Click on any headline to view the full article...

Dear Esther

There must be a hole in the bottom of the boat. How else would new hermits have arrived?

Jeremy Levett reviews the computer game Dear Esther (2008), with Helpful Footnotes for those of us who still aren't quite sure what a computer game is...

There is some furore over whether a computer game can ever constitute “art”. I’m not really interested in the debate (a sort of Punch and Judy “Oh no they aren’t!” “Oh yes they are” back-and-forth between old people who don’t understand what computer games are exactly but feel vaguely threatened by them and young people who spend far too much of their lives playing games and need validation for it, and anyway “art” is such a vague and disputed term as to be totally meaningless. But if I thought I knew what art was, and I needed a game to wave at the naysayers that would make them shut up, sit down and possibly shiver, my first choice would be Dear Esther.

Not that it’s exactly a representative sample. Beyond the most basic information (a first-person, single-player mod for the Source engine,* created by University of Portsmouth researchers) Dear Esther is infuriatingly difficult to define; what is it? An interactive audiobook with visual cues? A first person ghost story? “Redefines how we think of games” is a line that’s been misused so much it’s now just another part of the stupid marketing buzz-phrase lexicon, to be smeared at random over the boxes of the next FPS summer blockbuster, but in this case it actually applies. The controls are those of a shooter, but there are no guns, no enemies, nobody but you and a few gulls. Player participation is minimal, but essential. The entire story is given by disembodied narration and visual cues, uncovered as you wander a barren Hebridean island.

And a strange story it is. The game is the very model of an unreliable narrator; most of the audio triggers** have more than one piece of relevant narration, each one choosing at random from a handful of voice clips. Here the game’s writing really shines; even with different narration each time, it is consistent. The story is abstract, open to interpretation, but strangely satisfying; certain turns of phrase repeated in different contexts stand out, and these broad, sometimes overlapping brushstrokes gradually make up a strange but beautiful picture. By the end of the game you will have, if not a complete story, a wonderfully constructed, interlocking piece of lucid madness.

Sound is a powerful medium, and Dear Esther uses it to its fullest. The narration (which would be of remarkable quality for a commercial game, let alone a free mod put together by university researchers) is brilliantly written, brilliantly performed and accompanied by haunting music. The atmosphere it creates has you leaping at shadows or passing gulls. It helps that I’ve been playing with FPS controls so long they’ve become instinctive, but a particularly intense moment had me finding a corner in the rocks and hiding in it, crouching to make myself as small as possible. The greatest challenge of games is eliciting an emotional response from their players. This game literally made me run and hide. That is immersion.

It is far from perfect. The game design is very “My First HL2 Mod”, scattered with invisible walls and unnecessary physics objects. The navigation is at times opaque and directionless, a particular flaw in a linear game, and between the widely spaced audio cues and the sluggish walking speed, the pace is excruciatingly slow (never have I played a game which made me quite so aware of my own footsteps.) The graphics are plain and functional. All these drawbacks are especially pronounced in the earlier stages. I’ve read some comments that wonder if this is intentional – to emphasise the difficulty in beginning any journey worth taking – but it strikes me as just cheap, mediocre level design, by people focusing on more important aspects. In any case, it gets better and better as you progress through the game.  A rework of the game is currently in progress, aiming to remedy the pacing and navigation issues, as well as adding some of the most amazing graphics ever seen in the Source engine. It’s due for release sometime in late 2010, though as a free release being made entirely in someone else’s spare time, it might take a while longer.

I’m not sure whether to say “wait for the rework, because it looks like perfection” or “play this game now, because you have to.”

* For any non-techy types who might be reading, the “engine” is the essential bit of software on which a game is built. Think of it as the skeleton of the game, giving basic functionality, with everything the player actually sees – graphics, textures, level design, audio and so on - the flesh and blood. Source is a game engine made by Valve Software, which is used in a tremendous number of homemade mods and games.

** Points at which the game detects you have arrived and plays a relevant piece of narration or runs a scripted sequence. Imagine an invisible line; crossing it makes a voice clip play.

Dear Esther is a free mod which can be downloaded here. It requires Half-Life 2, which is worth your time anyway, being one of the greatest games ever made.

EDIT (August 2012) A version of Dear Esther is now available for Mac. PR


Adam said...

A friend of mine played this and loved it. I had it downloaded and ready to run, at which point he screamed "STOP! Wait for the remake!"

I expect non-gamers should do the same.

Thysane said...

I played this mod a while ago when it was mentioned by one of the writers for Rock Paper Shotgun. They usually give good recommendations so I took a gander. Needless to say, it was definitely very different to anything I'd played before. One of the few games to really scare me in a way that wasn't related to health or ammunition.

I remember thinking I had seen someone else on the island and almost jumping out of my skin. It may be slow, but it is incredibly intense to play through in one sitting.

Post a Comment