Dear Esther review
Death via the Scenic Route
If games can only be rated in comparison with each other, then how can you judge one which tries to create something new entirely? thechineseroom's Dear Esther is a game which seems to set out with the sole intention of sticking up a gigantic middle finger to the Roger Eberts of the world who think that video games can't be an art form. What the hell is it? You might call it a first-person adventure for the sake of reference, but in reality it comes closer to resembling a short film or even a graphic novel. Nothing quite like it has been attempted before or since in a video game, and it splits the community into those who love it and those who are disinterested in what it aims to achieve. However you want to classify it, though, it's profound, it's moving, and beyond a shadow of a doubt - you bet it's artistic.
When you begin Dear Esther, you assume control of a nameless protagonist and find yourself alone on a deserted, rocky island. Over the sounds of the waves crashing on the shore and the wind blowing through the grass, a narrator reads a fragment of a letter addressed to a woman named Esther in a sophisticated English accent. It quickly becomes clear that the narrator is you, and that you're reading or recalling a letter that you yourself have written. Beyond the sounds of the environment and your ever-present footfalls these narrative fragments will be your only companion on a two-hour long journey which will take you around, under and to the very apex of the island. Answers to obvious questions such as who you are, who Esther is, why you've come to the island and what your ultimate objective is are all known to the protagonist, but not to you, and only through paying careful attention to these monologues will you stand any chance of understanding your past, present and future.
On the face of it, that's the one and only goal of Dear Esther. There's no running, no jumping, no enemies to defeat, indeed no action whatsoever. Even 'death' merely results in the narrator telling you to "come back", and your position being reset to a few moments beforehand. Fast-paced action it ain't, and if you've come expecting gameplay on par with modern shooters (or, for that matter, even basic platformers) then you're going to be sorely disappointed. All you can do is move, explore the island in order to trigger further narrations, and coast along the predetermined course that the developers have chartered for you.
What enjoyment could possibly be derived from such an experience? For starters, even staunch critics are able to appreciate the undeniable production quality. The astonishingly beautiful graphics and the hauntingly melodic soundtrack are worth the price of admission alone. The level of detail is astounding, and from the rugged vegetation to the ramshackle edifices dotted across the island you're always rewarded for taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Water and light effects are particularly noteworthy, as good as I've seen in a video game. The music, primarily comprised of piano and violin, supplements them beautifully and seems in perfect sync with the emotional highs and lows of your journey. Usually it's just a fitting backdrop to the beauty of your surrounds, but it always builds to a crescendo or fades to nothingness at the appropriate times. The level design is clever, the voice acting emotive and convincing; it's clear from the outset that this isn't just the experiment of some pompous gaming evangelists, but rather a quality product made by genuinely talented developers.
Curious, then, that expectations raised by particularly effective but thoroughly conventional video game elements are completely dashed by - of all things - the gameplay, and this is what will make or break the game for you. A priori you'd figure an 'adventure' which allows no deviations from a set path would be painfully boring. While the path splits at a few points it invariably rejoins with itself shortly thereafter, so the route you take is always more or less identical. Don't get me wrong, the island is an absolute joy to explore. Beyond the fantastic visual and audial experience, the level design is actually very creative considering its linear structure. Most players will be able to appreciate how exploration is made a necessity by the fact that the correct route is sometimes only visible from certain perspectives. On top of this, finding particular locations rewards you with further monologues that you wouldn't have heard otherwise. The use of mise-en-scene is superb, making your eventual destination clear even if you're not entirely sure why. You just head in a direction, hoping it's the right one, and it usually turns out to be so.
But without wanting to sound pretentious, it's more of an emotional or philosophical journey than a literal one (and as such, for review purposes it's unfortunately the sort of thing you can only refer to in vague allusions without giving it all away - apologies if your eyes have just glazed over). For most players the main hook and replay value will be trying to piece together the protagonist's story from the limited cryptic clues provided to you. The game contains several dozen narrative fragments in total, as well as a number of items such as photographs, books, and other vague hints at your past. These are chosen semi-randomly, however, such that you won't receive all of them during a single playthrough. For any given game, only a few items will spawn at random locations around the island, and passing through checkpoints will afford you one of four or so possible monologues - you'll actually need to complete the game up to 100 times if you absolutely need to see and hear everything it has to offer. You don't need to, of course - any combination will provide you with enough information to draw your own conclusions, albeit extremely broad ones.
Is there a single meaningful story to be interpreted from the endless metaphors and imagery? Possibly, but it isn't necessary to understand everything. To get on my high horse for a minute, I've always held that ambiguity is the height of artistic beauty, and Dear Esther's writer apparently agrees. It means that even if you don't understand the symbolism behind all the Biblical references and mixed metaphors, you'll still be able to relate the emotions to something in your own psyche and derive some meaning from it. It pains me a bit when I see people who've finished the game ask others what the story's about, because simply by asking the question they've missed the point. Why does there have to be a correct answer? Combine what you've been given with your imagination to produce something that satisfies you, or play it again for some more evidence confirming or refuting your theory.
Still, this won't be to everyone's tastes, and even treating it as an aside Dear Esther isn't without its issues. What held it back the most for me was its inability to completely distance itself from convention despite its greatest efforts. No matter how hard you try to open your mind to its vision, there are inevitable reminders that you're still just sitting at your screen playing a computer game. The worst culprit was the choice to partition the game into four sections separated by loading screens which rob a significant degree of your immersion. They always seem to occur just when your curiosity's reached its peak and last long enough to bring you rather irritatingly back to reality. Perhaps it was necessary due to the incredible graphical detail? I plead ignorance concerning the technical aspects of development, but frankly I'd have much preferred to wait four times as long for a new game to begin if it meant I could play from start to finish without having to stop.
Other factors are more minor but still a pain in the ass. For one, it's frustrating that your character's supposed to know exactly where he's going but it's still possible to lose your own sense of direction and take a wrong turn. So when you reach a dead end, or realise that you're walking in circles, the separation between you and the protagonist becomes annoyingly clear and it ruins any emotional attachment you might have had. Despite knowing that it'd completely ruin the deliberate pacing I found myself wishing at times like these that there was a run key just so I wouldn't have to backtrack at an annoyingly slow rate. I also thought the writing was a little too verbose at times, with particular word choices seeming to serve little purpose except to showcase the thickness of the author's thesaurus. We know you're being poetic, but sometimes subtlety is preferable, particularly when your audience isn't entirely comprised of English majors.
Conclusion: I had to write this review now, because every time I play Dear Esther I love it that little bit more. That said, I completely understand that it's not going to be for everyone. In its self-imposed tradition of defying conventions it doesn't have that instant gratification provided by most modern video games. I really hope that doesn't put you off, though; it's deliberately slow, methodical and thought-provoking rather than fast and exciting. Maybe it's more of a log ride than a rollercoaster, but it takes you through the emotional peaks and troughs just the same, moving from the bitterness and mourning of the protagonist's past to his eventual resignation, acceptance and peacefulness. I struggle to imagine how most people wouldn't be able to get something out of playing this game, even if you wouldn't necessarily call it enjoyment. It's entertaining in the same way as reading poetry, or watching a tragedy unfold. I urge you to play it just to get that glimpse at what video games are capable of as an art form, and what direction they might be able to take in the future. And who knows? Maybe you'll even learn something about yourself in the process.
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