Dear Esther Review – More Art Than Game
Over the past several years there has been an ongoing debate regarding art and video games. While most will acknowledge that painting, photography, books, music and movies can all come in forms that we call ‘art’, there have been very few video games that have been accepted into that category.
While one could draw a loose connection between Timecop, Clive Cussler novels, and Far Cry 3, games analogous to To Kill a Mockingbird or The Grapes of Wrath are few and far between. Developers thechineseroom’s Dear Esther, an Indie ‘interactive experience’ based on Valve’s Source engine, is attempt to elevate video games to the status of art.
Keep reading after the cut to see if it succeeds.
I have a hard time calling Dear Esther a video ‘game’. The closest thing that I have experienced to Dear Esther is the classic game Myst – but even that game had puzzles. Esther has no puzzles, and no real interactivity. Played from a first person perspective, the player walks through an island while a voice-over occasionally fills in the backstory of both the character and the location. The entire experience is rather short, and best played in one sitting. It took me around 90 minutes to see everything there was to see.
The conclusion to the experience is also rather, well… depressing. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, but if you have ever struggled with serious depression, please note that this experience may be a trigger for you. Even for someone without depression, the story is definitely not cheery.
So, we have a game that’s not really a game, that takes only 90 minutes to complete, and is really quite depressing. Is there anything to recommend here? Well, the game is absolutely gorgeous. The textures are all incredible. The grass blows in the wind, the water ripples, and the world feels incredibly real. I spent the first twenty minutes simply wandering around and gawking at the scenery.
Likewise, the sound is excellent. The best way to experience Dear Esther is in the dark with a good set of headphones. Music is interspersed in just the right places, and the ambient sound effects create a very immersive experience. In fact, I haven’t felt so immersed in a game world in a very long time. Everything felt real and substantial – I found myself wishing for interactivity so that I could stay in the world of Dear Esther even longer. There is a scene early in the game where you climb up a hill towards an abandoned cabin. The sky overhead is a steely gray, and the wind is whistling in my ears. It was a truly incredible experience, and one that I wish I could experience more often.
All these pieces add up to an interesting whole. Not quite a game, Dear Esther definitely qualifies as art. The game creator has something to say, and uses a unique medium to say it. People looking for a run-and-gun game will be confused and bored. Even those looking for a Myst-like puzzle game will be disappointed. But if one approaches Dear Esther with an open mind and a willingness to experience something completely original, they may find a deep and challenging experience.
VISUALS – Incredible. This is perhaps the most beautiful game I have ever seen. candlelight flickers on rock walls, waves crash on the beach, and everything has a delightfully moody quality to it. I hope that this is a hallmark of things to come, because I can’t wait to play a full-length game with graphics like this.
AUDIO – Likewise excellent. The occasional music is not overpowering, but rather adds to the experience. The sound effects make the world come alive. Even the voice over work, which can be cheesy in so many indie games, is well done and haunting.
+ incredible scenery
+ beautiful sound effects and music
+ interesting and intriguing story
+ completely original, verging on artistic.
– Very short
– quite depressing, really
– very little true interaction
I don’t know if I can recommend Dear Esther at the full price of 9.99. However, the experience is frequently on sale, and is right now part of the Humble Bundle 8 (ending June 18 at 4PM), along with a bunch of other terrific Indie titles. If you can find this as part of a bundle, it’s well worth playing, and hopefully a sign of things to come in the future.