The reception of the recent remake of the 2008 mod Dear Esther
has been quite dividing. Destructoid's Allistair Pinsof wrote his review
of the game and scored it an understandable 4.5. Over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun
two reviews of the game went up, one that was against it
, and the other that was in in support of it
. Simply put: you're either going to love it or hate it. Personally, I quite enjoyed this piece for what it demonstrated exceptionally, and these features I feel forgive many of the other issues one may have with the game.
Let me state that this simply is my opinion, and I can entirely understand why one might not like this game for almost any reason, but I want to make clear that there absolutely is merit to the game and that there are many things still worth appreciating about this game.
If you are not aware of this game, it's an art game through and through. Don't expect any action, explosions or witty dialogue. This is a slow-paced game where one needs to become engrossed in the world. Immersion is key. You assume the role of a man who arrives on an isolated and lonely island and embarks on a journey into this island, pressing forward constantly, drawn by the red light of an aerial in the distance. What the island exactly is is entirely open to interpretation. Is this is limbo, or even hell? Is he alive, dead, or both? Is it by chance that he simply came to this isolated island because of it's history with him and Esther? There really is no answer, and answers are not something that often come up in the vague literary dialogue that occurs at certain points throughout. You follow your mostly linear path, occasionally coming across curious symbols and chemical equations drawn out in illuminating paint. It seems you are following the markings by one "Donnelley", and again, who he is is vague. The journey is notably paralleled with Saint Paul's journey to Damascus
, and "Damascus" is continually referred to by the narrator and the writings on the walls, similarly to the Rat Man in Portal
. So you trod along your journey at a snail's pace, seeing beautiful and haunting sights throughout until you finally reach your destination.
I'll come out right now and address the biggest issues people seem to have with the game. The controls are extremely tedious. As mentioned a moment ago, the character travels at speeds that many tortoises would come to appreciate. Maybe he's so riddled with guilt that he literally drags his own feet across his journey of damnation or whatever, the point is is that this game is slow. Very slow. Movement is limited to looking and walking. No jumping, no running. There are a few moments where I wish I could have jumped over a foot-high rock and explored some of the more mysterious and curious spots, but I was forced to stay in my seat in this slow coaster of shame and only look at these mysterious set pieces. An unspoken feature of the game is that it encourages whatever exploration is possible, finding little oddities and unsettling objects constitute the "extras" of the game beyond the single path and narrative. Sometimes being presented with a fork in the road will result in a poor choice and a long walk back to see every part.
The narrative is another part of the game that many people dislike about it. It's pretentious as hell. I'm not a very literary person so most of the time the narrator was simply spouting poetic nonsense at me, and I was only able to decipher probably about 40% of what was actually going on. But hey, at least they have a good voice actor, so it's pleasant on the ears at very least.
So I just spent two paragraphs slamming the two core aspects of the game, the actual gameplay and the narrative, so what makes this game good? For me, I was immediately sold on the audio and visuals of the game initially. It's a somewhat shallow reason, but those are two factors that I'm a sucker for in games and these two were exceptional. As having played the original mod back in 2008, I was intrigued by the vast differences in visuals when I first heard about the remake a few months ago. Having nothing better to do on Valentines Day, this seemed like a great way to either feel terrible about myself for not being with someone, or have a moment of catharsis in hearing a tale of someone who's far worse off than me. Reasons aside I ponied up my $10 and got the game and experienced something I didn't expect: fear.
What this game does beautifully is creates a living breathing world, even if it's dead. The feeling of isolation is engrossing among the tall grass riddled with thistles and the burned out and derelict settlements. The music sets the tone beautifully. The low groans of cellos and the haunting piano lines create a genuinely eerie atmosphere that few games have managed to accomplish in recent memory. Searching stables and finding bloodied surgical equipment or dust-covered and dirty tables with discarded books and playing cards that make you wonder what happened to the inhabitants of the island. Clearly it was something grim. The most tense and brooding moments of the game come in the exploration of the dark crevasses that tempt you off the main path. Occasionally you'll see a dark way that your gut tells you not to go into, but you are dragged by your desire to see everything. As one enters these darker paths the sound design shows it's true colours and the choice of slow pace becomes apparent, with these two factors coupling into a moment of growing terror as you see what awaits you at the end of the guilting hall. (Not going to spoil it for you, so you'll have to check it out yourself!)
The visuals of the game are outright beautiful. Using a modified version of the Portal 2
Source Engine, there is beauty in everything from the light swaying of thistles in the wind, the moving skybox and the play of lighting on the surfaces. And then you enter the caves. For some reason the caves were the only place I felt safe, I felt like I belonged there. The incredible use of colours, water and light make this portion of the game beyond praise. It's breath taking.
The whole experience wraps up around you like a blanket and doesn't let go. Provided you don't try to break free from the path you never thing to yourself "Yep, this is a game I'm playing". The only constraint is the path you take. Everything else just envelops the player and allows for an easy escape into an uneasy mind. This is one of the most immersive games I have ever played, and it greatly reminds me of Amnesia: The Dark Descent
. You never have to run from monsters or hide, but the ambiance of it all is simply incredible, and at times it can be almost as frightening. You need to lose yourself in this game to fully appreciate it. Were someone to mod this mod to be able to have run and jump, what would be gained? It would cut out some of the frustration certainly, but for the most part this game succeeds at what it sets out to be: a ghost story. Interaction with the objects would be a nice addition, but it is not necessary.
As Pinsof noted, this is a game by definition, but I really wish we wouldn't call it a game. I wish we wouldn't call it a game in the same way I wish I didn't have to call Amnesia
a game. These games are mostly about atmosphere and the player in those worlds. Amnesia
has a lot more skill and interaction that Dear Esther
so I can understand why it qualifies as a game, but it certainly is not fun. To me a "game" should have a sort of entertainment value to it, and something that doesn't entertain me but can still make me think and feel something like terror should be appreciated. If we could step into a novel or work of art and just look explore the nooks and crannies of it alongside the story or message the author wants to tell, Dear Esther
would be the thing to do it. Games may not be the best tool to tell a narrative it, but interactive art may be.
In short this game is an exceptional experience and absolutely worthy of praise, but I can understand where people might think poorly of it. The gameplay and narrative are restricting, but the sheer audiovisual mastery is enough to create an experience that's beautiful and haunting. Clocking in at around an hour and a half with little replay value certainly makes the $10 price tag somewhat steep, but we've all gone to godawful movies or had a poor meal for the same price or more. You can still download the original mod for free
, but I'd honestly just wait for a Steam sale and pick it up on the cheap. Or buy it now and support the artist. Your call, but either way this is a game that should be played.
LOOK WHO CAME: