Dear Esther: Gameplay v.s. Artwork
There are many, many genres of video games. From first-person shooters like Call of Duty to puzzle games like Portal; there is a niche for every kind of gamer. The niche that Dear Esther fills is story telling. But as you will come to realize while playing the game, it is the most basic form of story-telling a video game could possibly be. All you do is hold down “W” and aimlessly walk around the island while the narrator tells you his story through letters to his beloved Esther. Reviewers have panned it for not being enough of a video game, but I do not think that is what it is trying to be. Dear Esther is a video game, but it is an art form first.
Any gamer who buys a game off Steam for ten dollars should not expect a masterpiece, but they would at least expect a game that allows the player to have some type of interaction. Dear Esther does not deliver this at all, which is why critics and gamers alike criticize it. The reviewer from Destructoid states, “The ironic thing is that the most pedestrian of stories can be convincing when coupled with intelligently applied interaction -- something Dear Esther stubbornly stands against.” He is certainly not wrong, and I stand by his opinion. A gamer is not going to enjoy simply just walking around while some guy is talking to you. The story is somewhat interesting, but it would probably be better suited as an audiobook. When done correctly, the story-telling genre can be incredibly worthwhile, as evidenced by the multiple “Game of Year” award winning title, The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead is full of player-controlled dialogue options that progress the story, and is sprinkled with light action sequences. The player is actually involved with the game, and is a necessity in pushing forward the plot rather than just walking at snails pace around an empty island. Still, the point of Dear Esther is not its invigorating gameplay; it’s about its visuals, its music, and its story.
Whereas it is a terrible video game, Dear Esther shines as a piece of art. I define art as a medium that expresses a meaning to the viewer and can be interpreted by the viewer in his or her own way. Most video games fit this definition as developers do put meaning into their work and the experience is free to be interpreted by the player. Artwork and video games are not mutually exclusive and exist on a sort of spectrum. A game can be set in a beautifully designed environment with rich dialogue, and exist predominately as a piece of art as opposed to a video game like Dear Esther. On the other hand, a video game can also be all about gameplay rather than a well-crafted story. For example, Call of Duty draws millions of people in through its multiplayer gameplay versus its brief and forgettable story mode. There are also those games that are masters of both gameplay and artwork. The Last of Us fills this role with a story and graphics that throw the player into the emotional, post-apocalyptic world, but it comes along with zombie-killing action that any gamer would love. Reviewers that see Dear Esther as a piece of art give it much more positive reviews. An IGN reviewer writes, “Dear Esther doesn't need puzzles or mechanics to draw you in. The strength of the writing and the world alone is enough.” From this statement we can see that the reviewer is looking at the game for its artwork; not its gameplay (also evidenced by its 8/10 rating as opposed to Destructoid’s 4. 5/10). Both reviewers are correct, they are just looking at the game differently. Destructoid sees boring gameplay and an ambiguous story while IGN sees the stunning artwork, and deep storyline that can be analyzed by the viewer.
Dear Esther’s story is enthralling. It provides the player with enough dialogue to leave him or her thinking of the narrator’s life, his love pursuits, his knowledge of the island’s history, and his troubles. The visuals are incredible and put the player in the narrator’s shoes. The music (or lack thereof) provides the perfect ambience and compliments the storytelling and visuals nicely. It is truly a piece of art. This artwork just happens to come in the form of a video game; a video game that lacks interaction and input from the player. A gamer that is expecting exciting gameplay from Dear Esther is going to be severely disappointed. As stated before, this game would probably gain more praise as an audiobook with visual aid instead of being labeled a video game. In other words, I would expect to find this game in a museum instead of available on Steam.