Dear Esther is an odd game. It’s not exactly unique in its story, setting, or means of storytelling, but it’s unique in the way that it’s played, if it is at all. Games necessitate a win and lose condition, something I’m not quite sure Dear Esther has. The only way to “lose” is to prematurely commit suicide, but if you can only do this intentionally, is it really a loss? Dear Esther feels more like a digital rollercoaster at an extremely slow speed. You go from point A to point B with a couple loops and turns, and that’s the extent of the gameplay.
The Destructoid review sums up my opinions on Dear Esther nicely: “Dear Esther is such a purely audio/visual experience that I have to conclude it would be better as a short film.” By all measures, Dear Esther feels like nothing more than a short movie that requires you to hold the play button to progress. Technically the game is interactive, and technically you do “play”, but needing to argue that it is technically something shows that its riding on the gimmick of being an experimental art game a little too hard. I doubt there’d be any significant loss of experience if “players” simply watched a playthrough of the game over actually holding down W for an hour or so. The only difference is that their finger will have a chance to relax for an hour, but the rest of the experience is entirely the same.
Still, I’ll admit that Dear Esther can’t be immediately dismissed as an anti-game from the start. I had hopes for it initially and thought that at some point there’d be some level of interactivity with the environment. When I first saw the beached ship, I thought that maybe there was some secret to find there. Some hidden letter or character or anything interactive. It was then I first saw a ghost in the corner of my eye, and felt a slight rush of excitement because maybe now there was finally something about to happen. I thoroughly explored the shipwreck and found nothing; I go up to the hill where the ghost was and saw nothing. I leave the area and felt thoroughly disappointed with the experience, but continued trudging along hoping that there’d be some excitement eventually.
Now, one might argue that this endless disappointment is the developer’s intention. They want us to experience the disappointment with the game that the character experiences with life. It still reeks of laziness. It’s entirely possible to portray a hopeless and desperate situation in a game while still giving the player an interactive world. If anything, it’d be more emotional to let the player explore the world and modify it, only to have some other force completely thrash your plans.
Some may also argue that Dear Esther is more of a game than Zork, because Dear Esther has visuals beyond simple text. I’d argue the exact opposite. Zork creates a living, breathing world with nothing more than text. Even though you can’t see the trolls or grues or magical swords of Zork, you still have a constant sense of wonder going through its universe. You never know what you’ll encounter next, you develop strategies for playing through it efficiently, you want to experiment to see what’ll happen in each unique situation. In all ways, you are playing; it may only be text, but it’s done through a video monitor and thus a video game. Zork requires no less thought than Portal and the only thing dividing them is the technology provided at the time. You get the same emotional responses from each and they each involve interactivity beyond “move forward because there’s nothing else to do.”
What sets a game apart from a movie is that movies let you enjoy the visuals and narrative without any way to interact with them. Games provide an additional level to this by letting you do whatever you want within the confines of the rules of the game. Dear Esther’s problem is that these game rules are so strict that they provide nothing beyond the level of interaction of a movie, and it’s thus hard to argue for it being a game. Even arguing for it being a movie could be difficult, since it doesn’t really provide a full story and is essentially just a man walking through an environment until his death. It feels more like the digital equivalent of one of those theme park rides that take you through a tunnel or props, or one of those 90s animated screensavers with a pause button. It sets out to push the boundaries of what a game can be, but it feels more like it regresses so far inwards that it’s instead trying to push the boundaries of film.