Thursday, 8 March 2012

game review: Dear Esther

It’s probably not the best idea for my first review to be of a game that is only debatably a game, but after playing Dear Ester, I felt the strong need to talk about it.  

Dear Esther does have game mechanics, but they are the extremely basic WASD controls used walk around and progress in the game. This small level of interactiveness is pretty much the only thing that separates it from being a computer generated movie. In some ways, Dear Esther reminds me of the 2D point and click adventures you find all over the internet, only there are no puzzles, and the mouse controls only affect the camera. 

It’s the nature of first person games to project into the character. You see from their eyes, and for the duration of the game you are them. In Dear Esther, it is left ambiguous as to who you are actually playing as. You can project yourself into their shoes and imagine the quiet footsteps of the protagonist are your own, but then you still have no choice in what you do. 

All you can do is walk, and ultimately there is only one way to go. You cannot lose and you cannot die, nothing you do makes any difference in the end. It is an uncomfortable feeling, being so powerless in a medium that is all about control.
In a way it shows that there such a thing as too much story versus effort. Having to work to find out what happens next – be it through combat, puzzles or platforming – makes the narrative reward seem so much better.

I understand what the makers of Dear Esther were trying to do. There are small details, like the paper boats in the underground stream and the bread and fish in the caves, that give you an idea of the kind of depth the game was aiming for, but it wasn’t strong enough to make the experience stand up on its own.

You can play through the whole thing in little more than an hour, and although there are some parts I did go back and examine in more detail, the majority of the walking around is too tedious and uneventful to sit through a second time. The whole thing feels unfinished and unresolved, as though it’s a prelude or a demo. 

I was hoping there would be some underlying plot to uncover, but there isn’t.
The graphics, at least are solid. They’re not my any means ground-breaking, but the island does feel like a lonely, deserted island. The caves are beautiful, and there’s no doubt that whoever created the visual aspect of dear Esther took a lot of care over crafting the virtual world.

It’s just a shame they chose such a boring premise. I get the feeling that had they chosen a more interesting idea, or even rewritten the story to have a solid plot, the game would have had a more widely positive reception. This kind of thing is obviously never going to appeal to people who play games solely for the action, but I went in expecting a good story, and was left disappointed.

Is it worth buying? For such a small amount of content, the price is rather steep, but if you enjoy natural scenery, and don’t mind the extent of the gameplay being a virtual tour, it can be a nice break from more intensive gaming experiences. Just don’t be surprised if, at the end, you come away with a strong sense on unfulfillment.

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