Wednesday, 15 February 2012

This game was Made For Me: Dear Esther

Dear Reader,

It's hard to talk about Dear Esther, surprisingly. The game, once a mod for Half Life 2 and now a full-fledged indie production, has received critical acclaim, and has proven a financial success so soon after its release. Indeed, I bought it mere minutes after it was released on Steam. I sat waiting with my tantalized memory... the aged visions of the last and frayed teasers of the new, intermingling in my mind as a vision of what was to come.

I am a man in love, and thus a release on the day of that was going to take second place. I spent the evening with the woman I love and I saw a fantastic, good old-fashioned ghost film. Though I had spent the day up till the purchase and download of Dear Esther, waiting for it to unlock, once I had it I knew I need only wait till the night.

With my love heading off home and myself sitting alone in my room, I turned off the lights and the volume suitably high. I sat in darkness, waiting, as the screen loaded. The room seemed so much louder, the whirr of the fan of my laptop amplified in my ears. Yet the game did load, and I found myself soon, standing on the edge of an island.

What elements, specifically, appeal to me, in Dear Esther? I can probably list the facts, as they are all important. I have forever been obsessed with islands as locations, both due to their often lush and elaborate locals, and due to my love of Myst that was so deeply ingrained accidentally by my grandfather. And even were it not an island, the rampant beauty of nature, juxtaposed against the abandoned remnants of man, pull out an emotional side of me. History is in the place, as is life.

The narration is lovely. In an age where most of our first-person experiences have protagonists who snark, sleuth, or spit, it stands out all the more when a man simply rambles in his lost consciousness, monologues and letters spoken with more flowery prose than I could hope to create. Perhaps it is the theater enthusiast in me, but some of the speeches in this game... even a single, cracked and croaked out line of despair... are the most touching narration I've heard in a game.

The music is the definition of atmospheric. It brings every ounce of emotion to the scene, accompanying the dialogue in perfect precision. Mostly. A common complaint is that the music is too sparse, which I both agree and disagree with. There are parts where the music cuts out entirely, where it just feels empty and strange. However at other parts, the silence is necessary. It makes you feel alone, and stranded. I think the lack of music wasn't so much the problem, as much as one of transition; the music should've faded in and out more, lulling you in and out of emotion.

The graphics of this game are stunning. They do not wow you with explosions, or collapsing towers, or any of the other flashy shows which have begun to compose modern "quality" in game graphics. They are simply beautifully crafted, where every scene offers a thousand good angles. There are many points in the game where I simply stopped and looked. Were one interested in the realms of video game photography, this would be a good place to start practice.

Moving through the caves, I came to a series of water falls. Pouring across the rocks into a pool below, I could do naught but gasp at the brilliance. A game, I am playing, but this render of stone and water has caught my breath. I can do nothing but stare as I absorb it, wondering how such marvel can be grasped by mine eyes.

The story is not the focus. It may seem like it, and indeed you find yourself putting clues together, but once you know, the game is not over. This is a game about emotion. This is a game about feeling. You need not fully understand the story, or keep track of who is who, as that is of little importance. The point of this game is to feel, and feel inside the head of a man lost and alone.

I don't know if it's just a personal problem of mine, but I'm absolutely terrified of drowning in video games. Dear Esther takes advantage of one's fear of the deep, several times. The game takes place on a dark island, and it is quite possible for one to sink under the water surrounding it. Several beaches lead off into the water, allowing deep submersion if you merely keep walking. Falling below the water dumps you in pure darkness, only accompanied by shadowy visions of your past. It's dark and unnerving, the sound of the water filling your ears.

And sometimes you are even driven to dip into the water, trying not to drown in the dark murk. However inside the caves, where luminescent fungus and mould cover the walls, you can see clearly in the water, there pure. The harsh difference between these two realities makes the water so inviting in the caves, yet makes it all the more terrifying when you get back out into the moonlit surface.

The game is emotionally manipulative, I suppose you could say, but that's the point. That's how it immerses you in the mind of this man. Personally, I think it's brilliant, and felt more playing this game than in most games I've played; even those touting their stories and emotive content.

Yet despite all this praise, despite how much I love it, I cannot recommend it to everyone. To every critic, and every developer who wants to understand the possibilites of the medium, of course. This is the sort of game that parallels the subject matter of Film Studies courses. But there are definite flaws which make the experience less enjoyable to those who are searching for more of an outright game.

This version has even less interaction in it than the mod. Half Life 2 gave you the ability to pick up most small objects, which did little to change the story, but lots to immerse you in the environment. Were we able to pick up the little paper boats scattered in the water in this game, it may not help us read the folded pages any better, but it would help us feel like the reality were more real.

The ability to jump has also been removed. A very strange change, considering that this game doesn't let you die. I fell from a cliff once, and before I hit the ground the screen faded, the game asked "Come back to me..." and I was returned to the precipice I had fallen from. I don't really see why it was removed, as again it would allow more immersive movement in the game. Likewise the ability to crouch has been automated, for cave sections where it's predefined. These sort of things streamline the experience, I guess, but they remove the sort of dirty interaction which often can immerse us in these sort of environments.

Likewise the ending of the game pulls all control away from you. I'd like to avoid spoilers, but effectively you are put in a situation of complete despair, with only one possible way out. But instead of letting you walk the way yourself, climb on your own, and make the decision yourself, you lose all control as the game makes the motions for you. The ending is still emotional, and effective, but not as much as if the player had been forced to do it themselves, instead of the game doing it for you.

People looking for a deep story won't really be pleased. It's a simple one, just immensely obscured. Really, this is a type of game that is immensely niche, which is why it's surprising it has already become profitable.

Though really, that just makes me happy, more than anything. For all its faults, Dear Esther is a game that felt completely worth it to me. I am glad I paid the ten dollars that I did.

When the game ended, I was plunged into the dark. Only a black screen did greet me as I sat in contemplation. My heart was beating, and it beat along the path that a man had walked round an island. No words came to the screen, I was not brought back to a menu, and the game merely sat in darkness. I knew that was the end, as no more fitting an end could come. All I was left with was my feelings, as they dripped through my veins and pooled in the pit of my heart.

Esther, I'm sorry he never came back to you.

Dear Esther is not a game I recommend to everyone, but it is a game I absolutely adore. It has taken the place as one of my new favorite games, if not experiences. I would recommend it to anyone who really plays games in search of something to feel.

Washed up upon this lonely shore, I write to tell you of a man, who wrote to tell you of men before him. If my message swims in with the tide, I hope it is a blessing that leads you to a land of treasure, and no mere trash to clog your drain. Beauty as I have seen surely belongs in this world, and though all may not appreciate it, it is forever burned into my mind.


In love.

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