Preview: Dear Esther

I take a forward glance at the upcoming title Dear Esther from TheChineseRoom for the SquareGo guys

You can find it here, or below the cut:

Dear Esther – First Impressions


Is there no end to the praise that can be heaped upon Valve and the joy that has come from their creations? Considering the game itself  The release of Half Life 2 was a revelation in shooter gameplay, technology and storytelling, it also provided the raw tools for legions of ardent young bedroom level designers to customise and hone their skills. Despite the fact that almost always the results revolved entirely around some form of “shootman” saving the world with a big gun and creating a lot of death.

High Concept

That was until Dan Pinchbeck and TheChineseRoom set out to create a Half Life modification [mod] with a vastly different aim to the vast majority of mod makers. Instead of the usual myriad of customised battlefields and corridor shooters, he decided to create something a little different and here instead emerged a completely unusual experience. A brilliantly ambiguous and beautiful ghost story told through the interactive medium of a videogame. Now whilst far from the first unique concept title to be released, Dear Esther marked a high point in the mod community, along with other such titles as The Stanley Parables, which sought to use the game playing experience to shape a new method of storytelling. To tease out a conceptual narrative while never directly giving the experience an absolute delineated story. Instead coaxing the player though the experience by means such as puzzle, metaphor and biblical allegory.

Letter in a Bottle

The conceit of the game was to play an unnamed character who begins on the jetty on a bleak Scottish island’s shore and is treated to a series of letters read in voice-over while they explore the hills, valleys, caves and crofts in search of something or someone. As the player explores, it becomes clear that there is a darker reason behind the wandering subject’s adventure and the briefly seen spectre of a woman appearing occasionally in the distance has a larger significance than expected. Despite being set on a small, abandoned Hebridean island, players can happily abandon any fears of Wickermen or Christopher Lee dancing around in a long wig and gown. Instead the island itself is as much a character in the story as the titular recipient of the letters. It presents both the hazards and the rewards, as the beautiful scenery was for it’s time shockingly beautiful and the combination of the words and images genuinely moving. The beauty of the game was that the voice-overs were never all the same on any play-through, and although the game’s story is the same, the ambiguity is stirred with each new attempt.

Beauty Reborn

This was all old news, and Dear Esther was a blip of genius on an otherwise largely artless landscape of PC development. It’s only in the last few years, partly due to the prevalence of portable gaming, the resurgence of bedroom programming and the success of more arty and experimental titles such as The Path, Flower and Dinner Date. This new renaissance of gaming freedom was possibly a factor in why Pinchbeck joined together with ex-Dice employee Robert Briscoe and decided to redux Dear Esther in both form and design in order to give it a full release. Using the latest version of Valve’s Engine, most recently seen in Portal 2, the world has been transformed into a bleakly beautiful tundra. Gone are the slightly angular and sparse landscapes and replaced by detailed rocks and plant life, luminescent caves and towering cliff tops and hillsides. Along with the renewed visuals the sound and music have been remixed and the gameplay smoothed to release quality.

All Art is Subjective

Of course Dear Esther may not prove itself perfect for everyone, some people will simply find themselves bored with the slow and constant trudge around the island, listening to the steady but slow story weaving into some semblance of coherence. As with all art, it could prove a popular masterpiece or indeed simply remain a fringe favourite. In any event, we will be waiting with bated breath to see what the new incarnation of this classic idea will bring.

Dear Esther is on Steam release from February 14th


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