Matthew Sawrey

a portfolio of videogame writings

Dear Esther

Dev: thechineseroom

Plat: PC (Version Tested) and Mac.

But is it really a videogame?  The question at the forefront of every discussion surrounding the release of thechineseroom’s Dear Esther seems to be singularly focused upon its categorisation within the industry. What is it? A first person adventurer? A picturesque short story? A beautifully illustrated poem? All of the above?

It certainly looks like a game. The uninhabited Hebridean Island setting is painstakingly modelled and textured with unflinchingly bleak realism and cloaked by the kind of thick cloud muted lighting that has only previously been conveyed in GSC Game World’s S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. A descent into the island discovers a maze of beautiful phosphorescent moss illuminated caverns and slimy stalactite mazes that push the rendering abilities of the Source engine to its aged limits. Visual design however may be Dear Esther’s only traditional game like facet.

Your interactions with this world are purposefully limited to movement (at a snail’s pace), the ability to zoom with the click of a mouse button and a flashlight that automatically activates in dark interiors. Such a lack of distractions; no jump button, no sprint button or any form of GUI serves to engross players in the experience. There are no puzzles, no shoot-outs and no QTE inflicted boss battles against 50 storey tall mutant zombies with shoulder mounted rocket launchers. This is an experience of subtlety, one that eschews almost any form of common gaming interaction in an adventure singularly focused upon its narrative.

And it is in the recounting of this narrative that Dear Esther takes its greatest abstraction from standard videogame tropes. Fractured sections of prose are narrated as you reach geographical milestones along your journey. Ambiguous and cryptic in their true meaning, each spoken paragraph is eloquently delivered by voice actor Nigel Carrington with a stoic and solemn gravitas. They weave a powerful tale, a mysterious ghost story of loss and grievance that slowly reveals itself as the narrator discusses everything from the history of the island, to his own personal circumstances through letters to the eponymous Esther.

In combination with the narration the island itself hides suggestive artifacts and Half Life 2/Dead Space style wall drawings that allude to the true meaning of the story. These are perhaps Dear Esther’s weakest elements. Whereas the vague metaphors of its spoken narrative subtly allude toward the truth, eliciting a sense of intrigue that is rare for a medium in which exposition is most often screamed in your face during a cutscene, these visual cues are slightly too heavy handed in their reference to the events which led you to the island. Especially so for anyone with a basic understanding of chemistry or electronics.

They hardly ruin the experience though and when compared to the humdrum Hollywood narrative arc of most blockbuster videogame stories, Dear Esther is refreshing. A briskly linear two hour meandering stroll through one of the most disquietingly haunting videogame environments ever created.

Such a short length could be viewed as a negative in a videogame review, a lack of content for your money. Yet the movie like play time has allowed thechineseroom to craft an incredibly focused journey, one in which revelations are steadily drip fed and that consequently never becomes dull. The final fifteen minute crescendo is especially exhilarating, bolstered by a more emotionally raw and aggressive narrator as all of his metaphors are revealed and events are laid bare.

Further play throughs reveal that sections of narration are partially random, giving a slightly different perspective on the island each time. This is a journey more than worth a revisit for the layers of references and metaphors hidden in plain sight, as well as for the powerfully melancholic atmosphere fostered by Jessica Curry’s wonderful soundtrack.

It is a null question really, whether or not Dear Esther falls under the categorisation of a “videogame”. At their core videogames are audio-visual experiences, facilitating a puzzle or challenge of some form to be overcome by player interactions utilising a set of tools. Narrative, by consequence of that definition, is most often a second tier consideration for the medium. Dear Esther simply subverts this paradigm; the challenge instead is in understanding each of its metaphors and figuring out what it is really about, unravelling its unflinchingly bleak tone and themes of loss, mourning and depression. It is a game that evokes such sorrow and mournfully sadness that it stands as one of the most powerful examples of how the medium can effect on an emotional level.

It has no place in the hands of those who play videogames purely for challenge or the visceral thrill of carnage the industry so excels at. But for those who believe that gaming can have convictions beyond that, that it can aspire, as a medium, to engage in narratives as layered and involving as poetry, films or books, then Dear Esther is a benchmark, a short lived one that oftentimes struggles to find a balance between the poetic subtlety of its narration and the blatancy of its visual metaphors, but still a haunting ghost story that really must be experienced to be appreciated. Which isn’t too bad for what began life as a humble mod.

9

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2012 by in Review and tagged , , , , , , .
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