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I recently bought, played and completed Dear Esther, a PC first-person adventure game.
Yes, an adventure game.
Some people, like professional videogame reviewers, are having trouble concluding whether or not "this is even a game." Others are impressed with the "creative" ways in which it tells a story, and on how it represents unexplored territory for games. I'll deal with these questions and presumptions in just a bit.
The environment is beautiful. By far, the strength of Dear Esther.
Firstly, there is validity to some of the praise Dear Esther has received. The game succeeds at setting a mood of loneliness and gloom. The player won't run into other characters during his journey across a desolate island as his only companion are pieces of occasional dialog often directed at "Esther," left behind by a well-voiced character that has traversed the environment earlier, which trigger as the player arrives at different points of interest. The writing, while often indulging in prolix speech that lessens the plausibility of the narrator's feelings of sorrow, is pleasant to listen to. As the player progresses in the game, the audio reveals details about the narrator's past and/or experiences on the island, which are intriguing at best and efficient at worst. Additionally, the environment is gorgeous and serves the purpose of giving the player a sense of place. As already stated, the island is desolate, with subtle hints of land once occupied. The music, which presents itself with the same frequency as the narrator's dialog, is expectedly effective at adding to the feeling of desolation, somberness and the infrequent discomfort. When there is no music the aural experience is supplanted by a wealth of sound effects, from waves clashing against beach rocks to wind gusts brushing against tall grass as they find refuge inside the peaceful embrace of a cave's comforting womb... ahem.
But what about interactivity?
I could almost forget to mention what the player actually does, and my description above would still provide a comprehensive summary of the player experience. Indeed, all the player does in Dear Esther is walk and look, nothing more. And it is in this utter simplicity that many are confused about what this game is, while some other players are actually overwhelmed with a feeling akin to what an eleven-year-old boy feels like when opening an issue of Playboy Magazine for the first time.
Let's address the concern that this isn't a game. As I've pointed out, the player just walks as he soaks in the environment and listens to a character speak about his background and hike on the island. While there is very little to do here, the player is still interacting with the world. The player is solving a problem, albeit a very simple problem, that of navigation. The player only has to be concerned with traversing the environment to get to the next unexplored location. However, outside of walking, there are no additional mechanics to help engage the player in navigating the environment interestingly, so the player's mind and reflexes are minimally engaged (there are a couple of short, minor swim portions, but they are almost indiscernible from walking). This detracts from the experience of exploring the island. The sense of place gained from the beautiful environment is partly lost from the lack of interaction with it.
There will be few times when the player has to choose between two roads, but this is usually an exercise in frustration. In these areas where the roads split, one of the roads will eventually lead to a dead end. There will be some environment piece to see off the beaten path, and new dialog may play, but after reaching the end of the road, the player has to slowly walk all the way back to the origin of the split. There is no run button, and once the pretty but fairly uniform environment has been carefully observed on the first trip down the road, there is nothing interesting to experience on the way back. And what if the player picks the critical path first? Well, in this case, since the game is all about walking and looking, the player's only incentive is to see as much of the narrow world as possible. The player's goal becomes to explore. So, once the player realizes that he's on the way to progress in the game, he will likely turn back to the unexplored path in case the area he's currently in becomes inaccessible later (and this is, ironically, the reaction a designer wants from the player -- that he cares enough about the world to spend the time exploring every nook and cranny). So, the player will head back, slowly, explore the dead-end road, and then slowly make his way back to the position where he originally turned back. This is an exercise in boredom and frustration.
Dear Esther is indeed an adventure game, no question about it. It is just not a very interesting one, an offshoot of the genre lacking the puzzle-solving element, thus leaving exploration as its only hook to the interactive artform. I will expand on this when I address why some reviewers have taken to the idea that this game is charting new territory, or expanding the limits of what we've experienced in games.
Now that I've established that it is a game, one that is light on interactivity but still a game nonetheless, let's address the assumption that this game is creative, and later on that this game "explores the fringes of the form."
There is very little creativity here, even on storytelling. The story is delivered through two methods: by the environment art, and by spoken dialog. Environments used as a means to give context to a story, that is, by allowing the player to observe a piece of art that reveals some history about the virtual world, have been present in adventure games for at least two decades. Even action games like the first Metal Gear Solid used the state of the environment, such as a corridor containing scattered corpses of bloodied, sliced soldiers on the floor and against the walls, to clue the player in as to the offensive capabilities and state of mind of one of the game's apparent antagonists (i.e. The culprit can single-handedly kill a bunch of armed, genetically enhanced soldiers by himself with deadly precision, and is disturbed enough to have no qualms about decorating a room with their insides in the process). Most recently, BioShock popularized the use of environments as a means to tell the story of its world, of Rapture (just look up relatively recent talks by game developers for evidence on the subject, and you'll see that even then in 2007 this method of storytelling was somehow a sort of revelation for inattentive game designers). Dear Esther, while using the environment for similar means, is actually quite restrained and subtle in this fashion, occasionally to the point of boredom. While in other games the environment can prompt the question of, "What the hell happened here?," in Esther the reaction is either, "Hm, I wonder what these symbols mean?," or "Oh, this is the exact same thing the dialog told me I would find." Yes, there will be times where the dialog will literally tell you about an object and its intended purpose in the story, and immediately afterwards the player will find said object in the world. In this case there is no story being exposed here as the dialog already revealed it. Overall, this makes for an environment that is occasionally uninteresting despite being well built and nice to look at, a big failing in a game where most of the time is spent looking at shit while walking.
Subtle environment storytelling.
As expected, of the two narrative deliveries in the game, the dialog is the most clear at communicating the story, although we have seen this method of storytelling before with, again, games like BioShock and its audio recordings, and countless games since. Essentially, there is no substance to the claim that Dear Esther provides a creative way to tell a story. Yet this claim is hardly new. Innovation is a word overused and misused in the videogame industry, so pointing out yet another example of this sad fact does not do much of anything. However, there is a bit of danger in the claim that Dear Esther is somehow pushing the boundaries of what a game is, or what it can be. It could lead junior designers, or those unfamiliar with videogames, to misunderstand them further.
Let's look at a quote that is representative of what many players are saying about Dear Esther (emphasis mine):
"It left me feeling pensive, mildly saddened, and confident that games have plenty of directions left to explore. If you’re interested in what can be achieved when you abandon the conventions of games and explore the fringes of the form instead, it’s a must-play." - Keza MacDonald, IGN UK's Games Editor
According to IGN UK's Games Editor, and others on the internet, Esther explores the fringes of the form, the edges of gaming that are unexplored. However, playing the game exposes the complete opposite of this statement. Not only does Esther not explore new territory, but in fact it simplifies what has been present in other games to the point of making Esther almost irrelevant. We've already had games that slowly expose a terrifying, somber story to us through both aural and environmental deliveries without explicitly interrupting play, but these forms of narrative are often accompanied by interesting interactions.
Let us look again at BioShock (not only is this a good example of everything Esther does and a lot more, but it's a popular one that hopefully most who read this have already experienced, and can therefore better understand what I'm saying here). After the first few minutes of play, the player arrives at a transportation station in Rapture. The player, armless, after arriving in a bathysphere, witnesses the murder of a human being by another individual at the station, the latter leaping out of view shortly afterwards in shockingly superhuman fashion, followed by his trying to break into the bathysphere from above, where the player is located. The player is likely thinking, "Why did he kill him? Why is he trying to kill me? How the hell did he jump that high? How do I survive this? Can I kill it?" The aggressor gives up for a moment, walks away out of view, and silence takes over. The player exits the bathysphere and is immediately drawn to the environment. Protest signs litter the floor of the station, all complaining about the state of Rapture, about a man named Andrew Ryan. The walls are painted with what looks like blood, screaming messages of despair and doom. Numerous pieces of luggage share the floor along with the signs of mass displeasure "Who is this Andrew Ryan? What happened here? What is this place? Were people trying to flee, and why?," the player is likely to question. The player is also likely traversing the environment very slowly, very aware, very engaged, for somewhere nearby there's a murderous psycho, and the player has no weapons to defend himself.
This sequence alone, in addition to the previous sequence of the player swimming past a burning fire as a result of a plane crash, and a walk through a visually pleasant trip to the bathysphere, essentially provide nearly the same level of interaction and environmental storytelling as Esther. Later in the game, as the player picks up and listens to the recordings of the people responsible for the fall of Rapture, and its victims, the player is essentially exposed to the same form of aural narrative as in Esther. So, a game like BioShock, and others already do everything Esther does. There is only one exception. In BioShock, the player has to interact with the dangers of this world, and at times be consumed by them, and for this to occur the story has to take the occasional backseat. In Esther, the player is merely a passive observant and listener to someone else's more interesting tale of tragedy and adventure. Indeed, this game does not present unexplored territory, but rather simplifies territory that has already been explored plenty of times before. The only difference is that it simplifies player interactivity and player engagement to the point of uselessness.
Now, I can already see some of you thinking, "But Jack, the lack of interactivity is what allows me to feel the sense of solitude this game provides. It allows me to absorb the tragic story without distractions! It is necessary for the experience."
Ah, and this is where we get to the crux of all this. Indeed, ignoring its flaws, the main difference between Esther and most other games that do everything this game does lies in its lack of interaction. Essentially, it simplifies what is the defining trait of the artform to enhance the strengths of other artforms, in the case of Esther the strengths, primarily, of film (visual storytelling). For film allows the viewer to simply watch, to observe and absorb the entirety of its story. Videogames, the highest artform, can therefore include all other artforms, including film (cutscenes), and it's this innate trait of videogames that can lead some to focus on these other forms, since after all, they have been heavily realized through history and are therefore easy to create for. Esther has not chosen the road less traveled, but instead has chosen the clearly defined and explored road of film-making, and merely repackaged it as a videogame.
The island is a movie set. Books are painted on the foam rocks.
In other words, if player control is replaced for a scripted camera, the experience of Esther would be at best better, and at worst unchanged from the original game. "Better" because the player does not need to traverse terrain he has already explored slowly, as camera editing can remove these boring, uninteresting portions. "Unchanged," because the action of walking in the game, of navigating, is meaningless. The player is merely an observant, a watcher. There is nothing significant lost if the player loses interactivity. There is no loss to the experience.
Following this hypothetical scenario, that of the player losing control in place of a scripted camera, that is, a camera built to traverse the environment in first-person view in the most interesting, carefully paced way possible, then what would Esther become if not a film? Because you see, what separates Esther from film is merely the nigh-pointlessness of player-controlled walking and looking. If we were to stack all artforms on top of each other, with videogames at the top, Dear Esther would be so far down the bottom of the videogame barrel that a simple flick of the finger would cause it to lose its feeble grip on videogames and drop down into the land of independent films.
We don't live in a videogame bubble. We aren't just exposed to videogames. We are exposed to different forms of entertainment at all times, and for most of us, these are readily available to us for our pleasure: audio books, books, movies, television shows, radio shows, theater, etc. We have felt the strength of other artforms affect us deeply in ways Esther tries to emulate. If you want the feeling of solitude that Dear Esther intends to provide, and you want it done right, successfully and everlasting, there is a very good chance a more powerful work at delivering this experience is readily available to you in a good film, or in a good book. The tools of the artform in the hands of talented and experienced directors, writers and actors will guarantee that your journey is never tampered by distractions. Your strings will be pulled just so at the right times, and your mind will be engaged when it needs to be, and you will come away with an experience that will last for a lifetime. In videogames the player is in control. If a game developer intends to evoke a certain emotion in the player, and they find themselves limiting player control more and more to the point of meaninglessness in order to maintain the successful delivery of such an emotion, then they're creating their work in the wrong artform, and wasting theirs and everyone else's time.
It's still a fucking beautiful game to look at.