I want to say upfront that I do not understand the critical reception that Dear Esther received. I feel that this is important to state so that there is an understanding of where I am coming from. It is not that I did not understand what I was experiencing from a story or mechanical perspective, rather that I did not understand how what I was experiencing formed a coherent gaming narrative.
Consider the following quotes from critic reviews:
- “Dear Esther completely changes the language in which we communicate with a video game; it is an interactive experience whose notion of interactivity demands much more from the players than they are used to.”
- “One of the most haunting and well-executed titles of this or any other generation.”
- “Play this just for yourself and try to see where things might go from here. The possibilities are endless and almost completely unexplored.”
Take the first quote. “Dear Ester changes the language in which we communicate with a video game.”
I simply cannot fathom where the critic was coming from other than this was possibly the first, most striking example of a walking simulator. In this case, why not simply state that this is representative of an emerging genre?
There is nothing new about the way the player will interact with Dear Esther. Indeed, anyone familiar with a first-person perspective game will be immediately familiar with what is on offer. Press “w” and use your mouse to look around. Unless this was a parody comment referring to the fact that almost all elements of interactivity have been stripped away from the player.
Consider in the first moments, the player is likely to enter the building to look around. In my first play through, a bird or bat flew out, control was removed from me and the character ducked. You are not permitted to have your own natural reaction to the events. Consider also, that on another playthrough, I did the same action but this time there was no bird or bat but the player character reacted anyway. Had there been no reaction, I might have considered this a cool moment. Instead, it served to remind me of the disconnect between the experience and the narrative. An example of ludonarrative dissonance if you will, an experience where there is a conflict between narrative and gameplay. I have not explored it, but consider if I had experienced that situation in reverse. No event but the player character ducking anyway. To me, a player would likely consider that a bug within the game.
That Dear Esther is haunting is something that I could not deny. The island is dripping with atmosphere and the narrator at times, adds to this greatly. It is one of the best examples that I can think of the atmosphere being so closely aligned with the graphical fidelity on display. That Dear Esther is well executed is something that I cannot support.
Players are likely to take the same route around the island, they may notice something that they did not spot before, likely the appearance of the ghosts but there is only one path through. The narration, though, is somewhat randomised. That this could be considered well executed is pure nonsense. Players could have multiple run throughs of Dear Esther and not be certain that they have heard the full story.
“The possibilities are endless and almost completely unexplored.” This is either hyperbole to the extreme or the ultimate parody. There is one possibility, you will start at the dock and end at the tower. The goal of the player is one of the first things that they will notice and aside from the caves, will generally be visible in the form of a flashing red light throughout the experience. Sure, you can head down dead ends and these are obnoxious in their own right, but there are no barriers to completion and this draws me on to the main complaint and one that I am sure will be familiar to most gamers.
This is not a game.
Probably not shocking to anyone with any kind of history playing games but in 2012 it won an originality award for best action/adventure game.
Consider the following 2012 action games:
- Max Payne 3
- Darksiders 2
- Assassins Creed 3
Consider the following 2012 adventure games:
- Walking Dead
- The Amazing Spider-Man
I picked those six titles from a quick google search.
I have a loose definition of what constitutes a game. There only need be a barrier to completion. So, you could lack the skill to progress in a first-person shooter, get stomped by that boss in Dark Souls, not win the race or solve the puzzle. Gameplay can be as light or heavy as needed but there needs to be a barrier for the player to overcome.
No barriers exist in Dear Esther and this experience has stuck with me ever since my original purchase several years ago, I recall being angry at my Steam purchase and this being the first title in over 30 years of gaming that I was angry that I had purchased. Sure, there have been numerous titles that I have been disappointed in but none that I was angry parting with money for. Having been tagged with the action/adventure tag, and having the three plus decades of gaming under my belt at this point, I had, perhaps unfairly, had a certain expectation of what I was to experience. Puzzles to solves, hazards to traverse or some form of conflict to overcome.
Dear Esther is full of symbology and how much you spot will depend on your appetite for careful exploration. The first two that players will likely find are the chemical symbology in the first building and the Fibonacci spiral drawn in the sand. Later, it is possible to spot bible verses and circuit diagrams. This design choice can be empowering, the player can feel smart for recognising the symbol but it also has the danger of making the player feel like an idiot for not being able to recognise what is displayed. It also has the danger of completely taking the player out of the experience completely. Consider that you were so curious that you wanted to find out what the chemical symbol was or what that bible passage meant. The player would have to pause or leave the game and do their own research. The experience that you would get from this is completely separate from the game.
What Dear Esther should have done is meet the player half way, perhaps in the form of an interactive pop up that would display what the symbol is or a full except of the bible passage. Such a feature could be enabled or disabled during each play through and as the intention is that players are supposed to play this multiple times, is keeps the experience within the experience. Even developer commentary would have been preferable.
I know that the counter point to this is that not everyone likes to be spoon fed or that some peoples intelligence would be insulted or maybe, that the experience becomes overly bloated and takes away from the developers intentions. It leads to the argument that whatever you take away from the experience, is well, what you take away from the experience. If you however alienate your audience or they don’t derive any deeper meaning or enjoyment from the experience then that’s a fault of game design.
Consider The Matrix film. If you want to derive deeper meaning from the symbology and messages, then that’s available to you. If you just want to experience a stylised action film then that experience is there as well and you can also take a best of both worlds, enjoy the symbology and the action. The audience is met halfway.
No such accommodation is made in Dear Esther. If you don’t enjoy the symbology, there is nothing else available to you.
This leads me on to the narration. As mentioned earlier, this is somewhat randomised. I have read online that it can take up to eight attempts to experience the full script. I have read the full script, available online that clocks in at around 7,800 words. I think I got lucky on my first experience, the script seemed to flow and the narration appeared to be consistent in tone. On subsequent playthroughs this was less apparent. The narration would at times speed up, become more urgent before immediately settling down. There did not appear to be any reason for this and was quite jarring.
Overall, the narration adds to the atmosphere of the island and generally the experience. It is well read, clearly spoken and the only issue that I have is that it is far too flowery, exceedingly so. It could be argued that this experience should be like that of a poem and whilst that argument would have some merit, poems are not action/adventure award winning video games.
I cannot discern any good reason for the narration being randomised. You could say that this encourages multiple experiences but what the player experiences is not being tracked on anyway. That also places a burden on the player. If the eight playthroughs is accurate, then at forty five minutes a time, the player is looking at six hours of game time. Is it really the intention that the player is expected to remember all the passages that they have experienced over that amount of time? Surely it would not have been too difficult to incorporate a tracker of some description to check off passages that have been experienced.
It seems to be a disservice to not briefly summarise what I think the point of the story is. My first thought was that the island represents limbo and the character is reconciling events of the car crash before moving on to the next stage of their existence. The seemingly confusing nature of the narration is the attempt of a dying mind to pull and make sense of their thoughts.
So how would I have “fixed” Dear Esther? My main complaint is the lack of gameplay. Enemies do not make sense in this world and introducing jumping or other physical challenges also would not thematically fit into the world. I would have simply introduced light puzzle elements.
The letters to Esther are already an established part of the world. I would have made them an optional collectable item, say twenty of them. As the paper boat armada is near the end of the experience, I would have had the character add all letters collected to the fleet perhaps earning additional content in the form of narration or an additional ending scene at the credit. Sure its gameplay light and hardly revolutionary but it’s a simple, established hook already present in the world. Players are rewarded for more time and exploration but not punitively punished if they would rather just have the core experience.
To sum up. I had a better experience with Dear Esther after some years and coming back to it for the purposes of this critique. This was though, because I understood the experience I was heading into so I did not have the “where is the gameplay” questions running through my head and was able to let the experience of the island flow. I think the Steam store page is more representative now of what the experience is but I cannot shed the thought that there was somewhat of a bait and switch going on. I have seen this justified online with people stating that Dear Esther would not have got any traction had it truly represented what it was.
This idea though, is very anti-consumer and whilst not the most egregious of practises seen on Steam, it saddles the title, at least in its early days with a damaged reputation.
I am aware that the developers have created a spiritual successor, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. I am tempted to give that a try and see, with the Dear Esther experience if the developer has changed the formula, introduced any gameplay elements or if it is more of the same.