Jun 18, 2013

Postplay : Dear Esther

Dear Esther, it took me a few moments to realize where I was after I had opened my eyes. I could hear the waves breaking on the rocks behind me while I watched the lighthouse and a cold onshore breeze played with my clothes. The loud call of a gull made me turn my head and in the distance I saw a blinking red light that grabbed my attention. It was somehow calling me, so I put my left foot in front of my right and started my hike towards its bright, flickering promise.

The chinese room's Dear Esther is a hard thing to talk about for multiple reasons.
First of it's difficult to say anything meaningful about the game or show screenshots without getting into spoiler territory. The value of Dear Esther relies solely on atmosphere and story, so giving away anything about it could have an impact on your experience. I believe this is the reason why most reviews remain vague about what Dear Esther actually is and I'm afraid I'll have to do the same.

Another difficulty lies in the nature of the beast. As mentioned in my preplay, calling Dear Esther a game is debatable. It's difficult to say whether or not Dear Esther is a game because it's very hard to define what a game is. Personally I tend to go with the definition Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have offered in their book Rules of play.
A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that result in a quantifiable outcome.
By this definition Dear Esther wouldn't be a game because if we take this definition apart it says that, in order to be a game, software needs a player, a conflict or challenge to overcome, a set of rules that has been conveyed to the player and a quantifiable outcome to determine whether or not a player has won. If these conditions aren't met than you are just playing, not playing a game.
I like to use the example of throwing a ball to differentiate between playing and a game. If you aimlessly throw a ball, you are playing. If you however try to throw a ball through a hoop and state that you win if you get the ball through the hoop in three or less tries, you are playing a game. You have created a set of rules, a series of obstacles and a winning condition that elevates playing with a ball to playing a game that involves throwing a ball.

I won't go any deeper into this because a lot of people have their own ideas about what is or isn't a game and a lot of examples can be given that don't exactly fit the definition I tend to go with but could still be considered games. Dear Esther is one of those fringe cases and thereby it is hard to talk about it with other gamers without getting into a discussion about the meaning of the word game. Throughout the game there's no interaction with your environment, items or NPC's. You go forward without a clear goal and there never is any real obstacle in your way to overcome. To make things simple I'll refer to Dear Esther as a game throughout this post but feel free to think of it as a piece of entertainment software instead.

The weird thing about Dear Esther though is that being a game is one of its biggest flaws. I have seldom played or seen anything as immersive as Dear Esther. The environments are fantastical but believable. The sound design is phenomenal and the music ties it all together.
I've been to Iceland last summer and one of the things I loved most about that country is the feeling you get when you turn a corner and find yourself looking at something hauntingly beautiful. It's a rare feeling and to my amazement Dear Esther succeeds in recreating it from time to time.
But this immersion gets broken as soon as you realize that you are playing a game. At one point I wanted to have a look at the environment from the top of a hill. I started walking towards it but found myself stuck on a small rock that acted as an invisible wall. All of a sudden I was pulled out of the world Dear Esther had created for me and found myself behind my computer playing a game. That's what I mean when I say that being a game is one of Dear Esther's problems.

When going over my notes I can clearly see the moment where I stopped looking at Dear Esther as a piece of software. I start out writing about technicalities like how many chapters are in the game, how the controls work or invisible walls. At one point though, my notes change and I'm talking about the sound, the music, the feeling I get when walking into a cave. That's when the game starts shining, the moment you forget that you are playing it and just start experiencing what it has to offer.

As I said in the beginning of this post, Dear Esther relies solely on atmosphere and story. By now I think I've made clear that I found the atmosphere astonishing so let's talk about the story.
Dear Esther's story is told by a narrator and progresses as you reach certain points in the environment. It's style is rather poetic and don't expect to have all the answers by the time the credits roll. It is a story meant to make you think long after you're done playing the game and it's open to interpretation and debate.
I'm not going to pretend that I understood everything the game wanted to tell me and I'm honestly left rather confused than anything else, but the story does fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly and adds to the feeling of wonder you get while playing.

There are some more obvious story beats that give you a basic understanding of what is going on and these are often told by elements in the environment rather than speech. One big WTF moment in particular gives you a big clue to what is actually happening over the course of the game but you'll have to fill in the gaps yourself. Some of these elements are randomized making it so that you'll never get the full story when only going through the experience once and this opens the story line up for even more discussion.

Overall I think The chinese room has made exactly what they intended to with Dear Esther. It's an interesting approach to gaming that could be an inspiration for many developers if nothing else.
I have to warn you if you're interested in trying it though, it's very short. I finished it in just over 70 minutes and I was taking my sweet time writing down notes and searching for good spots to take screenshots.
Despite the fact that some parts of the story are randomized I don't suspect many people go through it twice. This makes it hard to justify the €7,99 price tag. The game has been on sale many times before so I suspect that it will be again in the future. When it does I recommend anyone who's into gaming to give it a go. Dear Esther is something unique and it will give you a new look at our much beloved medium for sure.

Next time I'll be playing Galactic Civilizations I: Ultimate Edition


quillsaga said...

Nice review! Really liked your analog of throwing a ball as playing or playing a game. I haven't tried this game out yet; I got it in a bundle, but one of my friends showed me what it looks like on his computer. Didn't get to see the story or story-er moments yet, but it sounds kind of like the game Proteus (which someone dubbed Musical Island Generator), just with a bit more story in this one (Proteus doesn't have any). Looking forward to trying this game too, also can't blame you or other reviews I've read for making it vague :D

SimoensS said...

Hi Quillsaga. Thanks for the comment. I hadn't heard of Proteus before, it looks nice though. Maybe I'll check it out in the future. Still have a lot of backlogging to do why not extend it? :D

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