Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Dear Esther

Fair warning: you may not consider Dear Esther a true "game" in the normal sense of the socially accepted word. You might be better off considering it an interactive story. I bought Dear Esther during the recent Steam sale for pennies on the dollar after hearing some rather positive press about the game when it was released. After playing through it I feel as though I owe Robert Briscoe and the rest of the team some more money.

Honestly, during the writing of this review I went back and forth about how much to tell about the experience. I feel as though people should go into this game blind, with no knowledge at all of what they are about to experience. If this review seems a bit vague, that is the intention so as to not spoil the experience for the reader.

To be reductionist, Dear Esther is a first person adventure game where the only controls you need are how to move around the environment. There are no other buttons to hit beyond looking with your mouse and moving with WASD. Originally released as a Half-Life 2 mod in 2008, the game has made significant graphical and artistic upgrades with the team's addition of a professional artist (Robert Briscoe), allowing for a full release. In actuality, Dear Esther is a  psychological journey into the mind of a broken man told through the recital of letters written to woman named Esther. Set to a incredibly evocative and moving dynamic musical score that punctuates key discoveries or realizations; you merely walk around an island discovering what secrets the island holds. The island landscape evokes an almost satanic like presence with stalactites and stalagmites arrayed in ways reminiscent of the jaws of hell. The whole experience is something I can only describe as oppressive, made possible by the impressive voiceover and brooding landscape.

The game encourages you to explore and indeed I found myself wanting to do so just to discover more about the author, the island and past events remembered. To be fair the pace is certainly plodding and the game does at times let you explore too far in one direction only to have you retrace your steps. The paths are winding and dark like the author is tracing his own memories. It is unclear whether the dead ends I discovered were by design or unintentional. Scrawled messages, symbols and chemical diagrams litter cave walls and the sides of cliffs. Who scrawled them into these places and why? Even more confusingly, the whole experience is potentially in the author's imagination. These conclusions are ultimately left up to the player to decide. Certainly, this a game that will not smack you over the head with the plot and instead relies on flowery language and the environment to deliver it's message.

I firmly believe that in this case, this experience should be judged based upon what it intends to be and not what anyone thinks a "videogame" should be. It's a remarkable piece of interactive entertainment that brings together sublime music, visuals, voice acting and tone to create an imperfect masterpiece of user-driven storytelling.


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