Dan Pinchbeck's Dear Esther is an "experimental narrative" under the guise of academic research. Indeed, it really isn't much of a game: there's nothing to do but walk around the huge environments and listen to the narration - which turns out to be good and bad at the same time.
Originally released on June 19, 2008
And now, an extra credit discussion topic for you to debate in the comments: esotericism. I use the word somewhat in a derogatory sense because I really wanted to like Dear Esther but I couldn't. The narrative - apparently a letter dictated to someone named Esther? - is purposely chopped into pieces and fragmented. It's up to the player to piece together something coherent.
... Only there isn't really anything coherent about it because the voice overs are randomized. It's up to the player to form mental associations between the spoken words and the environment that she's exploring.
Now with the M-word we generally assume that there's a master plan behind all the clues and hints. Is that present in Dear Esther? It's just you wandering around, except there's nowhere to wander because there's only one path through. It's linear without the benefits that come with being linear - namely, letting structure guide the player through.
But when I think of level design, I think of structure and constraints. The chapter Highway 17 in Half-Life 2 is interesting because of the rules and constraints that work together to form mechanics: antlions constantly spawn in sand, so naturally you use the buggy to outrun them. It's fun because you can't stay on the sand and you have to keep moving.
Where are the mechanics in Dear Esther? Where is the interaction? I can't influence the voice over at all. I feel like the whole thing would've worked better as a movie with randomized clips. Then again, the author doesn't necessarily claim that this is a game per se, but a ghost story. Is that a lesser claim?
I feel like Dear Esther is trying to get the player to grasp at something yet at the same time it pulls back and doesn't give us the tools we need. And that kind of bugs me.
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