Dear Esther Review

2008‘s Dear Esther, a Source modification developed by thechineseroom, originally a research project group at the University of Portsmouth, was perhaps the most singular game release of that year. In a sense, its arrival brought with it some degree of legitimacy to modifications with narrative and writing in mind.

Encouraged by the game’s overwhelmingly positive reception and feedback, and the initiative of esteemed level designer Robert Briscoe, writer and designer Dan Pinchbeck set out to remake the original, which has now been released on Steam. At the end of 2011, Dear Esther’s popularity and anticipation had reached a deserved fever pitch due to Briscoe’s amazing visual work, and indeed, just a mere six hours after release, the developers had already successfully recouped their investment from the Indie Fund.

Yet here I stand, a review copy in hand, feeling a puzzling hesitance over reopening the metaphorical wounds inflicted by the original. Certainly, I had nothing short of thrusted the ghostly modification upon all my videogaming friends, toting its expert writing and unrivalled narrative exposition. Nabeel Burney wrote about the specifics of the mod here on the Slowdown.

Like Nabeel, I too enjoyed – if that be the word (probably not) – the game immensely. That was not the problem.

The problem was, I simply was not so sure that I would ever play Dear Esther again. (I am reminded of Amnesia, in a sense.) I certainly wasn’t planning to. The uncomfortable truth is that while the game does carry with it some contextual features that might warrant a replay or two, the game conveys such a powerfully disconcerting, isolating experience, that reliving it appropriately might be, in a word, impossible. At the time, the game certainly felt like once in a lifetime.

Choosing to re-view the re-make only further distorts the narrative: Given the singular nature of the original – its lasting, profound effects – it’s difficult (if not impossible) for me to decisively make out where one Dear Esther ends and another begins. But I digress.

Dear Esther Menu

In finally braving the game, though, what immediately stands out is the elegant minimalism of the menu design to the right. That a first-person video game can be controlled with just five buttons – the usual W, A, S, D (and an optional Q for swimming up) and zoom – is inherently shocking. I can no longer remember whether the original game came with the zoom function, but it certainly enhances the position of the player as viewer, as gazer, as onlooker.

Given the overall expectations – be they hype, or my own memories -, merely entering the very first shack in the game’s luscious landscape instils me with a curious kind of fear, and expectancy; can this… thing really deliver the same experience twice?

(At this juncture, what was unconscious, a feeling only, now becomes textual, as I’m thinking out loud for the article).

All games are of course highly artificial in terms of their make-up and construction, but for a game so focused on experientiality, Dear Esther strangely reminds me of its gameness with its rigid insistence on the duality of its progression. Two paths, forever forking in two, separated with artificial fences strewn about as if naturally unnaturally formed – if anything, the definition of simulacrum – yet always leading the player towards his or her goal, signifying the very artifice, the gameness of the experience.

Therefore, taking the low road in this game fills me not with the expectation of progress, but of experience. This is but a detour. Dear Esther is not about choosing or taking a road, it is about taking in the road. Possibly due to the game’s mindbogglingly belaboured pace, I am surprisingly stirred, even alarmed by the game’s very first phrase of spoken dialogue. Its emergence is heralded by a deeply familiar musical cue (by Jessica Curry, whose soundtrack I had fully immersed myself in before) but the effect is there all the same. I am surprisingly moved.

(I am also moved, in a very different sense, by that shamefully familiar crunching of bones that sounds off as I carelessly experiment with the upper pathway.)

Painting tools

Much like the binary construction of the pathways, the feeling of inevitability combined with the total absence of action, renders me tense with anticipation. It is bewildering how gameplay can breed a powerful, visceral experience through its absence. By all means, judging from my psychosomatic response, playing Dear Esther is just as powerful as playing any other first-person game. Perhaps moreso.

Certainly, any other game would have thrown me into fits of rage with its deliberate walking speed and lack of control. In this sense, my judgment is clouded by foreknowledge. Yet even then, my left-hand little finger hovers over shift, my thumb toying with the space bar, testament to the strength of our shared generic expectations. Of course, the established mode of control – of running, jumping and gunning – does not apply here, but nevertheless underlines the selective nature of our preprogrammed expectations.

The deliberateness of the pace, the ample space and the narration all contribute to a feeling of restlessness. In other words, in playing Dear Esther, I am not at ease. I find myself stumbling about the landscape, often performing cumbersome 360 degree turns, ogling and bumbling about backwards as if in a haze.

Foliage

I am peculiarly stirred by the contextual flashlight underlining the choicelessness of my being in the game world. The gentle clack of the flashlight’s on/off switch is but a signal of my position not as player, but as puppet. Crouching automatic.

(I also stop and pause to carefully listen to the narration expertly and evocatively voiced by Nigel Carrington, even when not explicitly told. Good boy.)

The density of the foliage present is beyond that of any other Source-based game, simply breathtaking, but I am strangely perturbed when I notice it still adheres to the 1990s rule of rotating itself to always face the viewing player. No matter. The scale, the scope of level design – architecture, really, is what it is, and the game hints at this in its dialogue – is utterly incredible. The heart-rending vastness and stillness, so preciously laid out for the viewer by Robert Briscoe, is further enhanced by the slowness of your movement on foot. There is a sense of distance traversed.

A beautiful cavern

(Drinking coffee now, with the cup in my mouse-hand, pressing forward with my left. Failing to focus appropriately, I miss a downward slope. While backtracking, if anything, I am disappointed at myself for failing to pay attention – not in the least at the game.)

Some lines of dialogue in the game are more contextual than others; a few of them are only attained by careful discovery, a change of pace in this age of screaming indices and symbols. It is now an established convention in video games that everything be discoverable with the help of an arrow, a checkpoint, an overlay urging you towards your goal, a persistent blip on your radar.

Dear Esther does no such thing. It has no HUD at all. You get what you take in during your search for the gameness within, perhaps in the form of each new canister of fluorescent, luminous paint strewn across the landscape to function as a signifier of, a testament to your tedious advancement and, if I may use the word, achievement. Each shed beckons simply with the promise of more shed.

The Buoy

Beyond narration, barely any contextual response emerges during the game. Beyond the landscape itself – and it is indeed rendered alive by the expert presentation – the only other actants in the game sans the player are butterflies, buoys and radio towers with their gently pulsating, blinking lights. In and out. In and out, in waves. How can a mere buoy leave such a lasting impression? How can a radio tower mean so much?

That is the magic of Dear Esther. Tangibility and transformative action is beyond reach; your only response is to the audiovisual. What could be interactive is only ever experiential in Dear Esther. Yet this is no downgrade, not as I stop at a small trickle of water gushing down a path formed in-between a row of pebbles, its little waves throbbing gently. Beauty has perhaps never been so expertly rendered in a video game.

Each location a photograph.

What of the stories within? There are several threads, several different layers, both formal and temporal: Of loss, of local folklore, of biblical reference, of disease and insanity. Of mortality. The game is both morbid and macabre in its oddly effective and affective unintelligibility.

The Moon

To the left, I stop to look at the pale white moon, for what feels like minutes, to contemplate the meaning of it all. The misery, really, of it. It beckons me to ask, “Have you ever stopped to ponder the implications of a video game within a video game before?” The answer is, of course, seldom if ever.

I might have stopped in 2008, but I can no longer tell, because the juxtaposition of the locations and their musical cues to the lines read out by Mr. Carrington are intensely familiar to me, not only in layout and structure, but also in their emotional causality. Yet this profound familiarity had little to no effect on the affective quality of the experience.

I am deeply disturbed, and drawn in all the same. Just like before. And so, once again feeling dejected, shaken and oddly moved – unsettled -, Dear Esther comes to its end. In a sense, an ending.

Indeed, senses are key to buying, owning and playing Dear Esther in 2012. Is a profound experience you’ll perhaps never forget worth paying for, even if it’s not inherently “enjoyable” in the basest meaning of the word? Is it worth paying for an experience that seems focused on making a statement about video games as a medium of experientiality as compared to “entertaining” interactivity? Is it truly worth paying for something that exists to make you feel so ill at ease?

And what of the discussions that relate to its relatively short length, its lack of gameness, its replayability? Is it worth it?

Concept art by Ben Andrews

In a word, yes, yes it is. Thechineseroom’s Dear Esther, by Dan Pinchbeck and Robert Briscoe, is now available on Steam for the price of 7,99€. For a very different take on the original 2008 modification, you can read our article here.

Note: A review copy was provided to us for the purpose of this review.