Reviews: Dear Esther
The designers of this... thing have no idea on how to design a ludonarrative.
This is one of the worst games I have ever seen in my life as a narrative game designer. It feels like some junkies found out about the Unity engine and 3DS Max and thought hey! we can make a game, then set up an environment, made a few dialog lines that are triggered when you hit their area and then made a Windows build. How did this get greenlighted? First off, the designers of this thing violated the rule don't make assumptions about the player -> we as the player have no idea on what we need to do. The game must tell us how we must use the mechanics, even if they are just walking and looking around. Secondly, as a player we need to know where we need to go to accomplish an objective. When I played this game I got lost 8 times and I had no idea what I needed to do to accomplish the objective. That is not a good sign. Third, this thing fails at providing a narrative. In a good video game narrative (to my opinion) the game needs to have a premise that is out of balance through the plot that the player will need to solve using the game's mechanics by using them as plot devices. The conclusion is the outcome of the player's and other characters actions. With Dear Esther we got nothing. There is no premise, no plot, the exposition are just a bunch of rambles that have nothing to do with one another, the mechanics don't do anything besides letting you walk through an environment (which is well-made, but that is the only thing good about this game) which is also strange: the player-character gets hurt halfway through the game on his leg, yet that has no impact at all on the camera or player movement. Talk about Gameplay and Story segregation. And the conclusion of the thing is not even a proper set up conclusion! The player-character turns... into a bird after saying that Esther and Paul are equal to Donneley and Jacobson, despite the fact that their (meager) expositions told us that they were totally different characters. Stupid. And the fact that this story is being compared by some to the story of Paul to Damascus is also, well, stupid. Nothing in the narrative of Dear Esther even hints to Acts of the Apostoles 8, except for some Damascus signs here and there. Score: 0/10. My University would fail this even for 1st year students.
The only reason I can imagine Dear Esther has such a terrible reputation is because the people who played it went into it expecting something different. What's going to happen in Dear Esther is that the player is going to walk around an island on a mostly-linear path, examine their surroundings if they wish, and listen to a story being told. Conclusions about who the player is, who the narrator is, and what anything is are up to the individual. It's an interesting story in the form of several fragmented letters to the titular Esther, that keep up the interest by very frequently shifting subjects, sometimes speaking of Esther herself, sometimes speaking of the island. Sometimes speaking of other things, which I will not spoil. I read House of Leaves recently, and after being reminded of this game's existence, I feel an odd connection between the two. For example, both succeed in giving details to keep the story's complexity progressing, while at the same time not giving any definitive answers. Dear Esther is not quite as mindblowing, it's not the greatest game or story or VN or whatever you want to call it ever, but it's certainly special in some way, and in a similar way to the aforementioned book. It's also visually nice, especially in the cave portions. I have good memories of the soundtrack as well. Speaking of sound, the aforementioned narration is excellently done, conveying emotion and agitation when the narration gets intense, or in some of the more... Sanity Slippage esque parts. It should be noted I've only played the game once and that was a long time ago, hence why I'm not citing as many specific examples of the game as I would usually - perhaps I will edit this review in the future to be more in-depth. (Oh, and whether it's a game or not is a stupid debate. A lot of reviews tend to comment on this, saying "well it's pretty nice but wheres the gameplay?" The answer to that is you make the gameplay. If you go into Dear Esther with pessimism and criticize it instead of accepting it for what it is and enjoying yourself, you're going to play something fundamentally different. For Dear Esther to work, the player has to invest themselves and accept that it's going to tell them a story. Otherwise, it is nothing.)
This game is absolute trash. Protip, just because a video game has no gameplay, that does not make it some grand artistic achievement, it makes it shit. There is absolutely no player interaction with this. Absolutely none. All you do is walk around slowly through a kind of beautiful island and hear this British man narrate passages from letters. That is literally it. The game is so pretentious that it is upsetting to play. Everything from the lack of player interaction to the only slightly okay graphics to the incomprehensible story where the player is given no reason to care about because the game is not about the player but the narrator. The game is trying WAY too hard to be artsy and groundbreaking but in doing so, it manages to destroy everything that makes a video game unique. It stupidly isolates the player from the story and the world and trades it in for art school wankery that would have been laughed out of any other medium. I'm sick of people calling this an example of video games as art. Why must we only give artistic merit to video games that take away the elements that make video games unique? The player interaction in Dear Esther is so minimal that it might as well not have been made. Good video games are not about shutting the player out from the process, it's about integrating the player into the story and making it their story as much as the characters' story. And Dear Esther absolutely fails at being a video game. Seeing the efforts of the studio's absolute desecration of the Amnesia franchises show that these people are not interested in making games, they're interested in making art installations on laser disks. There is nothing redeemable about Dear Esther. It is a pretentious piece of shit that passes itself off as artistic by violating the basic rules of making a video game. This work has no artistic merit as a video game. It's like a book with no words or a song that's just silence. It is an affront to video games and it does not deserve any praise or consideration. This is the worst game I have ever played and I hope I don't see any more like it in this world. -1/10
This is Not a Game
Now that that's out of the way, the biggest problem with Dear Esther is that it doesn't feel like it knows what it wants to be. Is it trying to be a game? Then it fails. Is it trying to be art? That's more complicated. The thing is, unlike many other pieces of failed interactive fiction it doesn't pretend to be a game. There are no fake "choices" or cutscences masquerading as gameplay. There is literally nothing. It's a void filled only by the gameworld and narration. The flashing red beacon of the radio tower draws you relentlessly along a set path, and the story is meted out in a way so that it's clear but not clear by the end. Personally, I immensely enjoy Dear Esther and do not regret paying extra to get the soundtrack. DE is beautiful, both visually and emotionally. However, as an interactive work I feel it falls short and it would have benefited from having some form of interactivity. As a story Dear Esther is very goodóa bit muddled at timesóbut still beautiful and haunting. But as a "game" or even a work of interactive fiction it falls short. Final score: 7.5/10.
Walk forwards. Listen to narration. The end.
There are a lot of pretentious art games out there that try to be "meaningful" but end up feeling very artificial and empty. This is one of them. The best way to describe Dear Esther is in the title of my review. You walk along a set path, which dips and turns from time to time, but is still linear in design. Narration plays over as you do. You barely have any freedom to explore. Eventually, you reach your destination, and the "game" ends. There's so little else to say about Dear Esther itself, that I'm instead going to proceed to compare it to better "art games". The Path is an art game where your character is told to walk along a path to a house, and doing so earns you the bland happy ending. Not doing so results in a very long trip through the endless forest where you can discover many things at your own (slow) pace, and even see the personal thoughts of your character, in poetry form. The Path exists only to tell a story and reveal character, but does so much better than Dear Esther, where you literally only proceed along a set path. The irony. Gone Home, which recently has sold over 250,000 copies, gives you a large house to explore. You can pick up objects and read things at your own pace, exploring the house in any direction - north, south, east, west, upstairs, downstairs. You decide the order at which you do it. The house feels real and lived-in, believable and atmospheric, like you're exploring a real place. Dear Esther doesn't give us that. It's not about exploration. It's about following a path. I'm fine with games that tell stories or try to provide a non-game-like experience, with no challenge, no puzzles, no combat, no platforming. Gone Home was great. I even liked The Path. Both had freedom to explore and felt like I was doing something, and that I was in an interesting, open place that felt alive with detail and opportunity. Dear Esther bored me to tears. It's not only not a game, it fails as an interactive story. It's an art installation. An art installation in playable form. If it was a free browser-based game, that would be one thing, but they expect you to spend money on this (at least, the updated version). My advice: if you truly want a story-based experience, spend your money on Gone Home.
The 2012 Remake - Hauntingly Vapid
Dear Esther is an incredibly beautiful haunting experience, it is an experience more than anything else, a tour of an incredible beautiful environment with the perfect level of music, using the first-person game perspective to put you in an entirely different emotional place, as you slowly piece together events and see recurring themes spring up and be built upon. There is no combat, no puzzles, it's entirely linear and all you can really do is look where you want to look and walk at the pace you choose, sometimes exploring dead ends and coming back, but ultimately not leaving the path, yet this experience can only ever be given by a game, albeit one where the only measurement of success is in pressing forward. And the level design is perfect, from the beginning the glowing red beacon dominates the background and it is clear that that shall be your ultimate destination. And as you go towards it the path will dip, the hill will fall away and you'll see a a building or a ship, and curiousity will want to visit there first on the way to the beacon. The motivation is strong, although it's never stated or rewarded more than seeing more of this beautiful landscape and another piece of narration. The paths are so elegantly designed, at one point you're drawn into this wonderful glowing cave, you circle round admiring it and then you realise that there is a path right next to the first, but you were drawn first by the cave and the path remained unnoticed until the right time. The story doesn't become clear though. There is no twist, Dear Esther is a flavour to be tasted, not to be admired for it's logic and structure. I haven't played the original, but the look of the scenery and the completely ingenious level design in the remake, suggest that this is really the experience worth having. Its not a long or particularly deep experience but it's unique and touching, probably worth around £5 but otherwise it might be a little too short and little too disconnected. A small spoiler to illustrate how the story just fell short, please feel free to avoid it. But I felt that I must be Esther, the actions being narrated had all taken place and I had not done them, so it seemed clear to me that Esther was following the footsteps of the last message of her lover, reliving his experience. But it wasn't so, there just isn't an explanation for the timeline.