Dear Esther review

Dear Esther review

You can read this review in full in our print edition.

Our February issue includes a Post Script interview with Dan Pinchbeck and Rob Briscoe, the designer and artist behind Dear Esther.

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Classic ghost stories are known as much for their illustrations as their prose. This must make Rob Briscoe, a 3D environment artist perhaps best known for his work on Mirror’s Edge, the Harry Clarke to Dr Dan Pinchbeck’s Edgar Allen Poe. And it’s Briscoe’s interpretation of Dear Esther that will lure people into Pinchbeck’s experimental adventure title in 2012, reopening a debate on interactive fiction that the game first became part of in 2008.

It’s not an illustrator’s job to change or even influence the writing on the page, and the same principle holds for Briscoe’s work, which overlays the structure, language and intentions of Dear Esther. And like its author, who lectures at the University of Portsmouth, Dear Esther still doesn’t pretend to have the answers to its questions, only theories. As such, it retains its freedom to explore a whole lot more than just a vandalised island in the Hebrides, which in turn frees up players to respond only to what they find there, rather than what they don’t.

What you won’t find in Dear Esther, then, is anything that might stop you taking it seriously. Were it not for your tendency to ‘drown’ in a very dreamlike way when you wander off limits, your role would seem as if it were entirely ethereal. There are no interactions that might warrant a crosshair; there’s no threat requiring a HUD. Press E to do nothing. Tap space to stand still. Click to make your mouse make a clicking sound. Piece by piece it makes you forget what you’ve learned about games, and reminds you of a time when genres were still young. And after four chapters that last just a couple of hours, the experience leaves you with two questions that will stay with you for a long time: what is a game, and why do I play?

Dear Esther tells its story through a series of letters, delivered via voiceover, which are triggered as you follow a thinly disguised linear path in and around the island. They tell of the narrator’s struggle to cope with the loss of his wife, killed – “rendered opaque”, in his words – by a drunk driver. His search for closure has decorated the island with shrines and symbols, much in the style of Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory. His thoughts are as broken as the narrative, which is delivered with passion by actor Nigel Carrington.

All of this and more is discovered at a fixed, glacial pace, which defies the player’s urge to run between points of interest; shift is just another of those unresponsive buttons. Your rate throughout is that of a person clambering over stones and driftwood (and some unnaturally smooth collision maps). This gives you plenty of time to mull over the game’s intentions if you somehow get lost – which is usually as a result of expecting something ‘gamey’ to happen. There are many switchbacks on this island and no real destinations, making Dear Esther a kind of exhibit.

So is it right to even call this a game? If the answer were obvious one way or the other, there’d be little point in playing it. A long walk up a straight path towards an open doorway and then beyond it might seem like something that needs no input and offers no agency, calling its interaction into question. But the mere fact that it is interactive gives it energy, especially when you consider the grim foreboding that hangs over every step. The narrator’s considered words are often tremulously delivered, leaving you unsure what, if any, psychic monsters might suddenly catapult you into the realms of more typical games.

Indeed, whether there’s enough of a ‘game’ here is for players to decide, but Dear Esther is building upon the promontory of more mainstream efforts that have come before it. PC gamers suffered perhaps the stiffest gut-punch of a generation this winter, learning of the troubles and potential demise of Stalker 2, and its developer, GSC, but Pinchbeck is mesmerised by that series’ world. Dear Esther comes from much the same place and channels the same kind of power.

Briscoe’s beautiful remake amplifies that power tenfold. If you’re familiar with the Source engine or its games, then screenshots of his progress will have themselves seemed supernatural. The finished article looks nearly perfect from every angle, even if that’s because it has very few angles to worry about. There’s a Myst-like exactness to every sight, be it an impossibly resplendent cave or a house on a hill that’s picked out by a single crepuscular ray. A pall afflicts the outdoor scenes that only Stalker has got right up to now. It’s said that when you’re looking across the real-life Hebridean hills, you’re looking at some of the oldest rock in the world. When they’re not telling you stories through bizarre graffiti – of the road to Damascus and the science of car braking systems, for instance – the coastal views in Dear Esther will make you believe it. In a game that only lets you move and look, expect to do plenty of stopping. And as beautiful as the game is to behold, it’d be remiss not to mention Jessica Curry’s atmospheric soundtrack, too.

So, what is Dear Esther? It might not be game enough for some, and while labelling it as interactive fiction would bring the debate to a happy close, text adventures seem to have claimed a monopoly on the term. There’s also the unsatisfactory ‘experimental mod’ category, which would place it alongside Robert Yang’s Radiator, and The Stanley Parable. Yet some commentators might argue that Dear Esther belongs in this pigeonhole, that its reduction of the firstperson shooter to a walking tour makes for a mechanical dumbing down of a richer and more mind-taxing medium. But one thing’s for sure: thanks to this astonishing overhaul, it’s now quite impossible to ignore.

8
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