Review by Xodyak
A Tech Demo for Games as Art
Sometimes I see a lot of people get caught up in whether or not games should be considered art. Many games have been released over the years that people have used as examples for why this form of media should be classified the same collectively as film, literature, and paintings. Dear Esther tried to be one of these games. However, it isn't, due to one big reason.
Dear Esther is not a game. It's just interactive art.
Many of you may be asking, "Well, isn't that what games are, interactive art?" Well, yes, on many levels, games are exactly that. But video games have a purpose, a goal, a challenge, whether that be a high score or defeat of big bad, but regardless there is some sort of obstruction that exists in order to reach what you want. Dear Esther only contains a narrative where you guide your self from point A to point B. All you can do is explore the world you are put in, and eventually reach the finish. The best way I can describe it is when there's a new system coming out and they roll out the tech demo of what the system is capable of. You know, the one that after the press conference people are saying, "This is not necessarily a real game," because it isn't.
After all that you may assume that I flat out don't care for Dear Esther. This isn't necessarily true. Considering this is an indie game the presentation is amazing. The island you are on has realistic textures, water effects are nicely done, the grasses and plants look great (if you don't pay too much attention), and the caves are just gorgeous. This is all accompanied by a great atmosphere that is created by a soundtrack that fits whats going on in the game but isn't always droning on, and sound design that engrosses you appropriately. This game does a real good job of making you feel isolated in a place that would seem that there should be someone else, at least one person, for you to reach out to. This is accomplished by tons of relics left behind by others, and strange messages written on rocks and caves you will see throughout.
That isn't to be said that there aren't flaws with the good parts of this game. If you decide to go exploring, it can be really, really quiet for to long. This really bothered me when I went exploring and got to a dead end that seemed more like a look out point to show off its graphical prowess, as I wouldn't get additional narration for the story. Exploring as well became a bother, as I wouldn't want to go the "right" way in fear of I would miss out on something the game would want to tell me. As the game's story progressed, I felt more and more of what I was seeing and experiencing became more understood and engrossing, and when I would see two paths, I always wanted to go down the one that would give me more narration but wouldn't force me forward. I felt disappointed when I realized I missed out on a path or area numerous times, and it did take away from the experience.
Making your way through control wise is simple. If you've played any FPS on the PC then you know how to control yourself here. This is even more simplistic as there is no jumping or any items you will have to use. For example, if you ever find some place dark, your flash light will turn on automatically, and never run out of batteries. Somethings you can do seemed out of place given the realism though, like which rocks you can climb out of, when you could or couldn't swim, paths you couldn't take, and the fact that you can't jump made my exploration feel limited. I understand the game wants you only to see what it wants you to, but the point is to explore.
The story in this game is something I do not really want to talk about. I will say that you start out on what appears to be an island and off you go. Bits and pieces get revealed through the occasional narrative and it's up to you to link what is being said and what is being presented to get a picture of what is going on. The great thing about it is that you may take something completely different away from this than I did, you may find something deeper, or you may find the story completely insignificant. In any case, since the story really is the thing that Dear Esther is about, I'll let you figure that one out on your own.
This not really being a game and more of an art project, this game is incredibly short. I finished it myself in about an hour and a half, and I really, really took my time. The total length of your time with it will vary due to how much looking around you do, how much time you spend admiring the environment, trying to find more pieces to the story, etc. Replay for me was rather low as well, since the ending kind of put me off and I had no real incentive to go back and hear what was said again in case I missed something. Replay is helped by the games incredibly short length, since doing the whole thing over won't really take much of your time.
Seeing as what this game is, an art project that if for a console would be a tech demo, this is really something that isn't for anyone. Dear Esther is something that is unique to gaming that I can't say I really want to see more of. While is does do a real great job of immersion and carries you through with its story, there's just nothing really going on and left me with a "That's it?" upon completion. I did get this during Steam's summer sale, so it came with a big discount, but at full price I can't recommend Dear Esther to anyone, not even indie snobs. It's just too short for the full price when there are plenty more fulfilling experiences at the same price or less. If you are really looking to get something different, go ahead and check it out the next time Steam slashes the price, as there are some interesting thing going on, but nothing that will blow you away.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Product Release: Dear Esther (US, 02/14/12)
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