Dear Esther

TL;DR Review

Listen to the music, but skip the game.

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Cover image from the Steam Store

Review

I added Dear Esther to my to-play list after hearing about it in passing on an Idea Channel episode. Mike spoke the name with a overtone of rapture and I knew I wanted to experience the same story.

I did not experience the joy that Mike did. Instead, I felt the opposite. I did not enjoy the game much at all.

A lot of people would have trouble accepting this as a game review because they do not consider Dear Esther a game. There’s no combat, no character interaction, no environmental conflict, and very little in the way of exploration. It’s a walking simulator, pure and simple. I can see the argument against calling Dear Esther a game, but I’m not interested in arguing semantics. For lack of a better term for this kind of interactive experience, I’m calling it a game.

A really boring game.

screenshot from wired.co.uk

Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the idea of a walking simulator. If I can get lost in a world, I don’t much care about action and adventure. I spend most of my time in games exploring the environment, even if it’s not rewarded, simply because I find a lot of pleasure in that. And Dear Esther‘s environment is quite beautiful. I wanted to walk around and explore it because I found it stunning, but didn’t want to stray from the path because my walking speed was roughly that of a slug. My walking speed was so frustratingly slow that I actually found myself hesitating to explore bits of the island that I normally would have gone into. The character’s methodical plodding was mind-numbing and sucked every bit of exploration fun out of the game. And God forbid you make a wrong turn and run into a dead end. Then you’re stuck crawling back the way you came.

When you finally make it to wherever it is you’re trying to go, a voiceover activates, reading a letter to Esther. These voiceovers are the only true interaction of the game, the only way to get to the story, and they’re pretentious as all get-out. Each letter is dripping with purple prose that feels like masturbatory free-writing — not an invitation to a deeper story. I love beautiful language, and language for its own sake can be wonderful, but language for its own sake that pretends to be something it’s not? That’s another story.

But I will say this: The game is beautiful. The island you do your slow walking and pretentious talking on is stunning. Making your way through the game feels like making your way through a piece of art. The environment is lovingly crafted, and if I hadn’t been so distracted by the fact that I was barely moving, I would have really loved it.

image from forbes.com

The soundtrack is another killer aspect of the game. I’ve been listening to it at work for a little background noise and love it. It’s a smidge melancholy for constant listening, but it’s lovely all the same. Honestly, I kind of wish I’d just bought the soundtrack instead of the game. Unlike the Undertale sountrack, the Dear Esther soundtrack doesn’t bring back any memories or strong emotions felt during the game, because there weren’t any. It would probably be just as enjoyable if I’d never played the game.

So, do I recommend Dear Esther? No. Check out the soundtrack and look at some screenshots, but spend an and a half doing something more enjoyable with your time.

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