Dear Esther is beautiful and poetic. It is a mix of organic and artificial. It is an exploration. But is it a video game? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a video game is, “a game played by electronically manipulating images displayed on a television screen”. If we look at Dear Esther, and only this definition of a video game, than yes it is that. Urban Dictionary (a dictionary website comparable to Wikipedia) defines a video game a bit differently. There are pages and pages of definitions under the term, some of which are quite similar to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, and some of which are entirely unique from it. For example, one submission reads, “A program that is more than a form of entertainment. It offers us an escape from the dullness of reality, a place where we can do things we actually can't. Grand Theft Auto III lets you buy whores, kill them, and get your money back.” This definition, and its somewhat crude example, offers a more abstract understanding of video games. Another entry says, “Something that you do for interactivity, not for looking at graphics. Who cares for graphics? Mario, Pac-Man, and Sonic are great and their graphics suck! I like to play with a video game, not a DVD player.” These less technical and more cultural definitions of video games suggest what people want from a game, not just what it is.
I desperately want to like Dear Esther. I’m not very good at video games. I don’t play them enough to have the hand-eye-coordination necessary to advance and win, so I get bored. Dear Esther requires little, if any, skill. Really all you need to actively do is continuously press the ‘w’ key and direct the mouse left or right. It’s too simple though. It’s so simple that it’s mind-numbing, which takes me right back to being bored. The graphics are beautiful, and the story is intriguing – at first. The mystery makes you want to explore the eerie island and discover who this Esther is, but the ‘game’ never gives you answers. It isn’t satisfying.
Dear Esther is more a sophisticated picture book than a video game. What it lacks and what it does magnificently are both its downfall. The balance of artistry and activity is off. If the ‘video game’ was more video, it would be beautiful and poetic, but the interactivity (i.e. pressing down the ‘w’ key) is distracting from the story. A review of the game by Allistar Pinsof breaks down the benefits of making the narrative interactive. He writes, “For one, you can explore this world with your own eyes. You can also explore parts that aren’t worth exploring: Pathways that lead nowhere, caves with the same assets copy-and-pasted, and dead-ends that will make you curse the game’s painfully snail-paced walking speed.” If the ‘video game’ were more game, it would be an intriguing mystery to solve, but the lack of control and interaction with the environment makes it too easy to be enthralling. The mystery of the island, the letters, the motorway, Esther all attempt to draw you in, but there are no rewards. You never pick up anything, you never reach a definitive clue, and you never find any answers. You cannot sit back, listen, watch, and interpret; yet also you cannot engage. In Pinsof’s review he says, “The problem with Dear Esther is that it never uses its resources as interactive-fiction to good effect…The bigger problem with Dear Esther is that it revolves entirely around moving forward without providing any momentum, incentive, or even a clear path (at times).”
Another review by Keza MacDonald focuses more on what Dear Esther has to offer and examines it as an experiment. He also offers details about the game that are unclear while playing and only learned if you do further research. He says, “The writing is unashamedly florid, flitting all the time in an unsettling way between past and present, and usually addressed to the eponymous Esther, whose identity becomes clear as time goes on.” I disagree. When does Esther’s identity become at all clear? Later on he says, “Still, it's impressive Dear Esther doesn't need puzzles or mechanics to draw you in. The strength of the writing and the world alone is enough.” Again, I disagree. Granted I only played the game once, but I carefully observed and took notes during. Most likely I would discover more details and find a bit more clarity playing the game a second time through, but I don’t think I would find it any more interesting. Although I disagree with MacDonald’s opinion of the game, I do think looking at it as an experiment is useful. Dear Esther is trying to extend the sensual stimulation of videos through the interactive nature of games. It is both video and game and fits the traditional definition. However, when we look more closely at a cultural definition of what society wants from video games, it fails. Whether people want an escape from reality or an interactive game apart from the quality of graphics, Dear Esther’s confusing narrative and mindless interaction make it disappointing. So yes, Dear Esther is a video game, but it is flawed.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. IGN Entertainment, 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
Pinchbeck, Dan. Dear Esther. Valve, 2012. Computer software.
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. Game Revolution, 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
"Video Game." Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2014. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
"Video Game." Urban Dictionary. 2014. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.