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Dear Esther: esoteric epistles -

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.

  • Walk this way: Very large environments, linear but with no clear direction, slow pre-HEV-suit walking speed. You do the math. While the sheer massiveness of the level design forces contemplation on the player's part and evokes shades of Ico / Shadow of the Colossus, the result is some very slow and tedious pacing. It also weakens the narrative in some ways because you'll forget a lot of what you've heard, wandering around for where to go. Smaller, tighter, more navigable environments would've helped.
  • Talk this way: The (rather well-performed) voice over narration is randomized, though it's better if you play it without knowing that... oh, and blah blah blah it furthers the cause of games as art in some esoteric way, blah blah blah blah.
  • Run away: Fellow level designers will cringe at the jagged landscape / displacement geometry. The "smooth tool" is there for a reason!
  • Pent up, painted up: Probably one of the more creative uses of overlays in the Half-Life 2 single player community, especially in the last level.
  • The British are coming: Rarely do you get non-American or non-City 17 settings in Half-Life 2 single player. The whole mod has a certain "British wistfulness" that seems appealing and exotic - to this Yank, at least.
  • VERDICT: Unorthodox and interesting storytelling, unfortunately marred by less-than-interesting level design. It tries too hard and gets some basic things wrong in the process. Still, credit is deserved for trying something new in a rather dormant single player mod scene.
  • Download! at ModDB.

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.

Article Comments (now closed)

Theory's gravatar

1. Still worth experiencing

Posted by Theory at 10:14AM, Wednesday July 16 2008

What you say is true, but I still enjoyed it. I've never managed to play it through a second time to see what other fragments I can get (or rather am given).

Kelvin's gravatar

2. Yeah that pretty much covers it.

Posted by Kelvin at 9:34PM, Wednesday July 16 2008

They do have the script available for download as a .pdf file on the ModDB page. I started reading it after playing through the mod, hoping to make some sense out of what I just played, but gave up after the first page. The fragmented, randomized storytelling didn't work too well for me, I never really got into it. For me to want to put the effort into paying careful attention and thinking about what's going on, I have to care, I need some incentive, some reason to think it'll be worth it, and I just never got that.

I did enjoy the mod for the most part though, and as you say, it deserves a lot of credit for originality. (Though the 'explore the small island and discover it's hidden secrets' theme did remind me of that M-word.) I loved the massive outdoor environments, and the good voice acting and overall great sound engineering really made for nice, eh, ambiance. But I really hate invisible walls! They were all over the place in this mod. It was also quite possible to walk off the edge of the map, or fall into a region that was inescapable (again, invisible walls.) It was sort of odd in that way, highly polished in some ways, crude in others. Definitely interesting altogether though.

Kast's gravatar

3. Not a game

Posted by Kast at 11:56PM, Wednesday July 16 2008

It's not something you play, it's something you experience. Dear Esther's got a lot of rough edges to it and I'll agree with the slow pace not quite hitting the mark (bunny jumping improves pace at the loss of a sense of being there).

The storytelling worked for me. While it didn't exactly hold together, the essence of it and the crescendo of emotion worked its magic. It's like music or some kind of modern poetry.
I don't mind not understanding it.

Great voice over and the music really deserves a special mention. With some polishing on the level, it could be a top rate mod over all.

Crispy's gravatar

4. Work ongoing on Esther

Posted by Crispy at 1:34PM, Wednesday August 6 2008

The team has posted an announcement on their ModDB profile.

"We're currently working on a new version of Dear Esther, responding to many of the comments made here (thanks to everyone for those)."

The rest of the comments are interesting, so take a look:
http://www.moddb.com/mods/dear-esther/news/new-version-update-research

Campaignjunkie's gravatar

5. Hmm... interesting

Posted by Campaignjunkie at 11:57PM, Thursday August 7 2008

I wonder who'll bother playing through it again, though? Is it worth the effort, if you view achievement in modding as a function of how many people play it and like it?

Kast's gravatar

6. err

Posted by Kast at 1:31AM, Saturday August 9 2008

I love it, as you can see above, but I wouldn't play through a second time for a very long time - not until I've essentially forgotten it.

Trurl's gravatar

7. And now on Radio 4...

Posted by Trurl at 11:17PM, Friday August 15 2008

Finally got round to playing it - oooooh.

I'll type up a longer version of my thoughts tomorrow, but I loved it. Mapping's somewhat crude in places (it really could do with some better visuals to complement the fantastic audio and storytelling), and anyone complaining about lack of replayability?

The precise version of the story you get is randomly selected. Peering at the script suggests you've experienced about a third of it...

I'll wait for the elusive improved version before my next playthrough, but I really enjoyed it.

More, please!

Bunraku Puppet's gravatar

8. Another kind of Oblivion

Posted by Bunraku Puppet at 12:27AM, Sunday March 1 2009

I agree with the comment by Kast, this is something you experience not something you play.

Stay with the Image and the voice, its like a dream.

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