Dear Esther

Dear Esther,

There are some games that make you want to kick back and have a drink after you’ve finished, and then there’s some games that just make you want to drink.

Which one is this?  We’ll find out.

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Dear Esther is made by The Chinese Room, also known for working on Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and partnering to work with Santa Monica Studio to make Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.  This last one surprised me; I quite enjoyed Everybody’s Gone and plan on replaying it as I see it as a game with much to explore and offer, as well as having very likable characters, a mysterious but cohesive plot, and gorgeous scenery.  But back to the first experiment of TCR’s.

Dear Esther, piggybacking a bit off of what I talked about in Submerged, was originally a Half Life 2 PC mod.  It was generally well-liked and received, although there were many bugs reported, such as glitches in moving around the terrain (being stuck on items, having the game lag or freeze, and poor level design with an incredibly barren landscape).  Upon wanting to make a remastered version, the University this British game studio had relied upon for funding for the first mod refused them funding for the remaster.  In another tactic, they turned to the Indie Fund for help, and were able to pay the company back in the first few hours after the game’s initial remastered release on Steam in 2012.  As recently as last year, it made its way to the current-gen consoles, both on PS4 and XBox One.  It’s here where I found it and went, huh, well, let’s give it a shot.

First off, the graphics are gorgeous.  It’s stunning what they were able to push the many engines they ended up porting the games through.  The final product, I believe, is used on Unity, which is pretty common among the indie developing scene.

That being said, I have a mantra: “Good graphics do not a good game make.”  My favorite game of all time is Sonic Adventure 2, and man, dose polygons.  The graphics on Final Fantasy XIII were outright gorgeous and breathtaking, and I hated the game more and more with each passing minute.  Just because it looks nice doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good game.  But that’s one good point in its corner, especially because Dear Esther is meant to be an incredibly immersive experience.

You find out very, very quickly, that this is a walking simulator.  Meaning that this involves literally nothing but walking.  You cannot interact with objects.  You can’t sprint.  You can’t crouch.  You can do nothing but either hold the “W” key on your keyboard or forward on the joystick.  Now this doesn’t inherently make it bad; I’ve heard a lot of griping that “walking simulators aren’t games.”  I personally disagree and happened to love Everbody’s Gone to the Rapture, which is another walking simulator of sort.  But at least you can sprint in that one.

The second thing you’ll notice is that the narrator has a very nice voice.  This is Nigel Carrington, and honestly, he hasn’t been in enough work.  The only other game he’s done voice work for is the XBox 360 game Heavenly Sword.  His voice acting is very well done, and I’d like to see him in future works.

The third thing you’ll notice is that the island you’re on is very, very eerie.  The game starts out with fantastic setting and tone; a drab island, waves crashing on the shore, and the protagonist, credited as the Lost Man, saying, “Dear Esther,” and continuing to monologue from there.  I hope you get used to that.

From there, your goal is to explore the island and make your way down the rather winding, convoluted path to your end goal.  The game is meant to be an experience.  Many people consider it a gorgeous work of art open to much interpretation.  Which, I will give the developers, they were clever in some degrees with their atmosphere.  But what a lot of people find to be a gorgeous and moving experience wore on me very quickly to the point where I can’t believe this is actually a paid product, and that the company actually expects you to play it more than once (more on that later).

First, while the graphics are gorgeous, the landscape can be… well, too drab.  Just because your story is depressing or scary doesn’t mean the overall tone has to be.  It’s tricky, but it is possible; there’s an excellent horror point-and-click called A Date in the Park that excels in making horror very possible on a bright, sunny day.  Drabness of new-gen game criticisms aside, however, I do wonder exactly how buggy the original mod was, because the “fixed” mechanics are barely fixed at all.  I found myself oftentimes getting stuck on the tiniest edge of a rock or being unable to emerge from the water, stuck there until I reloaded or drowned, depending on what part of the game I was in (yes, really, and more on that later too).  The shipwreck near the beginning is the easiest place to get caught; the game obviously wants you to explore, so as you plod down to the shipwreck to investigate this gorgeous beauty, you find your immersion broken as the Lost Man apparently jumps off of small wooden planks only to get caught on the edge of a crate.  It can make getting out of that area a nightmare.  I felt like I was playing a beta.

By this point, you’ve heard the Lost Man chat for quite a bit and wax poetic, and here’s where my immersion also breaks.  I love a good story.  I love good writing.  I don’t, however, feel that a player should have a dictionary open on their phone or sitting next to them while they play so they can look up the definition of a word.  The writing has often been criticized for being incredible purple and flowery, and I agree wholeheartedly to the point where I think it defines purple prose.  Half of what is said doesn’t need to be said.  The character is speaking because he likes to hear himself speak, or rather, the writers are trying to convince us of how intelligent they are.

I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat without a bottom; I will fly to the moon in it.  I have been folded along a crease in time, a weakness in the sheet of life.  Now, you’ve settled on the opposite side of the paper to me; I can see your traces in the ink that soaks through the fibre, the pulped vegetation.  When we become waterlogged, and the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle.  When this paper aeroplane leaves the cliff edge, and carves parallel vapour trails in the dark, we will come together.

While above passage has undeniably beautiful writing and imagery, it is absolutely not necessary to the plot of our story whatsoever.  The game is full of these moments, which you — and I am not kidding — randomly unlock.  Whether the Lost Man will say a certain piece of dialogue or not is randomly triggered by your playthrough, which is supposed to encourage you to play again, so you can hear him wax even more poetry.  Which is what this is akin to; visual poetry.  And that’s not a bad thing.  But there is such a thing as overexposure; either tell us these things through the gorgeous visuals, or through the narrative, but not both.

Instead of a beautifully written passage, this combined with all of the other experiences seems to simply scream loudly and beg to be interpreted as art.  Which was the point of the game; The Chinese Room wanted to do more than tell a story; they wanted to provoke discussion of emotion, and in doing so have also placed chemistry symbols across the island, haphazardly painted in an odd, bioluminescent white.  We have an unreliable narrator that mentions at least four characters, if not more: Esther, Paul, Jacobson, and Donnelly, as well as mentioning random unnamed People that surely existed.  And that’s an ambitious goal for The Chinese Room to have, but they failed on that aspect, in my opinion.  Hundreds of other people would disagree with me, but if it’s meant to provoke discussion, then you’re also going to have some naysayers like myself who don’t understand the point of beating around the bush and attempting to make ART when instead of touching upon characterization or making us feel things for the characters, rather than comparing yourself to an island and the caves to your guts, and the rocks to your kidney stones.  It gets really old, really fast.

There’s actually a quote early on in the game that I feel summarizes it very well:

If the subject matter is obscure, the writer’s literary style is even more so, it is not the text of a stable or trustworthy reporter.

And while I am all for unreliable narrators — I thrive on that shit — I am not for unreliable authors.  There is a difference between using a character to share your opinions, and have them be their own entity, and simply using a character as a puppet or a mouthpiece through which you can spew your philosophy, and I see this experience as just that.  We are a separate entity from the story that’s being told, from the discussion that’s attempting to be provoked.  Instead of partaking in a story of loss — which it undoubtedly is, the Lost Man attempting to come to grips with Esther’s death in a car crash — it is instead an experiment in flowery philosophy begging to be thought-provoking as it pulls us along the island on rails.

As I mentioned before, the game attempts more thought-provoking discussions about ART by inserting chemical compounds, which, upon doing a quick Google, some people have revealed to be symbols for alcohol, symbolizing the fact Esther died in a drunk driving accident, dopamine, ranitidine, and a formula that has the Hebrew letters Aleph Kalph, which can be translated into the number 21, which was arbitrarily picked for symbolism in this game.  I’m serious.  There’s a list.  This, I will say, is actually pretty clever of the game and makes you put your brainbox to work in ways that aren’t trying to wrap it around the latest bit of nonsense the Lost Man has been spouting at you.

There are also biblical references hinted at within the first chapter, but are then thrown at you full-force, non-stop in the final chapter, referencing Paul not only as the character, but the Biblical figure Paul and continuing to hammer the idea of Damascus home.  For my fellow uneducated heathens out there (hey, I wasn’t baptized, I’m sorry), the “Road to Damascus” often refers to the turning point in one’s life.  It stems from a passage in the Bible where Saul converted to Christianity, where he is therein known as Paul.  The turning point obviously being the car crash that ended Esther’s life, but why the driver the Lost Man crashed with is named and given parallels to an apostle is beyond me, and honestly, I don’t care to theorize.  There are many other people who genuinely enjoy this game that you can find theories from; if you’re interested, I do actively encourage you to go find them.  My opinion needn’t be yours.

Purple prose aside, there are many other immersion-breaking instances within the game which have to do with the mechanics, or certain instances.  The first I’d like to point out happens near the end of Chapter Two, The Buoy.  You walk down a hill, and abruptly, the Lost Man speaks up:

Climbing down to the caves I slipped and fell and have injured my leg.  I think the femur is broken.  It is clearly infected: the skin has turned a bright, tight pink and the pain is crashing in on waves, winter tides against my shoreline, drowning out the ache of my stones.

I have a couple of friends in the medical field, one of whom is practically a walking textbook herself, and the other who is a neurosurgeon-in-training.  Whenever I have a medical question, pertain it to fact or fiction, I go to one of my many resources (these two being only two of them).  When I played this part for my friend, she immediately responded with: “I have a question.  How do you know it’s infected?  If it’s a bright, tight pink that could mean inflammation.  Infection doesn’t happen right away, and infection is usually green, yellow, and filled with pus.”

If you’re rolling my eyes at our nitpicking here, then I’ll explain it easier: There is zero indication in game that the Lost Man fell and hurt himself.  You literally walk down a slope and he suddenly speaks up, telling you that this happened.  The camera didn’t pitch forward, you didn’t slide to indicate any kind of injury.  You walk to the bottom of a somewhat rocky hill, and suddenly he calmly tells you his leg is broken.

Despite this, you continue to jump down holes, swim through water, climb steep hills, and scale a long ladder, the excuse being that he has enough painkillers.  This blew my mind so hard it immediately shocked me out of the game and exasperated me.  You do not move with a limp; you simply have the same, slow shamble as ever.  There are no staggering footsteps, no labored breathing, no hisses of pain.  Just the normal pace throughout the game (which is the game slapping your hand and telling you to appreciate it for a work of art instead of realism, which is where I think the strongest disconnect is).

Let me take a moment and tell you that the music for this game is downright gorgeous.  The soundtrack is absolutely worth buying and supporting independent musician Jessica Curry.  It’s available on most music platforms such as iTunes and Amazon.  This problem is more with sound design than the actual music itself; at times, the music completely overrides the dialogue and makes the Lost Man difficult to hear over the swelling of violins.  While I find this a blessing, I also found it rather immersion-breaking because the thought of “hey, wait, where did the nice sounding voice go” flashed across my mind and brought me back to my chair.  This is a small design flaw, but it’s something that could have very easily been noticed in playtesting and patched.

The game itself, when it has mechanics, has inconsistent ones.  I am finally going to address the swimming mechanic, as well as one other.

You can indeed swim in this game, as I’ve mentioned before, since I mentioned it leads to potential glitches.  Here is where the inconsistency lies: In Chapters One, Two, and Four, you can walk into the ocean and drown if you stay submerged long enough.  In Chapter Three, The Caves, however, it’s as if the Lost Man suddenly grew gills.  You can stay underwater indefinitely.  Trust me.  I tested it.  I was again flabbergasted; I had accidentally drowned when checking something out along the shore in the first chapter, so when I came to a spot in the third chapter where I had to submerge myself for long periods, I didn’t think it was the proper way to go, because I would obviously drown.

For another flawed mechanic, there is a pit in Chapter One that you come across that can be a bit easy to fall into.  It’s huge.  You cannot miss the damn thing, and oftentimes you don’t, hopping in just out of pure curiosity, or you don’t stop walking in time.  Obviously, you die.  There are three other occasions in the game, however, where you have to take a just as high, if not higher, a plunge, and you survive intact.  Not to mention the end of the game.

The swimming and falling are basic mechanics, that in the first chapters, taught us as players that we cannot submerge ourselves in water for extended periods or go around jumping in pits.  Later it redacts that for plots’ sake.  That is simply bad design.  It’s a game’s job to teach you the mechanics of it and stick with it, not change it without alerting you.  Generally, if you are able to do something you were unable to do before in a game, you gain an ability or something physically changes the character to allow them to do so.  Here, it was simply Programmer’s Will, and that is incredibly sloppy.

I honestly wouldn’t have so many problems with this game were it an experimental mod.  I do praise it for trying new things, for its atmosphere, and for the few things it does do correctly:

There is a part that legitimately scared the shit out of me.  I was walking across an expanse lit with candles (Who lit them?  How did they not burn out?  How did the person get there if it involved going through an intricate cave system in which you have to jump off a waterfall and swim through a long channel?   How did they lug all the damn paint there?  AAARGH), when something caught my eye, and I looked up.  Not the Lost Man, me.

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See it?  I don’t blame you if you don’t.  Here.

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There is a shadowy, human figure standing atop that ledge.  I will give Dear Esther this: my blood froze.  It scared the bajesus out of me.  Apparently I had been missing these phantoms the entire time, as they can be seen as early on as the beginning of Chapter One.  It’s a very nice, very subtle touch that actually adds tension.  I was afraid to go up there.  I didn’t know what it was or what it wanted.  They simply vanish when you get close to them, but I had no idea at the time.  It scared me, and I still love remembering that moment because that was a design of a good moment in for what was, briefly again, enjoyable to me.

There’s another scene close to this where the Lost Man talks about how he took all his letters to Esther and made them into paper boats, setting them out to sea and watching them sink or float, since he knew the letters would never reach her in death.  While this was a great image and some great writing, I actually felt that we would have felt the impact more if it had actually been shown in a way the game wouldn’t allow.  That would be an incredibly powerful scene in a movie, for instance.  So I will absolutely give the game credit for attempting to transcend (and sometimes succeeding in transcending) boundaries of standard gaming.

I would still be exasperated, but not nearly.  Why?  This retails across the board for $9.99.  It takes less than an hour to beat.

I felt cheated of my money.  I don’t always gauge games by how long I’ve played them versus the cost of them, but rather my experience with the game, or if I’ll replay it.  I spent enough time in Submerged that I was content enough with spending my twenty bucks and moving on with my life, but ten dollars for a one time, one hour experience is just ridiculous.

“But there’s an achievement/trophy to get all the dialogue so you have to replay the game to get more dialogue to get the trophy!”

Hell I will. I deleted that game off my PS4.  It took up space since I was never going to play it again.  Dear Esther plays as a one-time experience, therefore I find it absolutely ludicrous to expect your players to go through it multiple times.  An experience is impactful when you go through it once, or once in a great while, not on repeat.  By this very action, they are contradicting the game’s original purpose, which was to be an emotional, discussion-evoking experience.

Here’s something hilarious, though: The Chinese Room is pretty peeved with Microsoft for their return policy.  Why?  The Microsoft return policy lets you return a game you bought digitally if you didn’t enjoy it, so long as your play time is under two hours.  The Chinese Room has been fighting this since they are losing money on Dear Esther, despite having just re-released a 10-year anniversary version this year from the original mod.  I find that all pretty amusing, and ironic.

This really is an arbitrary experience.  There are so many people who agree with me, and even more who think I would have no enjoyment or appreciation, or attention span.  It’s something that has to be tried for yourself to appreciate or not appreciate.  And if you do, honestly?  Power to you.  I completely believe everyone has a right to enjoy what they do so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.  This just hurt me, because it took me back to going through my Creative Writing degree and listening to some students write prose that The Chinese Room would salivate at.

If you’ve got an XBox One or Steam and you think you might enjoy this, give it a shot.  There’s a lot about the plot I didn’t cover because it’s something that defies words, as wordy as it is. At least that way if you don’t like it you can refund it.

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