After scoring a drink and some cookies, I sat comfortably to watch someone play Dear Esther, lauded for its environmental beauty and enthralling story. Unbeknownst to me, that’s all the game was — a man traversing an island landscape searching for answers. No action, no explosions, just a simple tale of a wife’s passing and how her husband chose to cope. And then for one second, one remarkable moment, I found myself bewildered. My understanding of what a game was rendered useless by an hour.

Only a voice-over melded with eye-popping visuals and a compelling tale, and nothing more. It was refreshing and instantly calming. It resonated and imprinted an awkward sense of emotion into my conscious… something rarely felt through all the brutality of today’s games.

The man’s journey an extended metaphor to him finding his purpose, answers. Answers of his wife’s passing; why this happened and why it happened to him. His demoralizing story remarks on the car accident that killed his wife, when the brakes shorted, and his lackadaisical response. Almost blaming himself — a natural human response — for not doing more. Then his narration enters deeper into delirium, referencing Jakobson, a shepherd, and Donnelly, a man who mapped the island. A radio tower seen vividly throughout the game becomes the pinnacle of his story, of which he climbs and jumps, only to transform into a bird, symbolizing freedom.

Dear Esther played like an Oscar-caliber film, if anything. The only deterrent of that title is it being a Steam release, thus labeled a ‘game’. But the definition of video game should be applied loosely these days. Even after three hours I’m still finding it remarkably challenging to define Esther of the same kin as, let’s say, Borderlands.

More impressively, the soundtrack adds to the experience wonderfully and preps you for what are incorrectly assumed as tender moments. It’s like each song was specifically chosen for each individual second to push events forward, a notable impossibility for modern developers.

Ultimately, this intelligible story made me question if the constant, inescapable combat of video games today is virulent to our attempts at creating a digital art form. The blood-pumping, heart-stopping action of first-person shooters is a definitive example of trying too hard for pure entertainment value, while just an hour with Esther leaves more of a gratifying and indelible afterthought. Like I sympathize with this man’s grief and heartache where if my character falls in the line of duty in Battlefield 3 I move on unconsciously.

Dear Esther plays out one man’s horrific, relatable, unfathomable tragedy and speaks volumes to those who’ve lost ones. And it fuels my faith that storytelling isn’t lost forever in a haze of bullets.

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  • http://coffeewithgames.wordpress.com Scott Mullins

    Wow, I saw this yesterday on Steam and wondered what it was…but not enough to click it. It’s actually on sale for $2.49 right now on Steam’s Summer Sale, so it’s pretty interesting to see this pop up today.

    Just for clarification, is the game only about an hour long before it ends? Or, is it longer and/or perhaps some sort of replay value to it?

  • James Rosen

    I enjoyed Dear Esther and found it to be a great piece of conceptual art. There was no puzzles, or shooting. Instead, the concentration here, was on the music and absolutely breathtaking scenery, which made the time spent well worth it. I am 60 years old, so I don’t need to be constantly employed with action. I only wish more games like Dear Esther were available and an even larger market existed for older adults and not just children and 20-30 year old bong heads. ( nothing against them, I was one once).

    • Jeff

      In the next ten years, you will see the market open up. Nintendo, arguably, already started appealing to older folks through larger versions of its handhelds and with games like Brain Age.

  • http://chalgyrsgameroom.blogspot.com/ Chalgyr Vokel

    Amazing impressions – I keep hearing great things about this title, but I haven’t had a chance to experience it (yet) for myself.

  • Mondo

    Lovely. More commentary on generalized stagnation. Valuing the games that break wildly from the norm as some kind of revolution, ignoring the flaws for the spectacle.

    It’s like “The Artist” from 2011. It was a simple love story, told as a silent film, and told well, but not anything more. And yet, people really flocked to it for the novelty. It wasn’t bad, no, but it was held high for it’s breaks from conventional film styles and the flaws were ignored.

    It’s a shame games that do a good job at being games are applauded, but never looked at as “art” unlike Dear Ester or a few of the Newgrounds pixelated flash games, or maybe a game with a prominent art style like Okami.

    And then those who enjoy them like to put themselves above others. Like, liking these games are an acquired taste. Like a fine wine. And others just don’t “get it”.

    • Jeff

      Two things for this comment:

      1. The industry is stagnating, and partly not due to its own fault. Consoles currently limit what is possible (because most developers choose to port their games to console, therefore limiting the potential of PC). The point may be a recycled and almost moot argument but still one to be made.

      2. What flaws could you find with Dear Esther? It was the simplest form of expression, a masterpiece of interactive art. The environment looked gorgeous, characters seemed real and relatable, and foremost, DE effectively did its job of leaving you with questioning life. I couldn’t find any faults.

      • Mondo

        Flaws are indeed subjective, taken differently from different people and perspectives. Backgrounds. Ideologies. Anyways, I suppose “boring” would be something totally subjective. Possibly even petty. So, i guess a more valid complaint would be that the concept feels rather generic in it’s own sense.

        Plenty of flash games are all about walking from story piece to story piece, listening to stories of tragedy and loss, symbolism and love, life and death. Google “The Path” or “Everyday The Same Dream”.

        Most of those games just lead you along in a story. Lots of walking. Not much doing. Not much interactivity. You were right say it plays out like a film, bringing you along for a ride. It’s an experience. But it’s one that sort of expects you to be emotionally invested. And the simple act of walking doesn’t always engage the “player” if the person working WASD and the mouse can even be called a player.

        Sure, you can be in for a treat if you bite onto it and actually give a damn, but the lack of interaction ruined the engagement that I personally might have had.

        Somehow I wanted to bring up “The Stanley Parable”, another first person game with walking that explores the relation of character and play as well as choice in games, but I can’t really think of a way on the spot without just saying “The Stanley Parable”. Play it, yo.

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