Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looking back at Dear Esther

After emerging as a Source engine mod in 2008 and a full-blown title of its own on PC this past Valentine’s Day, British indie developer thechineseroom’s cult classic Dear Esther finally released on Mac in June. Being the arty-farty gamer I am, I was curious to see if it lived up to the hype.
The debate surrounding Dear Esther centers around the question of “Is this a game?” It’s a first-person adventure title where the player simply wanders around a mysterious Scottish island, listening to a narrator speak about a woman named Esther. Players don’t solve puzzles or fight enemies. They simply walk around and listen. Is this even a game?
To me, it is. No question about it. It involves player input. We as an industry are so hung up on scores and rules and action. To me, Dear Esther is the gaming equivalent of a Gus van Sant film. You simply take in your surroundings, think about the meaning of it all, and get what you want out of it. There’s no real payoff at the end or decisive goal to be achieved. And that’s the beauty of it. As the games industry grows more mature in the coming decades, I look forward to seeing more games that occupy these shades of gray in defining what “gameplay” means.
While video games are great at appealing to our carnal instincts and guttural emotions, we’re starting to see a few like Dear Esther that require a bit more thought to appreciate. It’s a solemn, lonely game. I’m torn on the narration–sometimes it comes off as corny and melodramatic, but sometimes the writing is brilliant. What sets Dear Esther apart from other recent art-game hits like Limbo and Journey is that Dear Esther isn’t stylized at all. Many of these cult hits forgo graphic realism for exaggerated looks that make it easy to create evocative art. Dear Esther, on the other hand, aims for complete realism in its visual design. That’s what makes the work so moving, and what makes it even more surreal in the game’s stranger segments.
Dear Esther has a very strong sense of place. It’s a British video game taking place in Britain, and it couldn’t have been made anywhere else. The location and mood are so unique to that part of the world, and it’s something I’d like to see more often as the games industry diversifies from American/Japanese dominance to a global art form with developers all around the globe.
The game’s developer, thechineseroom, is currently working in collaboration with Swedish indie studio Frictional Games on a sequel to their own atmospheric first-person cult classic, Amnesia. It looks gorgeous.
Dear Esther is $10 on Steam, and is available both on PC and Mac. It takes an hour or two to finish, but if you like it you’ll want to play it over again. If you love Call of Duty, you’ll hate Dear Esther.

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