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Dear Esther…

I can’t really say that I’m much of a PC gamer. Despite having only bought my computer towards the end of last year, its lack of a dedicated graphics card prevents me from playing most of the PCs newer titles, as well as a sizeable chunk of its more dated assets. Although, even if my rig was powerful enough, I would still very much be a console gamer. My predicament means that I tend towards some of the smaller, less CPU/graphics card intensive games on my PC. The Onlive game streaming service does somewhat bypass my PC’s shortcomings but I tend to focus on the Steam service where I can conveniently download the games to my hard drive. My current benchmark for playable games on my computer was set by Portal. I have got Fallout 3 to work, but at the cost of pushing my graphics card beyond its physical limits. I recently heard about a remake of an Indie game called (as the post’s title suggests) “Dear Esther”. I found the game on Steam for a reasonable £6.99 and after a quick “can you run it” test and noticing it runs off of the Source Engine (similarly to Portal), I decided I’d try it out!

Dear Esther is incredibly simple, you can move using the now standard “WASD” controls, look around using your mouse (and zoom slightly with a left mouse click) and … well that’s everything. DE is very light on gaming mechanics. As well as the lack of an ability to jump, there is no Heads-Up-Display in any form, no augmented objective arrows and nobody trying to kill you. You awake on a deserted Island somewhere in the outer Hebrides, you can see some kind of beacon in the distance and then you set off. Dear Esther is entirely story driven. You learn about who you are and why you are on this Island through the narrative dialogue of your character, which is scripted as if it is a letter to your eponymous sweetheart, as well as things you find on the Island. It has very poetic style and, much like a poem, you can interpret the story in your own way. The story isn’t particularly explicit at any point, so everyone is likely to take something different away from it.

The first thing you’ll notice, or at least the first thing I noticed, is how beautiful the visuals are. The sky is brilliant (I kind of have an obsession for skies in games), likewise the careful use of lighting really brings the Island to life. I never expected that I could get visuals of this calibre to run on my computer. It is the visuals, and not the graphics, that are incredible. In my opinion, though I may have gotten the interpretation entirely wrong, good graphics are all about smooth lines, the physics of lighting, shadow and reflection, particle densities etc. However, visuals are all about the artistic style, how the light and other mechanics are used to complement the gameplay and, if contextually relevant, the realism. For instance, Skyrim doesn’t have the best graphics, but visually it is breathtaking! Dear Esther definitely falls into this category for me. Plus, the story is complimented with an impressive soundtrack.

I don’t really want to say too much more. This is a game about exploration. Exploration of the Island, exploration of who the characters are and the exploration of what is exactly going on. It seems that Dear Esther is no more than a story in a game form, a medium which seems to work really well. I wouldn’t say this is for everyone, but it is a very innovative approach to story telling that I feel pays off. Wondering around the Island without the pressure of having to take on enemies or the interruption of a cinematic allows you to take in Dear Esther’s intrinsic tranquillity. It does such a good job of portraying a haunting story and environment that it seems that other game’s trying to portray a similar image would benefit from using a similar device. Not as a core gameplay mechanic, like DE does, but to be used as a device when appropriate in the game. In Halo: Reach for example. I feel that one of the main aims of that game was to place the gamer into a war with the experience defining knowledge that all the fighting was in vain and in the end Reach would be destroyed (SPOILER!). They tried to intensify the emotional attachment and ultimately the sense of reflection by including remnants of the peaceful Reach such as terrified civilians, billboards and wildlife (e.g. the Moa). However, they were very passing moments and the player was generally more worried about the constant onslaught of enemies. If Bungie were to include a sequence where you are weaponless and without the distraction of the covenant, where you are wondering through some depiction of the old Reach such as a quiet forest settlement (if they exist on the planet), and then into the city where you could “see” (but not partake in) the products of a war-torn planet, they would have been more likely to capture the resonance that they were trying to achieve.

Dear Esther is a very unique experience which perfectly portrays an emotional journey. It’s not very long, a couple of hours at most, but it is a very nice excursion from the usual gaming experience. And it has some good skies!

Dear Esther is available on Steam now!

Thanks for reading 🙂

DM

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2 thoughts on “Dear Esther…

  1. I just finished heavy rain, which the most atmospheric, story driven game possibly ever made! I imagine the pace was much higher than dear Esther but it the same principles of a story focus. I would actually rank heavy rain as one of my favourates of all time! It made a very lasting impression.

    The other point you made, of having parts in games in which you just walk through the story in parts, happens very successfully in the uncharted games. I remember clearly walking through the Tibetan village in the alps and wandering through the desert looking for water!

    I can’t say I’ve heard of dear Esther, but I’ll be sure to have a look!

    • Dear Esther is very much a stroll! I’ve seen gameplay footage of Heavy Rain and there is certainly a very different pacing as you said.
      I think that the games that are particularly recognised for their story include sequences similar to the type that I’ve mentioned, although to varying degrees. It sounds like Uncharted achieves “reflection” (if I can encapsulate it with that) through particular sequences, whereas a game like Skyrim achieves its “reflection” through the ambience of the world. Arguably, Halo Reach has its own ambience, but there are countless occassions in Skyrim where you are left alone to admire your surroundings without immediate threat. I think down-times such as these are important in story driven games.
      Thanks for your response 🙂

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