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Dear Esther: Some thoughts

I’d have loved to review Dear Esther. I couldn’t, of course. Having waxed lyrical about it on the internet and in magazines for many years, I was absolutely delighted when thechineseroom approached me in late 2011 with the offer of heading up their PR campaign for launch. Since November it’s been my job to get others talking about Dear Esther, rather than talking about it myself – but that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.

The most surprising thing to me has been this: people don’t believe you when you tell them what Dear Esther is. You walk around an island, listen to a man talk, observe the intricacies of the environment and, piecing it all together, construct your own interpretation of a deeply tragic story. There are no puzzles. There are no guns. You’ll employ no strategy, and you’ll compete against no one.

When you tell people this about Dear Esther, they respond: “Yes, but what do you do?”

That’s it. It’s an exploration game. We’ve seen plenty of these, but they’re usually free Flash games that crop up every time there’s some sort of indie development competition or Game Jam. Dear Esther’s just a first-person, AAA-quality version of one of these. It’s also brilliant, and flawed in just the right ways to make it even more interesting.

Its Hebridean island is stunning. Rendered in the latest version of Source, it’s the work of the enormously talented Robert Briscoe who, as everyone is quick to get excited about, previously worked as an environment artist on Mirror’s Edge. You begin on the island’s coast, the sea gently lapping against the sand, a lighthouse in front of you. “Dear Esther,” the narrator begins, as you gaze around in wonder.

Later, spectacularly, it becomes even more beautiful. The washed-out greens and browns of the coast evoke Stalker, but the island’s caves are explosively colourful, phosphorescent paint and mysteriously lit candles casting cold blues and warm oranges over the dripping rock formations. Later still, a climb up a mountain path is dotted with tiny shrines, the ocean shimmering in the moonlight beyond. The clarity and detail of Briscoe’s world are almost unprecedented.

The story is told in those details. They change on each playthrough: unlike in the original mod, aspects of the environment are semi-randomised, as well as sections of the script. There’s more writing here, too, with several entirely new lines of monologue adding yet more facets to Esther’s richly ambiguous story – a tale of motorway crashes, hiking falls and, eventually, insanity.

And there’s Jessica Curry’s score. It’s quite remarkable. Gentle piano motifs build into sweeping strings sections, while heavily manipulated sound effects drench the island in its most extraordinary locations. Much has been made of Briscoe’s work with the environment, and quite rightly so, but if anything’s the one star of the show it’s the soundtrack. It elevates everything to a higher plane.

Whether or not it’s a ‘game’ seems immaterial to me. It is what it is. Whether it’s the appropriate format for this experience is another matter, but for my money the format is key. Could it have worked as a film? Maybe, but it would have been a different thing. Esther’s appeal lies in its immaculate sense of discovery. For all the excellent writing and fabulous voiceover work, it’s the smaller details, the ones hidden away unless you actively seek them out, that give the story its real flavour – and they do so because they reward your investigation.

There’s no escaping that it’s slow. I can’t think of a way it could be made faster without destroying part of what makes it work, but some of those treks from place to place will test the patience of many. That you’re restricted to a largely linear path is also often frustrating, especially when the island you’re exploring is so enchanting. But I love these things about it, because it dares to strip itself back quite so much. It’s a brave, exciting experiment, and one the team already intends to build upon and refine in a future game – an open-world adventure of a similar ilk, entitled Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Games tend to innovate by throwing new ideas into the mix. Dear Esther does it by taking all the established ones out.

It’s surprising, beautiful and, in its story’s revelations, both immensely sad and intensely hopeful. It sent real shivers down my spine – and it did so long before I took the PR job. I have to say that, of course. But I didn’t have to write this blog. I did that because I felt compelled to. I think Dear Esther is an astonishing thing to behold.

FULL DISCLOSURE — As if I hadn’t already made it blindingly obvious: thechineseroom paid me coins to manage the PR campaign for Dear Esther’s launch – a campaign that lasted three months from conception to completion. It is only sensible to assume this may have had an effect on the words I’m now writing about it. But anything I wrote about the game before November was entirely off my own back, with no prior connection to the game or its developers. I was first privileged enough to play this remake last year, and my opinions haven’t changed since then.

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3 responses »

  1. I spent most of my time with it trying to work out how to appreciate it. On my playthrough at least, it failed as interactive fiction. I wasn’t learning anything, I wasn’t given anything to go on really. Cave paintings are a good example, I would have liked a red herring or some comment, something to build a theory on. MILD SPOILER Instead their origin is spelled out 5 minutes from the end
    /MILD SPOILER
    The vagueness (unreliability, prob deliberate) of how characters are introduced, meant that I didn’t care a whole bunch about them, which weakened the emotional punch at the end.
    Narration felt overwrought, and straining to be literary, could well be a character attribute. I hope so, as I laughed at it several times.

    A key problem for me was its lack of an event to suck you in at the beginning. I love freedom, but I wasn’t gripped by the game until well into the second half.

    The story being told is a good one, but Dear Esther is actively avoiding telling it until the last 5 minutes. With stuff like this, the key question is; what does this gain from being a game?
    With something like Silent Hill 2, player agency enhances the tricks of the Psychological Horror trade a hundred fold, I didnt get that so much here. Exploration is kinda cool, however not being able to jump was a perpetual irritant, and immersion breaker. I want to explore the island, and am being prevented from doing so by foot, and a half tall rocks.
    I’m unsure if Dear Esther derives enough benefit from being a game to make up for immersion breakers like the above, and heading down a dead end for 5 minutes.

    I ended up thinking of it as an interactive, art installation, and one well worth seeing. Caves in particular are breathtaking. Wonderfully “posed” sets which brought out my inner photographer.

    Sorry for rant.
    I did enjoy Dear Esther very much, it just took me a long while to figure out how to enjoy it.

    Reply
  2. The mood _Dear Esther_ evokes made it memorable for me; the “story” part seemed more a vehicle for enhancing this evokation (?) of loss and loneliness.

    Reply

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