Review by C-zom
"Story first gaming gets a haunting and beautiful glimpse at the ceilings it can reach."
What we see
Dear Esther uses an advanced incarnation/rabbit trail of the Source engine to relay particular styles of lighting, vegetation and shading altogether unseen before out of its peers. It is true that you will almost immediately recognize props (or variations of them) from Half Life 2 and this is fine, as this started as a mod after all. But what differentiates Dear Esther from the wolf pack of Source games is that it blows them all away graphically in certain areas so profoundly that it is almost astonishingly beautiful. The lighting is very advanced, with real time mapping and shading techniques. For example, entering a blue hued canyon of dripping rock formed from lava on the ceiling, with god rays and beams of fog scattering in and out of slightly moving water, and a lonely little boat without a bottom bobs and weaves in front of you hinting at years of immemorial passing, you suddenly realize the art direction has transcended beyond anything Source has been capable of before. You feel, in Dear Esther, that you have intruded upon a lethal silence of centuries on that mysterious island, and the beautiful vistas you traverse as the narrator help to bring crushing loneliness home visually.
There is no one else on the island though signs of life exist. Broken down piers, light houses, villages and even caves exist. The immaculate attention to detail is surprising here, with thousands of decals and bits and pieces on the shores, in the caves, in the buildings and so on. The narrator is happy to tell you about all of them too, but one suspects he is lying. Nevertheless, Dear Esther sports one of the most crushing atmospheres in actual gaming history. I own hundreds of games on steam, and have played everything worth playing in the horror, mystery, and artistic genres. While not quite as scary as, say, Amnesia's castle or quite as beautiful as Cryostasis' lighting, Dear Esther finds its own comfortable niche because its level design and mapping is virtually second to none.
When I tell you no more realistic a depiction of natural terrain and geometry exists in gaming for organic or natural map design, I mean it. Dear Esther has rock formations, shores, mountains, caves, canyons, valleys, dips and fields that are simply stunning with every inch lovingly caressed with true inspiration of a caring artist. I have described to you in detail the visuals you will appreciate, though there are two nagging flaws that drive the experience down slightly.
The first is that the post processing shading effects showcased in the trailers and game play videos do not seem to work. I have it on max settings, with excessive levels of AA, and yet still see jaggies, blurred our textures, with no depth of field whatsoever in the distance--unlike in the trailers. I suspect a patch is due for certain graphics cards owners. Secondly, the textures on rocks leave a tremendous number to be desired, I am reminded at times of Half Life 1/GoldSource rocks. The rest of the visual package is haunting and beautiful, and you owe it yourself--and The Chinese Room--to play on maximum settings. The optimization is also fantastic.
What we hear
Dear Esther sports a minimalist British narrator, and a musical composition. While I will not defend its merit to the death, as the narrator can occasionally jumble up his words, slip on his tongue, and sound quite bored, he still gets the job done in spades. The microphone quality is more than what we're used to in gaming, too. If you're sporting decent headphones, expect a treat. While this narration didn't ever wow me (The writing does, though), it still works for what it is trying to tell you. It's no Bastion or Alan Wake, but it is up there. I only wish the Voice Actor was a little more emotionally invested, he felt restrained and leashed half the time in his presentation of a lonesome, defeated man.
Complementing him is a live orchestral composition done by the Chinese room, a remaster of the original soundtrack the Half Life 2 Mod of the game is famous mostly for. It lives up to the hype, using swells of emotional and regretful violins, viols, pianos, percussion and brass to compliment every narration from the player and any scenes of interest or contemplative retrospect. Ironically, the mixing tends to be so-so--I had to adjust the bass quite a bit to get the proper groan out of the deeper, scarier, more haunting soundtracks later on for example. Inspection of forums tells me I'm not the only one. Nonetheless the last thing that would surprise me this year is Dear Esther winning best soundtrack. it is truly one of the best there is in gaming.
Moving on to a worrying issue within the game that could potentially beg for a patch, the worst offense done by Dear Esther is the shockingly incorrect translation from voice acting to the closed caption subtitles. The closed captions tend to be surprisingly incorrect, with whole sentences removed or reworded and out of sync with what the narrator is saying. "All eyes from the shore could view the bobbing lanterns on top of the boats", for example, could be something that is *written* in the caption, but the narrator says, "Bobbing lanterns are easily viewable from the shore, as well as the mountaintops."
This made me legitimately disoriented in some scenes while trying to pay attention to both telling the story in very different ways, and at last I had to turn off closed captioning altogether to save my sanity and coherency within the story. Whether or not this intended I have no idea, I wouldn't put that spin on the "untrustworthy narrator" above them, it might be a cool touch if intended. Nonetheless, not the biggest issue, but for the hearing impaired, you're not going to be getting the same story we hear. A shame...
What we play
Dear Esther is very much a playable book, with the physical presence of the island acting as an allegory for paragraphs of description in a book, with tripwire area triggers unraveling the dialog sequences literally. It is all a metaphor to visual novels, and as such, you can expect there to be no puzzles, no enemies, no buttons, no action key, no physics engine, or anything of the sort. It is absolutely key you understand this or else you will hate Dear Esther almost immediately, because it is not a game in any sense of the word. This is, to me, where it shines heavily but to others it could drive them insane--and understandably so. Want to keep your torch on all the time? You're out of luck. Want to jump over that one foot rock and explore the tides beyond? Not a chance. And so on and so on. Dear Esther guides you where you want to go with subtle nuances that, as a game designer in this similar genre of fiction, I am all too well familiar with. Lanterns and distant objects attracting and pulling you towards them like fireflies, only to reward you with more bits of dialog and music. Wind direction showing you where the mouth of the cave might be, or the tides showing you where the sand is--Dear Esther has hundreds of visual cues to keep the, ironically dynamic and randomly generated, story quite linear.
Instead, the island is linear with a few optional divergent paths triggering even more dialog or graffiti on the walls, or flashbacks. For example, instead of an invisible wall on the ocean shore, you can walk in and receive nightmarish flashbacks of a shipwreck. Extremely good stuff is at play here. I beat Dear Esther in a little over an hour but my second play through was about three, since I explored in and out of every inch of the island I could--back to back--to cram down all the knowledge it had to offer. And all I did was walk and listen, there is no game play whatsoever. Whether or not this is a con is entirely up to you, the player, and what it is you seek out of story-first gaming.
Replay value is heavy handed, mostly forced on you to hear the story in different ways by finding new dialog, new music, new graffiti and other stuff left out of your last playthrough due to the randomization engine presented by the entire game upon startup. I suspect I'll beat Dear Esther about five times before I uninstall it, which is a surprising feat given how quickly I get bored of games. That is how good the story is, even if the game is little more than walking and listening. Hm.
What we learn
Being a mildly accomplished abstract game designer/writer myself, the first thing I did was play Dear Esther with the fullest open mindset I could. I implore you to do the same. I expected endless exploration with narration in-between, of no action buttons or puzzles, of a slow nonadjustable walk speed and a contemplative atmosphere. My expectations rang true, because Dear Esther is exactly this--you spend your time wandering 4 chapters of beautiful scenery, unraveling a story about a man, a woman named Esther, a tremendous ship wreck, a car crash and a "being" named Donnelly. The story is told in abstract fashion; you trigger area tripwires so to speak around points of interest (Carvings in the rocks, a table in a house with a candle on it, a boat in the water) and the narrator begins talking. What you trip is entirely randomly generated, including the music pairings, meaning that an extremely sharp memory is required or, at worst, a journal and check box for how it flow-graphs together. It is worth the effort to do such a thing if you are inexperienced with playable novels, as the darkest truth to Dear Esther is unbelievably haunting--I do not suspect many will find it.
The written words are fine words indeed, showing a very modern age free flow poetry mixed with a sharply witted prose; a well sourced biographical style that tends to blend modernism with romanticism. It is FAR from horror writing, and is hardly a mystery either. The author tried to accomplish a sad and beautiful message and did so; the haunting visuals are incidental. However, the writing can lack the emotional impact it sometimes needs and overall Esther does not tell a very coherent story as the narration is (literally) randomly generated. There were times I got the ending dialog outside of the starting pier, and other times he would talk about the moon during a sunrise, or a boat while looking at a table, or a grave while eyeballing a bucket of rain. You need to keep a pen and paper nearby for the ultimate experience of solving what it is he was trying to tell his Dear Esther, so to speak. Someday I would very much like a game mode that plays the story conventionally, much like how say--the movie Memento has a version in correct chronology as a special features, despite originally being told backwards.
The writing is surprisingly resigned with defeat of sunken contemplation and earnest yearning and heartache, though it can be stunted because the narrator is obviously well beyond over thinking about and feeling pain over whatever it is he did, or was afflicted with, eons ago. He's grumpily remembering it all again; it is not a present-tense pain. He is bored, apathetic, and most likely dead (This is not a spoiler, merely my interpretation.) and so the narration can also suffer by making you, too, disinterested in the beautiful imagery and story being correlated to you, the reader. Interesting how this can happen, and it shows true synergy between the author and reader even if it was unintended negative.
Nonetheless Dear Esther will provide you with a densely polished, beautiful, articulate and interesting (though highly confusing and self-defeating) story that will remove lunch's worth of money out of your pocket, and two hours or so from your life. To me it is worth it, and I consider Dear Esther to be in the top ten echelon of stories in all of gaming, but it is also unfair to rate such a titanic effort against the likes of actual games, because in the time The Chinese Room had to focus on graphics and story and sound, it is ALL they had to do, whereas conventional gaming with story focuses also on game play, characterization, bug testing, puzzles, and so much more. The sparse minimalism is in and of itself a haunting showcase of what exactly Dear Esther is about; its an abstraction of the gaming medium, and looks to exploit it by being the one to ask the questions, and you almost feel Dear Esther--and the developers--are looking to you, or dare I say, the entire medium as a whole for the answers as to "What constitutes a game?"
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/16/12, Updated 05/24/12
Game Release: Dear Esther (US, 02/14/12)
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