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Dear Esther (PC) artwork

Dear Esther (PC) review

"Bold as it sounds, the game design here is quite fundamental. Move, and trigger."

Forward, backward, strafe left, strafe right Ė the WASD code gamers and developers live by. Combine them with a mouse and anything is possible, any universe is traversable, and all ambitions can be met. In the case of Dear Esther, it wants these keys Ė or whatever left handers settle for on a keyboard Ė to help overcome the isolation of an island. The steadfast compass will guide you along the lost enclave, through its sights, sounds, and story of its narrator, in hopes you will solve its contradictions.

Or at least, find meaning from them. Without intending to sound malicious, thatís all you really do in Dear Esther. The game is very much a museum room (no touching!) where youíre meant to ponder over relics from another personís life, headset in tow. The voice in your ear is a man writing to his wife, an automobile accident that changed their lives seeming to be the forefront of his thoughts. No, itís not a happy tale being told here, nor is it really a tale at all.

The wonderful news is that itís very British. The countryís renowned intellectual flow of writing is apparent as the accent goes through some very dramatic, yet flowery syntax. The WASD keys make their move here, activating the orator when stepping along certain areas of the island. Walk to a cliff side to hear the ruined man muse on the mocking bounce of a distant buoy, or reminisce with literary imagery which then takes its cue in the gameís own visuals. Bold as it sounds, the game design here is quite fundamental. Move, and trigger.

By now you could guess the island probably isnít real. Much likelier it serves as a metaphor, a manifestation of a dying manís delirium, perhaps some of kind of purgatory or fever dream. Dear Esther knows this; it makes its symbolism so elementary that it could not be an accident for players to assume otherwise. The mast of a shipwreck stands on a beach in the shape of a cross, 2 fish and 6 slices of bread are set cleanly aside in a cave, references to Paul and the road to Damascus are in fact etched everywhere Ė the religious allusions, at least, certainly arenít a mystery.

But in a way, Dear Esther becomes blatantly mysterious. Itís rife with nonsense and vague clues that seem to be present for the sake of being ambiguous. Scribbling on walls depict molecular diagrams, globular clusters of circles, plant life, bible phrases Ė all written in an awful penmanship thatís meant to confuse. Thereís a birdís nest with cracked eggshells underground. Why? Who wrecked their ships here? Who are these other characters in the narratorís letters? Apparently one of them is said to have kidney stones.

Itís very much an invasion of privacy of another manís life, and so thereís no hope anyone but him could understand it. Perhaps the developer does, but the game does not convey anything beyond basic emotions, ones that donít puncture very deeply. Staring at the night sky Ė or Dear Estherís professional grade visuals -- would make anyone feel poetic, though spending all your time trying to connect the stars would add little else to the experience. And yet, thatís all Dear Esther seems to be concerned with.

Thatís not to doubt the talent behind the project, but within a medium that has made such great strides in expression in such a short history, the game feels awfully naÔve. Itís designed along points, following pathways until you hit a dead end, only to double back in hopes you can find the narrator again. For an island so imaginary and jaggedly beautiful, traversing it feels resoundingly ordinary, archaic even. But when a dramatic piano decides to accompany your ascent of a hill, itís as if the game assumes it already has you captured.

And if you are, probably in the sense that itís a whole lot of thinking about nothing at all. The ending confirms that any suspicions over the islandís meaning were indeed, undeserved. Anytime spent to stop and wonder, to look at the sea, to question the car parts, photographs, candles, and other museum stations that lay strewn about Ė any attempt to give the game a chance is met with an open ended conclusion left to Ė you guessed it Ė player interpretation.

Personal theories Ė and many can be drawn about islandís circumstances Ė go unrewarded. Even if the ending actually sheds light on most of gameís aspects, their impact is minimal. They arenít powerfully wrapped up; the finale is just a solemn inevitability. Nowhere is the game concerned with those who decide to step through its world or what they think about it, itís merely a tale about a man and the disaster that is his mind. His own, not yours, a concept WASD canít quite maneuver around.

And to be fair, as well as to clarify, the four directional movements arenít the only tools at the playerís disposal in Dear Esther. At any time, the left mouse button can be held to zoom your view a bit more forward. Itís just that upon closer inspection, nothing ever comes into view that couldnít already be seen at first glance.


bbbmoney's avatar
Community review by bbbmoney (June 29, 2012)

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zippdementia posted June 29, 2012:

A game that gets wildly different reactions. Believe it or not, I tend to lean towards this reaction, maybe not quite as drastically low.
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bbbmoney posted June 29, 2012:

Eh, I truthfully have no idea how to work the bottom half of the scale, so take it with a grain of salt. Tons of talent seen in the project, but the package just feels extremely experimental and insincere. Doesn't have business being scored at all, in a way.

And it's weird because I thought I'd be the person to like this game when I booted it up.
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zippdementia posted June 30, 2012:

I felt similarly about, um... hold on... have to look up the name of my own review.... Linger in Shadows. Admittedly that one WAS a tech demo, but I still just felt underwhelmed.

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