Saturday, December 8, 2012

#10: Dear Esther - Walking Simulator 2012

Dear Esther is essentially a British walking simulator. The primary gameplay mechanic is walking. Excited yet? The fun is only beginning! Wait until I get to the advanced mechanics, such as zooming in your vision slightly. 

[I'm pretty sure I picked this up for $2.50 during a sale at some point, but the truth is that I have no idea.]

I do not claim ownership of this image, but I'm using it as the box art because the "A deserted island, a lost man, memories of a fatal crash, a book written by a dying explorer" bit basically tells you everything you need to know about the "plot".
If it wasn't clear to you already, I'm being somewhat harsh on Dear Esther. That is only because this "game" is essentially a trap to anyone who buys it uninformed. In reality, there is no game.

Dear Esther is not a game. But it is a relatively successful experiment in interactive art.

It is lovingly rendered in detail in the Source engine, and has environments that vary from average to jaw-dropping gorgeous. Because all you can really do in the game is walk, look around, and listen, enjoying the environment is essential to finding any value in your purchase. Even the path you actually take is largely linear, with few ways to go the wrong direction. If you can't stop and enjoy the scenery, there is nothing left here for you.

Man, I wonder if I need to end up at the blinking aerial tower. They only mentioned it, like, right away.
Throughout the game, your character narrates snippets of letters, descriptions of life experiences, and reflections on the past in a British accent (I couldn't shake the feeling that I was playing as the protagonist from Amnesia: The Dark Descent). Generally these have something to do with your location. These can sometimes be cryptic or unhelpful, particularly toward the beginning, but they begin to come together to form a more cohesive story by the end. There are essentially four major plot items as noted by the first image: a deserted island, a lost man (you), memories of a fatal crash, and a book written by a dying explorer (that your character appears to be citing sometimes). There's more depth to it than that, more shades and hues of flavor and suggestion behind the story, but that's up to your individual interpretation. I switched out of being an English Literature major for a reason; I'm not going to be doing any deep symbolic postmodern feminist deconstructionist analysis here for you, thank you very much.

This guy speaks in thick prose because he's British, and all British people speak in thick prose.

Here's the honest truth: I didn't enjoy Dear Esther. Normally, I really dig indie games like this. You know, ones that push the envelope and try something drastically different from the norm. I find myself attracted to that kind of innovation instead of the regurgitated mechanics we tend to find in mainstream titles. But Dear Esther had no mechanic whatsoever. I've seen beautiful environments in games before, and I've held down W to move forward for an hour in games before. Without any way to meaningfully interact with the world around me besides walking through it at a painfully slow and plodding pace (it is irritatingly slow, trust me), I felt like some kind of empty floating camera, devoid of heft or humanity.

Dear Esther also committed one of the cardinal sins of salesmanship: failure to inform the buyer of what exactly they were buying. It's not a game in any traditional sense of the word, yet its only hope of making a profit centered on marketing Dear Esther to gamers. The mismatch left a sour taste in my mouth.

So what happens when you put me in a game where the only aspect appealing to me is the gorgeous environment, offer me a hotkey to take a screenshot within Steam, and provide no gameplay to speak of?

I play Pokemon Snap.

What follows is a galley of photographs I took while playing. The cave pictures are particularly gorgeous. The truth is that if they had not done such a phenomenal job with the caves, I would have been much more dissatisfied with the game. However, these stalactite-laden zones justified my time playing the game, which was only a little over an hour.

The caves are gorgeous. There's no doubt about it.

You'll find things painted on walls throughout the game.

You require more minerals. . .

This image was a lot more impressive in motion. Those smears of green are waterfalls, not moss.

Just thought this was cool.

So the big question is, did I consider Dear Esther worth my money and time, even if I didn't enjoy it very much?

Yes. It was a novel experience. Even if there was no game, the eye candy within the caves made it worth the hour or so I spent playing through it. While I would have probably been annoyed if I knew that I paid the full $10 for it, I know that in reality I probably paid about $2.49 for it, so I can accept that.

Dear Esther therefore gets the nod from me, but only on the basis of the lowered price. Perhaps there are people out there to whom this is worth $10, but this "game" is just not my thing.

As a reminder: future entries will not be coming on a weekly basis, but on a basis of "whenever I find the time  between my class workload", thus the change from "Week #" to "Entry #". Aside from that, nothing is different, so don't fret.

I have several partially-completed games at the moment, so once I've completed one and feel there's anything to write, I'll put up another entry. See you next time!

Thanks for reading. Please comment and follow/share/bookmark/staple/lick this blog if you enjoyed it! And if you have any suggestions for what you would like to see in future entries, please leave that in the comments as well. . . If you suggest a game and I own it, I will most likely play it for the next entry.