Gamers have their own opinions on what constitutes a video game and how they feel about the “traditional” mechanics that make a video game what it is. These traditions are presented to gamers through countless titles of all the genres of the video game spectrum. The overall traditional viewpoint of a video game is that it includes a great deal of interaction, where the player is utilising some form of control to influence what is occurring within the gamespace. Interactivity within a video game is paramount to any gamer looking for a truly interactive experience where they feel they are in control of what happens.
Thus developers keep the convention of providing as much control of events in the video game as possible. Although developers may add some diversity to the mechanics of the video game, the formula between each video game of a specific genre is rarely changed. In first-person shooters, weapons are typically used to attack enemies obstructing your path to the goal. In role-playing games as the name implies, you play a role in a setting where you must become stronger to face an impending evil. In real-time strategy, your decisions and planning determine victory within a scenario. These typical mechanics are familiar to gamers and are what to be expected when games of specific genres are released.
Dear Esther however, may have perhaps challenged what constitutes a video game altogether. Many will even question if it is a video game at all. It relinquishes all that is known about the traditions of gaming and instead provides a completely new concept where it’s more about what is being expressed to the gamer through narration and visuals rather than how the player is able to interact within the confines of the gamespace.
There is no running, no shooting, no levelling up and barely any interaction with the gamespace. However there still is a heavy level of interaction as long as you disembarrass yourself of what you consider to be a true video game. Dear Esther is indeed a computer game, but not in the traditional sense. There is very little to do in the game, yet the interaction comes from what Dear Esther conveys to you. It wants you to move slowly; to observe; to listen; to ponder and to feel everything that Dear Esther is showing to you. It’s a story; it’s a reclusive journey and it’s a deep, emotional communicative experience.
Dear Esther is set on an desolate island, where you have been shipwrecked and must explore the island by walking across the hills and venturing through the caves. As you take your first steps, the voice of the protagonist is heard who also takes up the role of the narrator. He quotes from excerpts from a letter addressed to a person named Esther, telling stories of past memories filled with mystery and tragedy. You are more of an observer to the protagonist rather than his controller. You are guiding him, as well as yourself though a set path of absolution where it’s rather unclear what he wants to do. His movement is very slow, which resembles a trance-like state as if the protagonist as well as the player knows what path must be taken and is unable to deviate from the course. The path winds uphill, across the boundary of the island, across the beach, and through the caves. There are details along the way which tells of the island’s obscure past.
Certain landmarks and extracts from the narrator tell of tales of what occurred on the island before it became a desolate land, yet very little is known overall of the island’s current state. It’s a very lonely journey through a sombre yet tranquil and beautiful environment and the whole experience feels like a surreal dream which is slowly pushing you to awaken once you reach the ultimate goal.
As progression is slow whilst venturing through the island, you are able to take time and enjoy the island’s scenic beauty. The island’s surface is ripe with long grass and flowers swaying in the soft wind. Its huge cliffs glow in the sun and shimmer in the moonlight and the English Atlantic beats softly against the sandy beaches. The caves portray true, luminescent splendour with surreal, bioluminescent rock formations sprawling beautiful colours across the cavern walls. The rocks themselves are bizarrely shapen yet hold perfect form and decorate the cave splendidly with their bioluminescence as well as their shape.
Crystal clear water flows gently through the caves only to have their flow hasted as stunning waterfalls. There is strange effigy amongst the cavern walls which can also be found on the island’s cliffside, although it is rather unclear what it’s saying. Everything visually in Dear Esther is a marvel to behold and the slow pacing allows you to appreciate the serenity and artistry of the island even more. The sound of Dear Esthar is simply masterful with a haunting yet serene soundtrack guiding you through this mysterious and lonesome journey. The rustling of plants, the soft sound of the wind, the narrator, the running waters of the caves and the gentle push of the waves against the shores coupled work harmoniously with the glorious visuals to convey a powerful message to the player who is taking on this journey together with the protagonist.
Dear Esther is not a long game at all, as it takes between 1-2 hours to finish. However as the end is utterly final, that is all the time the game needs convey such a powerful and emotive tale through the heartbreaking letter fragments addressed to Esther and the solitary beauty of the island. So much has already been said within a short time scale and its longevity will result from you questioning the emotional ending as the protagonist has been lead to his ultimate fate.
Dear Esther is perhaps the most moving; most mesmerising and most thought-provoking interactive experience that anyone will ever play. It’s an absolute masterpiece of storytelling and poetic expression through a medium rarely explored for this kind of undertaking. It also successfully challenges all the conventions that are found within the gaming spectrum. Dear Esther also shows that video game developers are able to take entirely new directions with their titles and experiment with methods outside customary boundaries. Dear Esther will show you what can be achieved when convenional mechanics are put aside to convey a unique, dejected, graceful, tragic and beautifully presented experience that will no doubt have a long-lasting effect on your views on what you believe constitutes a true video game, as well as present you with an truly unique way of telling you a heartbreakingly wonderful story.
This review was based on a retail download copy of the game for the PC provided by thechineseroom.