Saturday, June 2, 2012

Dear Esther (2012)

Alright, my first game review! I hope to do more of these in the future, as reviewing games is ultimately where I want to be at in 10 years or so. Hopefully I don't do too bad a job.

So Dear Esther was originally a mod released in 2008 for Half-Life 2. It has recently been remade into a proper game, and, as I understand it, something quite different from the original mod. It's on Steam now, and it goes for $10 AUS. However, if you're reading this around the time of my writing it, the Steam summer sales should be starting any day now, so I'm sure you'll be able to grab it for $5, or maybe even less.

In the beginning of the game you find yourself standing on a pier on a small island. Without a boat bobbing in the timid waves, you have no concrete way of knowing how you arrived wherever here is. As you begin to walk forward, a narrator begins talking about the island. You walk an almost exclusively linear path. There are occasional branching paths, but they quickly come back together, which breaks any illusion of choice these paths could have created. Literally all you do in this game is walk, look and listen. Yet there's something so mystifying about this game that I never felt like I wanted to do anything more.

I used to think that true immersion could only be achieved through endless choice. It it for this reason, among others, that the Elder Scrolls series is my favourite videogame series of all time (I want to do a Skyrim review soon so I can talk some more about this). I felt that I could only really believe I was in another world if I could do every conceivable thing that should be done in said world. Dear Esther completely proved me wrong. You cannot interact with a single object in the entire game. You can only walk. You can't even jump! But it doesn't matter, because there was never a moment (bar one tiny, tiny one) in the game where I felt any desire to do anything else.

One of the main reasons why Dear Esther is so gripping is due to the special relationship the player has with the main character. Blank slates are nothing new in the gaming world. Theoretically, they make it easier for the player to connect with the player character, but in my experience, this technique has never worked. It doesn’t make sense that Gordon Freeman never utters a word to any of his peers! Dear Esther finally proves that blank slates are an effective tool for narrative in interactive media. The game starts off with both the player and the player character in exactly the same position. Neither know where or who they are, and neither knows why they can hear a man reading out his personal letters to Esther, whoever she may be. Being on such equal ground with the person whose shoes you’re stepping into creates an immensely strong connection for the player to hold onto as they traverse the island. It also adds to the surprisingly heavy sense of immersion you feel while playing.

This immersion also causes you to react differently to experiences you have during the game. In a film or book (or any other storytelling medium), mysterious happenings usually trigger a sense of interest or excitement. However, if something mysterious or strange happens in real life, it is often more scary than anything else. This feeling that you truly are this person on the island gives you a similar fearful reaction in-game, which wouldn’t have been the case had this been, say, a short film. This intensely emotional and personal connection you feel by being the main character is the sole reason for Dear Esther being a game.

Outside of all the narrative techniques, Dear Esther is still a stunningly presented game. The island is magnificently designed, with flora decorating each hill far more thickly than in usual games. As the game progresses, the locations become more and more breath-taking. Unfortunately, when examined up-close, the crispness of the landscape is lost. It almost seems as if textures decrease in resolution as you walk towards them. They look so stunning from reasonably far away that it really is jarring when you see them up-close. As well as this, a lot of the small flora like flowers, grass and bushes are simply rotating sprites, something that really shouldn’t exist in today’s games.

The music also does a splendid job, with haunting violins brilliantly lending to the atmospheric solitude of the game’s setting. Very occasionally, the music contextualizes itself with something else in the game. Early on, you see a hut at the top of a hill, and the narrator informs you about a farmer that used to live on the island. As he talks about the farmer, the music uses the distorted sound of a cow’s moo for harmony.

The level design is also worth noting. Something I have always found truly unbelievable is when a game seemingly subliminally controls the player into viewing something in a particular way. Dear Esther does this countless times, and with so much ease it’s almost unsettling. I can’t count the amount of times I walked around a corner at just the right angle to get the water on the horizon to line up perfectly with the edge of the hill’s slope so that a particular shipwreck reflects the sunlight along it’s hull (or something of the sort). There were a few moments where I had to remind myself that there are no cinematographers in videogames, and that I alone was (ostensibly) controlling the camera. The lighting was also astoundingly vibrant at times (in one particular section especially).

This game really is worth your time and money. It’ll take you about 1 hour to play through the whole thing, and I’m sure you’ll be able to get it dirt cheap during some kind of Steam sale. The cryptic mystery story unravels in such a beautiful way, and comes to such a touching conclusion. It is one of the few stories that has been designed specifically for a videogame, and that alone should be commended. It is the most immersive game I have ever played in my life, yet is directs the entire experience without you. It’s visually outstanding as well, with phenomenal graphics (especially for the size of the team!), a great soundtrack, and brilliant forced cinematography. It’s hard to really call it a game, as there are no mechanics – or even interactions – to speak of, but don’t let that turn you off what is the most emotionally effective interactive story I can think of. Worthy of being mentioned alongside The Stanley Parable. Seriously.

Don't forget to catch me on my friend's podcast, of which I am a regular member, here!

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