Dear Esther PC
Usually, when a video game is referred to as an “interactive movie”, the reference comes with negativity due to inclusions like voice-over cutscenes and an emphasis on story-telling rather than actual gameplay. Titles like the Metal Gear Solid series have been associated with this labeling by less than enthused fans, though those games never sacrificed gameplay for story; they simply distorted traditional narrative by making story dictate how gameplay would function.
However, a few recent games have continued to stretch the idea of story-games by stripping the amount of control a gamer has in virtual settings; Heavy Rain features snippets of interactivity inside limited environments while using Quick-Time Events to handle the majority of action sequences; the upcoming Asura’s Wrath appears to base its entire premise with button-prompted Anime-inspired sequences (and in the case of its upcoming DLC, it will literally utilize traditional animation – looks like Dragon’s Lair is back in style).
Dear Esther, the latest indie title to arrive on Steam, attempts to stretch the interactive concept of a story-game, and what originally began as a free Source mod has been picked up and re-branded as a commercial re-release. The original mod received critical acclaim for its unique premise and thought-provoking narrative, but is that enough to literally sell people on the idea of a game that features no enemies, puzzles, or any other elements beyond walking and looking at environments?
Taking place in first-person perspective, Dear Esther puts players behind the eyes of an unseen, unnamed individual who narrates about the events of his life and the island surrounding him in the form of letters sent to a woman named Esther (the nature of their relationship is, along with everything else, a mystery). As is typical with indie developers, the dialog is mysterious and fragmented, with sequences seemingly being described out of order, along with details concerning individuals who may or may not be relevant to the overall narrative. Some environmental imagery and aural cues eventually help formulate a better understanding of the narrator’s (perhaps intentionally) cryptic remarks, but it would be a disservice to give away any personal interpretations in this review.
Instead, let’s focus on what we do know about Dear Esther, namely its mechanics. As mentioned before, there is no actual gameplay to be found, and only one real objective presented to players: walk from one side of the island to the other, in the span of four chapters. As a fairly open space, there are some branching paths leading into small caves, broken down houses, and a submerged boat or two; however, the player ultimately is restricted from veering off the main path, and there is little reason to do so anyway (not to mention the lack of a run button makes backtracking a real slog).
As a game where looking is about the only action we can perform, Dear Esther does have the advantage of featuring a great deal of compelling imagery. In what may be the most graphically impressive use of the aged Source Engine, every nook and cranny of the solitary island comes to life courtesy of moving foliage, clouds dipped in sunlight, and wrecked but clearly lived-in structures filled with torn books and other materials. The interior caves during chapter three are particularly stunning, and the effect is only heightened by the hauntingly ambient music that enters your ears with each significant step forward.
It may not be as technically impressive as Skyrim, but it does create a convincing argument that the development team of thechineseroom should be allowed to work on the next Half-Life (whenever that happens). The only technical hiccup is a rather nauseating fish-eye effect from playing on a large screen and at a high resolution. As a technical showpiece, Dear Esther certainly utilizies its visuals and sound to achieve an interpretive narrative, strengthening the argument that video games can exist as art that emotionally resonates in its players.
The problem is that indie titles such as Limbo and Braid have already achieved the level of ambiguity and narrative reflection that Dear Esther has done while still featuring enough puzzle-solving mechanics to warrant a second playthrough or two. By comparison, Dear Esther is an experience that lasts under an hour and features no reason for re-visiting it beyond further analyzing its cryptic messages and dissecting the narrator’s ramblings.
There is certainly a place for more interactive titles such as Dear Esther when cleverly executed; one great example was the Super 8 interactive teaser included with Portal 2, offering a short but intriguing teaser that promoted the movie in a way that had previously never been attempted. As a standalone title that sells for the same price as other games that provide ambiance without skimping on gameplay, it’s a much tougher sell. Still, it’s a sell that anyone looking for a potentially soul-lifting experience should consider making.