What You May Have Missed This Week: Dear Esther

A lot of stuff came out this Valentine’s Day, a lot of it strangely enough being overshadowed by no more than the demo for EA’s latest game. The one however I think is most in danger of getting overlooked is Dear Esther – a PC… game… thing that just hit Steam for $10.

If you try to look up Dear Esther most places will tell you that it’s an indie game that isn’t really a game at all, fumbling to define it. When I played the original free Source engine mod last year I decided to basically call it a short story in video game form. I think the least confusing thing to do first is to describe what you do in Dear Esther.

You explore a deserted island off the coast of Scotland, walking through abandoned houses, fields, streams, caves, beaches and what have you, periodically triggering voiced narration that builds a cryptic story over the course of around an hour. That’s literally it. I think that anyone who can enjoy a game just for its story and atmosphere can find something to like in Dear Esther.

The environment you explore is a dead place filled with cryptic symbols among the remains of human life, assembling a simple but enticing story. I think Portal 2 has proven that with the right art direction, an engine as old as Source can still look incredible, and I think by that metric Dear Esther might be the best looking Source engine game out right now. What I’m trying to say is, this thing has a ton of atmosphere which is half the reason to play it.

The voiceover narration completes the picture started by the environment enough for the player to want to try to connect the dots. It might be the same basic principle as BioShock’s storytelling, but Dear Esther is an entire product based solely on that tool. People have no doubt called it an experiment to see if you really could tell a complete story in this manner without, y’know, gameplay.

What makes Dear Esther feel less like a video game story and more like… well, a story, to me was how well the narration, environment, and music pulled things together. I originally called it a short story in game form because it mostly reminds me cryptic, poetic short stories I used to have to read. The most validating part of the whole thing is that it’s already inspiring a lot of discussion on boards, each person coming in with their own interpretation of what Dear Esther is actually about.

I think the question that really needs to be asked is “would people want more titles like Dear Esther?” The same group that made it also made another Source mod called Korsakovia which did have a bit more of an actual game system at work and came off feeling like a first person Silent Hill spinoff. Would people really want to hear more stories told in this fashion without having to deal with conditions to win or lose the game? Is the interactive space a viable ground for stories like this?

BULLETS:

  • Oh crap. Pre-order Mass Effect 3 PC on Origin, get Battlefield 3 free: goo.gl/2FFjM
  • A really good iOS game that finally got its HD upgrade is the turn-based strategy game UniWar. From what I’ve seen it’s pretty much the definitive turn-based military strategy game on the platform – sort of a sci-fi hex-based clone of Advance Wars.
  • Converse + Mario: 4NN.cx/83119
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One thought on “What You May Have Missed This Week: Dear Esther

  1. I’m really, really tempted to preorder Mass Effect 3 on Origin now and get the free game.

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