Can a game be a piece of art? This debate has raged hard for the last decade or so and I think the answer is a defining yes. I think a piece of art is something that speaks to you personally and makes you experience something, or feel something that is hard to put into words. I collect art. I own games like Inside, that I will never ever get rid of, or trade in, or swap, because I have it as part of my art collection. Dear Esther is now another one for my compendium of game art.
Made by the award winning team, The Chinese Room, who scored a huge hit with last years Everyone’s Gone to Rapture, this is the console version of the first game they produced for PC and Mac in 2012. It started out as a Half Life 2 mod in 2008, and eventually got turned into the successful version we have with us today. The game is an explorative, dreamlike mystery set on a Hibernian island. You play as a man who walks around the island like a lost soul, trying to collect fragments of his story told through voice-over, images and sound. As you journey the landscape, the game reveals its clues and mysteries that are both complicated and emotionally powerful.
Now before Dear Esther was released in 2012, this type of game was rare or non-existent. It’s a game where you just walk, explore and discover the story with no prompts. A walking sim it was called. There is no jumping, or attacking, shooting, magic using, dagger throwing, dialogue trees or any of your usual tropes. You just walk and soak in the atmosphere. You can’t even sprint, which takes a while to get used to, but when you’ve relaxed into it, you can’t believe you wanted to run through this amazing world. It’s a technique that’s been used by loads of different developers in the likes of The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Firewatch and more. Some people will actively seek this genre out in their game purchasing.
Now the story is the key here and this is where it gets interesting. The writing and design of the narrative is unearthly in its concept. It’s a place that isn’t quite real and things aren’t what they seem. Down a gully, books lay strewn impossibly on the rocky floor, candles are lit across the beach, but no one is around and painted mathematical signs fill the cave walls in glowing neon colors. The voice-over is poetic, fragmented and dreamy. It gives hints of a narrative, but doesn’t just fill it with exposition. You have to draw together the clues and find some of the answers in the gaps. We know there is a missing lover and something has happened to their relationship. Later we find more divisive clues to the conclusion of the story, and there are moments in the design where different objects will appear randomly, giving you different interpretations to the events. You can’t die in Dear Esther, there’s a nice trippy cut scene that happens if you wander into the sea or fall off a cliff before you’re placed back where you previously were.
When you’re making a game such as this, your visuals need to be of a very high standard. Because there’s no interaction with the environment or frenetic action sequences to distract you, the graphic design has to something amazing for you look at while exploring. Thankfully it delivers in all aspects with its visual beauty. The island is a mixture of jagged rocks, wind swept plants and beautiful skies that make you just stand still for a while and take it all in. The place feels familiar and alien at the same time, abandoned buildings and ships lay around the place, visual clues for a place that’s almost corrupted and out of shape. Later on you journey underground and you see some of the most stunning caves that I have ever seen in a game. All these visuals are as important as the words, content and sound in adding towards the fragmented story. Did I mention the sound?
The sound in Dear Esther is sparse and intermittent. I think that’s a deliberate decision by the team to give you time to breath, and not impose a narrative through the score. The sound effects are nicely simple, but effective with water and wind effects. But when the score hits you it’s a wonder to your ears. Composer Jessica Curry has, with her work on recent projects, become a rising star. She has taken game music into the album charts and she is playing out huge concerts. Here the quality of her work is no different, with it building atmospheric strings and solo voices. It is an integral part to the game and how it all works. It’s brilliant.
Dear Esther will take you on a walkthrough between three or four hours in length. But I would advise to do it again with the director’s commentary turned on throughout. Here are some of the best insights into making a game and what goes into creating it.
I love Dear Esther and I love these types of games, as much as I love playing FIFA, racing cars and killing aliens. For some they might hate the genre and from reading this review you’ll know that this game is not for you. But for those who are curious, I will highly recommend for you to dip your toes in and give it a go.
I now have another piece of great art for my collection.