When I was in fifth grade, we had The Talk. However, I went to a private Christian school, so we only discussed the dangers of STDs and pregnancy; how the actual baby making happens was never mentioned. I had no clue what went where. Thank God the internet was around, else I may have never figured it out.
Once more, I have no idea what I am doing, and unfortunately, this time the internet may cause my downfall. Last week my blog was freshly pressed. All the likes and comments I’ve received have been incredibly gracious, so I have to admit the truth: I don’t know where to go from here.
My post Hello, World laid out lofty goals. How can I consistently write about games in a deep manner? My first “review” was on Auralux, and I was fairly happy with how it turned out. But that post was intensely focused on one major aspect of the game. I’m not sure I will always be able to achieve such depth on a single theme in a game nor do I think that would supply a complete picture of many games. At the same time, I cannot lengthen pieces by writing simple sections on graphics or gameplay; that is the exact issue I railed against previously. A format for my posts eluded me.
Then I played Dear Esther. Developed by thechineseroom, Dear Esther is a first person adventure game where the player explores a deserted island while a narrator talks about the history of the island and himself in a series of letters to a woman named Esther. After finishing the game, I found I wanted to talk to others about the game. Dear Esther tells a vague tale, open to many interpretations, so drawing concrete conclusions from it is difficult. I only wanted to discover what others took away from it and if anyone had the same thoughts as myself.
That is what I am thinking this site can be: a place for discussing the deeper aspects of a game after your completion of it. This “review” and others to come will be a few disjointed points about what I found intriguing or misguided in a game.
If you haven’t played the game, you might still get something out of these discussions, and I would love to turn you on to a new game that you end up enjoying. But from here on out, expect to find full spoilers in these “reviews”.
This takes a lot of pressure off of me, especially with Dear Esther. While I loved the game, not everyone will have the same opinion. In fact, I’d estimate that as many as 90% of gamers would hate this game. At $10, recommending Dear Esther is difficult when only 10% may appreciate it.
But if you did enjoy Dear Esther or just want to see what others saw in it, press on.
**SPOILER WARNING FOR DEAR ESTHER**
Truth be told, I hated this game when I picked it up during the Steam summer sale and gave up halfway through the buoy chapter. There’s nothing happening on this island, I thought. Giving it another chance recently, the same boredom occurred at the beginning.
Then I saw a ghost, and I immediately bought into the game. The ghosts are barely noticeable, but after seeing one, the player understands that this island is more than just a rock in the Atlantic. I started paying attention to the scattered books and organic molecule diagrams, and what I found was a world rich in detail.
That detail is only eclipsed by the island’s beauty, particularly in the cave section. My computer is not a powerhouse. Most games look poor on it, and the rest don’t even run. But Dear Esther‘s island shows that stunning visuals are not completely the result of GPU-intensive feats, but also superb design.
After the game was done, I wanted to spend more time in its world, which is a feeling I rarely encounter in single-player games. Many games have impressive levels; the first time you emerge into Requiem’s open territory in Halo 4 is a good recent example. But those beautiful landscapes are thrown aside as the player only wants to progress to the next area of the map. The island in Dear Esther is not wasteful and is a standard more developers should strive after.
The Stanley Parable is a Source mod that showcases the power that the narrator can place on the player, compelling him on his journey without supplying any real choice. Dear Esther‘s narrator is similar; he gives context to the player and foreshadows future events. Just by listening to the narrator, the player will go into the caves and climb the beacon.
But the game also does a great job of pushing the player through the narrative with its level design. For a game that is about exploring an island, the events are surprisingly linear, although by the end of the game you feel that you’ve explored almost all of it. Getting lost or turned around is rare. The most common tool that the game uses to do so is changing the z-axis of its routes. For example, the player may be climbing up out of the caves or winding down a path by the lighthouse. If the player gets turned around and lost for some reason, it is much easier to remember that they were going up than it is to remember they had already walked past some landmark and are heading in the wrong direction. The level design is a powerful mechanic to keep the player progressing forward on a narrative that is nowhere near as “random” as many players have claimed.
In fact, the narrative leaves absolutely no control to the player, particularly in regards to dying. Halfway through the game, most players will have realized what their objective is: Climb the beacon and end your life. It is a game where you kill yourself, but you have to commit suicide in a very specific manner. If the player dies from drowning, he sees images of the beacon before restarting. The game is telling you that your previous death is insufficient. Only one ending can occur, and what an ending it is.
The ending is definitely flawed. I hate that the game takes over control for you and forces you to climb the beacon’s ladder. Players are ready to climb that ladder anyways. There is no need to take away control from the player until, at the earliest, the player is at the top of the beacon and preparing to jump.
But the moments after the jump tie the game together perfectly. You see your shadow; you have become a bird. When else did you see a bird? At the very beginning of the game, a bird scares you when you are leaving the first abandoned house. This is obviously meant to be an important moment, or else the developer’s would not have made your character automatically react to the bird.
**SPOILERS FOR JOURNEY**
This is very similar to Journey. Both games bring the player back at the end to where they started; reincarnation is arguably the leading theme in both. But it seems unlikely that the reincarnation in Dear Esther is a literal one. Instead my guess would be that these are the delusions of a malnourished and injured man who is about to die. (This is arguably the case in Journey as well.) Dear Esther is one man’s story. Others have and will come to this island for similar, heartbreaking reasons, and their fates will be the same. Dear Esther is a far more pessimistic take on cycles than Journey.
In any medium, endings this skillful are rare. Thus hearing accusations that Dear Esther is a “non-game” is infuriating. You may not have liked Dear Esther, but an estimated 10% of players found it brilliant. Why wouldn’t you want that piece to be a shining part of our medium?