Dear Esther (PC) review
"Dear Esther doesn't function like most of its peers, so applying the relatively rigid structure of traditional games criticism doesn't quite work. Attempting to do so would only lead to futile conclusions like 'too easy', 'too short' and 'too ugly', none of which are remotely relevant to the quality of this whimsical creation. Dear Esther feels more like an art-house film, or the mental picture conjured up by a good poem. And I want you to understand that this is something I'd love for everyone to try out."
This is not a game. The phrase may have become synonymous primarily with the alternate reality community, where suspension of disbelief and complete investment in the fiction are paramount to the whole experience, but it's equally applicable to the growing trend of 'anti-games' among certain independent development houses. The University of Portsmouth's senior Creative Technology lecturer Dan Pinchbeck has spent the past few years researching how first-person engines can be used to bring innovative new design ideas to life, in ways not commonly associated with gaming. Dear Esther is his and his team's attempt to apply this research to a full-scale project.
To this end, I'm almost tempted to say "this is not a review." Dear Esther doesn't function like most of its peers, so applying the relatively rigid structure of traditional games criticism doesn't quite work. Attempting to do so would only lead to futile conclusions like 'too easy', 'too short' and 'too ugly', none of which are remotely relevant to the quality of this whimsical creation. Dear Esther feels more like an art-house film, or the mental picture conjured up by a good poem. And I want you to understand that this is something I'd love for everyone to try out.
On starting the game, you find yourself standing on the shore of a small island off the coast of Scotland. Behind you is a churning ocean; in front of you a rustic hut, set against a backdrop of mist and mountains. There's no immediate context: you've no idea who you are or how you got to this place. As you start to walk towards the ramshackle building, a voice sounds. "Dear Esther," it begins. And you begin your journey into the history of the island and those who travelled to it.
Dear Esther's design is centred around the idea of ambiguity of character. The player context isn't just absent at the beginning: there's never any clear allusion as to who you are supposed to be. You're certainly not the protagonist, or even necessarily any of the supporting cast. But the ambiguity stretches beyond this and into every crevice of Dear Esther, to the point where personal interpretation is absolutely key. As you explore the deserted island, your presence in certain locations triggers segments of the script, and on each play-through it will be radically different. Each trigger is set up with three possible voiceovers, each telling a slightly different version of the tale. To start with, the script sounds completely arbitrary, with little or no relevance to the island, or even to the other triggered voiceovers. But then you play it again. And again. And, with each experience, some sort of plot - a possible interpretation of one, at least - begins to fall into place.
On the surface, it's the story of the last weeks of a man's life, the inevitabilty of his demise on the island, and his desperation to communicate, in some way, with the eponymous Esther - presumably deceased - before his own fate guides him away from the realm of the living. But it's also the story of a car accident, some time in the past, and how it changed the lives of Dear Esther's trio of primary characters. We never meet any of them, and their full identities are never overtly revealed. As the narrator succumbs to infection and, towards the finale, becomes dilerious with fever, comprehending exactly what happened on this island, and on a stretch of motorway in central England some time before, becomes an impossibility. What's clear is that it's a narrative chock full of metaphor and even biblical references. On numerous occasions, the narrator alludes to the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. When, after following a seemingly never-ending pathway up a mountain, Bible verses scrawled on the rock, you turn a corner and come face-to-face with the word 'DAMASCUS', carved in huge white capital letters on the cliff face... well, all sorts of ideas begin to fly around. Dear Esther encourages philosophical thought more than pretty much any game that springs to mind.
The script is unfathomably wonderful, and delivered by a voice actor who's so adept he would sound wildly out of place in most commercial games. It's the sort of haunting monologue that raises the hairs on your arms and sends a shiver down your spine. It's testament to the phenomenal writing that a story with so little definition still manages to bring a tear to the eye with its heady weight. I don't know if there's ever been a title to achieve this before. Dear Esther taps into an emotion that few games dare to approach: unhappiness. The misguided but popular notion that videogames should always be fun has all but eliminated the opportunity for exploration in this area. Finally, perhaps, we have proof that the medium has enormous uncharted potential to affect players in new ways.
Sure, we've seen bleak games with heavy elements of tragedy worked into their twisting plots. Who wasn't a little upset when (or if) Paul died in Deus Ex, or as the inhabitants of Pathologic's decaying city succumbed to the infection one by one? But even these titles arrived at a satisfying and promising conclusion. Dear Esther ends with the sound of a heart monitor flatlining. This is classical tragedy, through and through.
Holding Dear Esther together is an impressively ethereal atmosphere, compounded by a simply stunning soundtrack, eloquently composed by the fantastic Jessica Curry. The thick fog may be in place mainly to mask the outer regions of the game world and limit draw distances, but it feels appropriately suffocating and unnerving. The sense of place is almost unprecidented, only let down by some less-than-professional texturing and jagged edges. But there's something about this amateurish manipulation of the already ageing Source Engine that just looks and feels right. The island is a mystical and otherworldly place, and the fusion of glorious art design with awkward technology makes it all the more magical.
Magical, but imperfect. That this is the creation of game researchers rather than game designers is both essential and detrimental to Dear Esther's success. It's not restricted by the established conventions of the industry, which is a wonderful thing. But it still falls short with a lot of its basic design theory. It's cripplingly linear, for one, and a shameless barrage of invisible walls and conveniently-positioned rocks prevents any meaningful exploration. Even when the game world does branch in two directions, only one of them is the "correct" way, and you're frequently forced to return the way you came. This wouldn't be such an issue if the movement speed weren't so obtusely slow. I appreciate that it aids the thoughtful, considered atmosphere - and that it prevents players from skipping through various parts of the story - but this is pushing it a little. It feels like you're crawling on your hands and knees.
It's also aggressively glitchy. At numerous points, it's possible to actually fall out of the game world. There's one occasion where two voiceovers trigger simultaneously, and another where it's possible to walk right up to a ghostly figure that's clearly only supposed to be viewed from a distance. None of these factors completely destroy the experience, but in a game reliant on such a masterfully crafted atmosphere, they do serve to remove some of the necessary shine. When Dear Esther works so hard to draw you into its evocative world, it's a shame it so violently snaps you out of it with such regularity.
Finally, its extreme brevity will deter certain players. For me, Dear Esther is a perfect length, and just under an hour is about as long as is comfortable to spend on this intimidating island. We're conditioned to expect a certain amount of time with our games, but it's a foolish expectation, based more around the concept of value for money than anything else. Perhaps Dear Esther is so short because of the limited resources of the developer, but it's more likely to be a conscious artistic choice. It's a game meant to be played and considered in a single sitting, while all the ideas floating around in your head are still fresh, and while the relentless atmosphere never has a chance to escape.
Dear Esther is an uncompromisingly niche release. Many will be frustrated by the complete lack of interaction, or confused by its refusal to adhere to a linear narrative. Others won't be as forgiving of the ageing Source Engine and its occasionally shoddy visuals. Some will write it off as a fundamentally broken game. All are valid and accurate responses, but they don't paint the whole picture. That said, painting the whole picture isn't something Dear Esther is concerned with.
If nothing else, Dear Esther showcases the increasing maturity of our medium, and a desire to treat it as a true art form. Self-conscious experiments like this are the reason developers such as Valve release their engines in the public domain, and the reason independent designers are flourishing more than ever. It's the sort of thing that could never, ever be released commercially - not in the current gaming climate, at least. But it's also an experience I'm adamant every gamer should have. If you have even the slightest speck of interest in new directions the medium could take, then please dust off your copy of Half-Life 2 and download Dear Esther. You might even like it as much as I did.
Dear Esther is available to download from The Chinese Room's website. You must have a copy of Half-Life 2 installed to your Steam account. To install Dear Esther, simply unzip the folder to your 'Steam/steamapps/sourcemods' directory, then restart Steam. It should appear in your 'Games' list.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (February 08, 2009)
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