So I played Dear Esther and this is wot me thinkz…

If you don’t know what Dear Esther is, then you’re not into gaming, into non-gaming, or maybe you are one of the readers who’s more interested about 3D and CG than gaming. Either way, it’s ok Smile

Dear Esther is a game about a dude walking to a mountain, and if you’re like me, you just remembered this:

Now, on to a more serious tone for my post…

There was a lot of discussion related to whether Dear Esther is a game, an interactive movie, an interactive novel, interactive audio book, or (people seem to love this word), interactive “experience.” I’ll take the simplistic approach and say Dear Esther is a video game, based on what the almighty Wikipedia has to say about it simply because the game requires human interaction to function:

A video game is an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device. The word video in video game traditionally referred to a raster display device, but following popularization of the term "video game", it now implies any type of display device.

The thing is people wonder if it’s a game because all you do is walk. So maybe you can’t simply think of it as a game, and you have to think of it as an “interactive novel” like some say. However, if you do this, you also have to consider how it is an interactive novel if the sole interaction is hitting the W key whenever you want to read the next page. As a storyteller, to me this is about using a medium to tell a story, and I’ll simply look at it using different perspectives and try to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Just a note to Dear Esther die-hard fans out there: if you don’t agree with whatever I say, that doesn’t mean I’m wrong; if, on the other hand, I say something that fits the way you see this game, doesn’t mean I’m right. Like it or not, I’m entitled to opinion and just because it bears a 78 on Metacritic will not change it in any way.

As a game.

I’d have to say the most compelling parts of the game are the environments and sound. A combination of the two make you feel like you’re in that island, and it’s so alive it makes you want to explore the whole place, which is extremely cool, but it’s also one of the biggest flaws I find.

The story, while interesting, is very straightforward, and is presented via vague voiceovers to make players draw their own conclusions based on what they hear, and see. Depending on the kind of player you are, this will be a good or bad thing for you. If you’re the kind of player who cares about your character, want to connect with it and what happens to it, then this is not a game for you because you don’t even know who you are.

For a game, the level of interaction is almost zero. Gameplaywise, the game doesn’t require more from you than pressing the W key while moving the mouse around. It didn’t take me long to realize having to use both hands for this game was just overkill, and I found myself remapping the controls to fit a realMyst style control scheme (RMB to walk forward, MMB to swim up). You can’t even know more about the story by interacting with objects, and the story is simply presented to you by touching triggers found on the levels. This lack of interaction also relates to the biggest flaw I mentioned earlier.

As I said, Dear Esther is considered an exploration game, and the beautiful island would make this work perfectly… if you were actually able to explore the place. The game is full of places you can’t reach, and the levels themselves end up being completely linear. On the other hand, while there are places where you can stray a little and explore, there is not a sense of reward since the level of interaction is so low. I am not talking about getting an achievement for exploring certain cave, or something like that. Other games about exploration yield a better sense of understanding what’s going on just by visiting places and interacting with things you find. For example, in Fatal Frame, half of the time you’re reading books and diaries to help you understand what’s going on. If Fatal Frame were Dear Esther, you’d get the full story just by walking around and hitting the next invisible trigger.

This is what was the point of making Dear Esther a game, if the entire story will be presented to you by just holding the W key (or in my case, by holding the RMB). You reach a point where the system is this big invisible hand, telling you where to go and automatically feeding all the needed information into your brain with no effort. Some can even argue this works because “then you control the pace of the story” but that’s only true if you decide to stop for a while and look around, and then continue walking.

Dear Esther is an experiment, and you have to keep that in mind when playing it. I have to say the game got me thinking about many things even after I finished the first play-through. However, the magic was gone from me by the time I played the second time, because, while I wanted to know more, I knew I’d end up visiting the same places again, waiting for the next trigger to activate so the dude delivered the next part of the dialogue. The game would have been a lot better if you’d had the chance to interact more with things, so you can find more of the story ‘by yourself’ and not by just walking. If the chinese room decided to make this a game, they could have totally profited from the levels of interactivity the medium offers, and not making a game that feels completely constrained by some poor choices in design.

After all, there are more ways of interactivity in games besides killing monsters, jumping platforms or solving puzzles. For a game like Dear Esther, a simple “I’ll let you swim to that wrecked ship over there so you explore it and press E to read the logs in that ship” would’ve been welcome.

But Dear Esther made me drown half way to the ship because the system knows I’m not supposed to go there.

As a cinematic story.

The story, while interesting is pretty straightforward. You’re an unnamed character in an island, thinking about his past and “recent events” (I’ll try not to post any spoilers. While you don’t know the exact goal, right off the bat you know there’s a very important radio tower with a red glowing light, simply because that’s the first thing you see, and certain framings throughout the game only reinforce this (the one I liked the most is where you walk in a path between two cliffs that frame the tower perfectly).

There are many interesting details in Dear Esther, such as paintings on walls, sunken ships, and, on the last chapter, lit candles, some of them with pictures near them. Most of the time, these little details provide a richer experience because they relate, in one way or another, with what the protagonist is talking about. However, there’s the unfortunate small detail that, since you don’t know who the protagonist is, you don’t know how many of these details may relate to you.

The thing that mostly drew my attention was the paintings on the walls. There are different symbols on the walls that make reference to parts of the protagonist’s lines. Some of them are diagrams that describe the chemical compound of alcohol (according to what some say, since I don’t know anything about that subject), others are supposedly brain cells, and others are (incomplete?) electric circuits. Since the story is very open to interpretation (even if it doesn’t take you much to know there’s a car crash involved), you can try to figure out what those diagrams mean.

I do think authors could have used a stronger symbol, since there’s a part where you’re, literally, surrounded by these symbols and writings. For example, maybe the protagonist is an electrician, but maybe he’s dealing with the guilt of causing a car crash, so in that scenario having countless electric circuits is not exactly the strongest symbol to have at that very moment.

Taking an example from games. If you’ve played Fatal Frame II, then you know Chitose Tachibana. She was young, easily scared, and had poor vision. In the game, died trapped in a room. When you go into that room and look at the walls through the Camera Obscura, you see japanese writings that (according to what I’ve found), mean “help me,” which is very suitable for that specific moment. If it was Dear Esther maybe they would’ve placed a bunch of glasses and eye-diagrams instead…

I can’t help to notice how much Dear Esther reminded me of the movie Stay. Henry is a car crash survivor, and later in the film you know he’s dealing with guilt. There’s a scene where Ewan McGregor’s character gets really close to a wall that seems to have a bunch of lines. When you get the extreme close up, you realize those are actually tiny words saying “Forgive me” over and over. Those were written by Henry, who happened to be an artist of some sort, but his guilt has a more important role at that moment.

See what I’m getting at? In Dear Esther you may be dealing with a protagonist who’s trying to deal with some sort of guilt related to that car crash, and the strongest symbol you can come up with is a bunch of electric circuits? Visually, that makes you wonder if the feelings of guilt are real at all, because visually you get the impression that he’s a very rational and brain-oriented person.

The guy may be sorry for something… but what we get in the end is the diagram of a condensator…

The fourth chapter is a really welcome change, and visually the strongest chapter of them all. The story reaches its peak, and takes momentum. This is good, considering I was hoping the story to do this at some point, but I do think it was too late, since this peak would have fitted the third chapter better and use the fourth to give us the resolution (or whatever you want to call it).

The entire story seems to be more of a catharsis than anything else, which to me works pretty well. The protagonist is not dealing with any external antagonist, but rather with himself. For this reason, the ending also works pretty well, since it’s about letting go, and not about overcoming an obstacle.

Final words.

I am not going to provide you with an “score” since this was not a review. This was just sharing my thoughts based on my experience with Dear Esther. For this reason, while I hope what I wrote is useful to those still not sure if they should get the game or not, I’m not going encourage anyone to get it. As a piece of cinematic story, Dear Esther, while simple, is something I recommend to those who liked the movie Stay. As a game, I can recommend it as part of “research” (and if you’re a game developer, more so), although the gaming medium proves to be overkill when it comes to a project like Dear Esther.

In other news…

Someone posted a gameplay video of Enola. While short (and the game is short as well), I’m happy to see the lethal trap caused on him the reaction I expected.

Someone else posted a bunch of screenshots of the game on his Steam account as well, and the alpha video also made it to GameTrailers, and it seems most people are liking the concept so far.

I hope I don’t end up failing to deliver. However, there’s the fact that I’m alpha funding the game, so input from those who play the alpha will help me better decide what works and what doesn’t (and maybe even take me in a new direction).

~ by nemirc on March 4, 2012.

One Response to “So I played Dear Esther and this is wot me thinkz…”

  1. […] This means that, even if I find the idea of making story-driven games, I want to make games that could actually be considered games, because they offer a level of interaction other than QT prompts on the screen and name it a game , or holding a key for 2 or 3 hours to make a game about walking. […]

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