Dear Esther: The Kotaku Review

Dear Esther is a terrible video game. Which would be a problem if Dear Esther was a video game.

What began in 2008 as a mod for Half-Life 2 has, after years of picking up first buzz and then critical acclaim, transformed in 2012 into a full-blown commercial release, with all the updated visuals and polish to go along with it.

Dear Esther drops you on an island in the Hebrides, off the coast of Scotland. Once there, you walk around. Very slowly. Every once in a while, as you make your way around the island exploring its paths and hillsides and trails, you'll be interrupted by a narrator providing you with increasingly fragmented and confusing accounts of yourself, your wife and then...other stuff.

And that's it.

WHAT I LIKED

Gorgeous. I've seen the ageing Source Engine do some neat tricks before, but I have never seen it look as good as it does in Dear Esther. For an island almost entirely devoid of life everything looks, well, alive, and the lighting effects used for the weather and inside caves is stunning.

A Novel Concept. You've probably never played anything like Dear Esther. The way it takes the medium of video games, rips everything out then takes the remaining husk on a walk for a bit of a chat was the reason people went mad for this as a mod, and nearly four years on it's still a refreshingly unique idea. Even if you hate the story, hate the setting and hate British motorways, you should still applaud a game that tries to do something truly unique.

WHY: Even if you don't like the content, the structure and design on display here is still something you need to experience.

DEAR ESTHER

Developer: Dear Esther / The Chinese Room

Platforms: PC

Released: February 14

Type of game: First-Person Island-Wandering / Story-Listening.

What I played: Took around two hours to play through all chapters to completion.

My Two favourite Things

  • This is a beautiful, if not video game, then thing.
  • It's a brave experiment, and the world always needs more brave experiments.

My Two Least-Favorite Things

  • It's occasionally too self-indulgent at the expense of the "player".
  • I just didn't find the story and mystery on offer terribly interesting.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "The future of first-person shooters is first-person slow walking" - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com
  • "Who the fuck is Esther?" - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com
  • "The most menacing aerial I have ever seen." - Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE

Wordy Wordsmith. Yeah, you can give indie games a little slack for being over-eager on the use of a thesaurus, but there are moments in Dear Esther where the narrator becomes almost comedic, so intent is he (well, the script) on searching for words longer than four syllables for what feels like the sake of it.

Walk Like a Man. It's a definite design decision to not only skip the inclusion of a "run" button, but to make your regular walking speed nice and slow. You're supposed to do this properly, walk each step as you would in real life, actually explore every inch of the island. It's also because walking triggers randomised narration fragments, and skipping or running would spoil this. But a lot of the island is boring. And if you end up at a dead-end and are forced to backtrack, it can feel like water torture, drip by drip, step by step.

Not a Game. Here's where Dear Esther will fall down for a lot of people. There's just nothing to do. You walk, and see things, and listen to the narrator, but you can't interact with or pick up or affect anything. So all that's keeping you moving is the story (which will not be for everyone, myself included) and some nice visual effects. If you don't dig the story, there's almost nothing left.

THE FINAL WORD

Dear Esther should be applauded for prioritising story over all else, and for taking bold design decisions that adhere to that vision. My problem is that its vision is perhaps too bold, and that by positioning itself as a video game it's actually doing itself a disservice.

The story here may have been better left at just that, a story, because having the player trudge through it one step at a time - even if that was the idea, to better immerse them - often feels like a forced march instead of a journey of discovery. Especially when there's almost nothing to do while on that journey.

In other words, this is a book. An audio book, if you will, in which your mouse and keyboard are as "gamey" as your fingers are when turning the page of a novel.

So, yeah, I didn't like this as a game. I didn't really like it as a story, either. But you know what? Who cares. There's promise here in Dear Esther's structure, if not its execution.

You've likely never played anything like Dear Esther before, something which goes against almost everything you think you know about how a "game" should be designed and played. So if you're at all interested in seeing how games could be if they put the guns down and just started talking, you should at least check it out.


Comments

    Seriously? You gave The Darkness II a "NO", but this a "Yes"? It's not even really a game but gamers should play it simply because it is different?

      And why not?
      Not all games need to be run and shoot and teabag and call other players people of different sexual alignment.
      I welcome the idea of making more interactive stories like these rather than spend millions of dollar developing the next Manly Shooting Testosterone Fueled Shooter 13.
      Fair point about it not exactly being a game but many people these days would not consider Zork or the classic point and click adventure games games by the current popular definition.
      It evolves. Players do too.

        Therefore Every shooter, regardless of actual content, gets a no?

        Poor HL3...

          Hmm... Actually, in all honesty, I'd really play HL3 even if it ended up like that.

            Though reading your comment again. I must say I derped. I'm in agreement with you, though Darkness 2 is definately worth playing.

          Hmm... Actually, in all honesty, I'd really play HL3 even if it ended up like that.

          No. Just the ones that takes 2 years to make ;)

          I should have clarified my statement. It was more a point that there are too many games that feel the same and try to copy each other and new ideas are hard to come by.

          I too would play HL3 in a second where it not in limbo. But the HL series has imagination and a good story to be told. Most of the MSTFS (Manly Shooting Testosterone Fueled Shooter, copyrighted and coined henceforth), feel like just small iterations on each other. And people love them and play them for hours with no end. Which is fine. I can dig that.
          What I would like to see is more innovation and different ways of doing things and Dear Esther is such a case. Penumbra was another as was Braid to name a few. I guess in reality I'm just a story hungry gamer.

            Agreed; Penumbra was genius.

            Finding those games that try things different isn't that hard; they tend to get bashed a fair bit because of one or two things they get wrong. Mirror's Edge, Breakdown... two examples off the top of my head.

            I'm a fan of games trying different things but it seems MSTFS keeps getting the attention because it's safe to make one.

              Penumbra = weeks of dirty underwear :D

              Completely agree with you there. Haven't tried Mirror's Edge but thanks for the heads up. We should try and do the community review and see how we go with Dear Esther.

    A 3D first-person Western visual novel, then?

    Hmm, if I wanted to slowly meander around a barren island looking at rocks while someone drip feeds me a mediocre story I would go do that.
    In fact it reminds me of some family camping holidays and I stopped joining those to play video games for a reason.

      Here here.

    Looking at the back of the box it would be hard to pass this up with such endearing quotes from the man himself lol

    Its suppose to be Story telling though Atmosphere, which Movies and Books just cant replicate, now I dont know if Dear Esther pulls it off, but I am sure going to give it a try. Now is it free, it comes out tomorrow and nothing on pricing, I thought it would of been around 5 dollars, 10 max, but I will take free. Its all about the experience.

    having now played this game, I can safely say it's stunning. If you're into video games, and I do mean into them. Not the kind of person who enjoys yearly franchises, etc. then you will get some enjoyment out of Dear Esther.

    This is a game that might be just ahead of it's time now, but one you should be playing, now, after or while you're reading this nontheless.

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