.  There have been films and stories on the themes at play in this work, but they did not have the same impact for me that this piece did.  It may be that actually directing the progression forces the player to be engaged in the experience, contrasted with a passive audience that absorbs the images shot by the director or written by the author.  That sense of participation may be what triggers a reaction.  The question is whether you, the consumer, want an experience or only a game.  This is not a game, it is impossible to emphasize that enough.  I can write with a sense of certainty that the developer has created a good and meaningful experience, but not necessarily a replayable or fun thing I am going to fire up again and again.  Some people will want to pay admission to the virtual art gallery, some will not.  I can’t tell which you are, I can only tell you what Dear Esther is as contrasted with what it is not.

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Pros:
+ A visually impressive and emotional piece of art

Cons:
– This is not a game

Game Info:
Platform: PC via Steam
Publisher: thechineseroom
Developer: thechineseroom & Robert Briscoe
Release Date: 2/14/2012
Genre: Interactive Story
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.