Quite a Unique Experience
Each video game has something different to offer, usually even providing unique experiences to their players. It can be hard to know what you will get out of a game before fully immersing yourself in the game. While this may not necessarily be true of each video game, there is an element about some video games that allows the player to connect with the characters on an emotional level that may surprise the player. Dear Esther provided me with a unique experience, but because of my ability to connect with the character, I had almost the opposite feeling; at the end of Dear Esther I felt even more confused and aware of my own intrusive presence in the game than I felt at the beginning. Strictly speaking, it is fair to call Dear Esther a game, and it definitely has artistic elements, but as to its true nature, I could not say. Dear Esther squirms away from being pinned down in any concrete terms, just as the narrative lacks any definitive details and remains open to interpretation.
Dear Esther begins with the player standing on a dock with an abandoned house looking down on them. At the house there comes the first choice the player must make, either to explore the house of set off to follow one of two paths: one that leads down to the beach and another that leads up into some caves. The aspect that most clearly identifies Dear Esther as a game also happens to be one of the most frustrating: the ability to move. One of the aspects of video games that makes them so appealing to players (such as myself) is the interactive part of the game, while allows players to truly take part in the story and feel that they have some control over what is happening. In his review of Dear Esther on Destructiod, Allistair Pinsof writes: “The problem with Dear Esther is that it never uses its resources as interactive-fiction to good effect,” acknowledging that there is something about this aspect of a video game that Dear Esther lacks (Pinsof). Pinsof goes on to admit: “Dear Esther doesn’t seem to respect the player very much in this regard,” referring to the interactive quality of the game, saying, “All you do in this game is walk” (Pinsof). While Dear Esther allows the character to control their own movements, that is the only control that is relinquished which leaves the player feeling rather helpless and keeps the players separate from the story line. As you continue through the game there is a voice over that appears accompanied by music at what appear to be random intervals. The music and voice add to the story, and would allow the player to get more deeply involved in the game if they were consistent and continued throughout the game. Pinsof also admits to this when immediately after praising Jessica Curry’s score, he writes: “It's too bad then that for long sections the game is played in silence, tainting the illusion” (Pinsof). Instead of drawing the player deeper in, the music creates a contrast that sharply reminds the player of their separation from the narrative they are playing. The disjointed and lack of flow the music sections have isolate the player from the story and subvert the progress they are intended to make.
While the music serves as a wedge between the player and the storyline, it helps contribute to the overall artistry of Dear Esther. When writing of Jessica Curry’s score, Pinsof claims: “Her music, from sweeping string movements in the pastoral scenes to her gloomy piano pieces in the caves, help paint the landscape with character. You feel like you are in a wonderful H.P. Lovecraft short story as you slowly traverse a hillside or dive deeper into a cave,” admitting that while the silence that follows these snippets may make the player feel like they are intruding on the story, while the music is playing it is easy to get lost in the experience the music evokes (Pinsof). Keza MacDonald also wrote a review on Dear Esther, and while she agrees that the interactive ability of the story has some failings, she writes of the music that: “Music is often absent, leaving you to listen to the wind and crashing waves, but fades in and out with exquisite timing to emphasize moments of narrative significance,” going on to say that “If nothing else, Dear Esther presents one of the most absorbing and believable worlds in gaming,” also noting how the music draws the player more deeply into the game (MacDonald). The music plays a very important role in the storyline of the game and it lends a more artistic air to the game.
Another element that leads to Dear Esther being considered art is the visual aspect of the game. Pinsof writes in his review that modifications were made from when the game was originally released as a mod in 2008 (based off a bigger budget) and notes that: “While the audio brought the story to life in the mod, the rebuffed imagery complete the vision in this retail remake,” showing how important the visuals are in the game (Pinsof). Pinsof even goes as far as to claim: “Dear Esther is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played at points, overcoming any sense of dullness the rest of the experience put me through,” admitting that though there are some failings in the plotline, the overall effect that the music and visuals have on the player are not to be undercut (Pinsof). The graphics in Dear Esther certainly were revamped from the original release, as photos shown side by side can attest. There were infinite minute details that were added to the 2012 version of the game that make the piece visually astounding.
Despite all of these aspects, Dear Esther lacks something vital. There were many moments throughout the game that I was left feeling confused and frustrated, things that the quality of the visual and audio aspects did not make up for. The narrative follows a man who is wonderfully well spoken, but so vague about details that I was unable to connect with the game. The overall feeling was that of being thrown into a story halfway through and told to finish it without any textual clues as to what was going on. The identity of the narrator is never revealed, just as the writings on the walls are never fully explained. On the lack of interaction in the story MacDonald writes: “You can't help but imagine a version of this game that lets you touch and feel, picking up pebbles on the beach to throw into the sea or leafing through old books in an abandoned bothy,” showing how the entire nature of the narrative invites the player to think of ways it could be done differently (MacDonald). There are many statements and visual clues that remain unexplained and the end of the story left me feeling even more confused than I was at the beginning, raising more questions than it would answer.
Dear Esther provides an interesting experience; for it is quite unlike any video game I have ever played. The audio and visuals created a beautiful world with qualities that lead me to identify this game as a piece of art, and the ability to interact with the game (minute as it may be) causes me to call Dear Esther a game. I am still unsure of the purpose of Dear Esther, just as I am unsure of many things that occurred in the narrative. Dear Esther provides a unique experience for a video gamer such as myself, one that I do not think I shall encounter any time soon, which is something I must admit I am not too sad about.
Allistair, Pinsof. "Review: Dear Esther." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. Destructoid. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.