Dear Esther (PC)

Patience, thought and contemplation, some of the primary necessities for the appreciation of Art.

Dear Esther is a game which requires these factors, but can it be called art?

Find out in my SquareGo review: Here

Or read on below,

Dear Esther

4/5
The Chinese Room

There has always been a divide in the world of videogames, where action and narrative have uncomfortably met and struggled to combine. While most titles choose to eschew the story in favour of weighing more heavily upon the ludologist side of the balance, few choose to almost carelessly strew the narrative around the player in a complex and abstract form. One such title which chose to lead heavily with narrative and yet not spoon-feed the audience was the indie mod release Dear Esther. A concept which was unique largely due to it’s reliance on subtext and allegory.

When William Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, he described that the island in the story was shaped like a boat. Now as anyone who studied the book at school can confidently tell you, this was meant to symbolise the journey through life and the passage from childishness into maturity. Despite this well known ‘truth’ having been flatly denied by the author, it still stands that sometimes there are moments in tales which can seem to surely to mean something else, so obviously allegorical that to doubt it would be ridiculous. Yet still, those moments are entirely subjective, born from the understanding and thoughts of the person subject to whatever art they are experiencing. Dear Esther provides what could be the videogame world’s first game built entirely out of such subjectivity.

We begin upon the jetty of a cold shore amidst the bleak winds of a dark and foreboding Hebridean island. The sound of the wind is echoed by the bold and slightly beguiling narration of a series of confused letters, recollections and stories. Whether these are the musings of the player character is never entirely made clear, or whether the entire experience is another traveller’s discovery is never explained nor should it be. Dear Esther is a voyage of discovery, allegory and a unique experiment in storytelling through the digital medium. The story, such as it is, is slowly relayed as the player trudges around the island, along an open but linear pathway. There is little to ‘do’ as such, less in fact than in the mod, where the player could both jump and pick up small objects, here the only interaction is in the player’s presence.

The beauty of Dear Esther is the great depth of subtly underplayed storytelling which surrounds the three part act. It is in essence a modern reworking of The Divine Comedies, with the weighty and word-weary narration as the journey takes us from the initial bleak and barren signs of humanity before leading into ethereal and cavernous purgatory, through to a re-entrance to the light through a suspiciously vulvic cave mouth and a final religiously overtoned ascent to the island’s highest point and the ultimate transcendental understanding and breakthrough.

Or at least, that is one very forgiveable and apologistic perspective on it. It’s also a granted that with anything as subjective and deliberately obtuse as Dear Esther, that there are a great many people who will simply find themselves bored, confused or simply too ill at ease to appreciate it. On another view, the experience is excessively brief, and yet despite the brevity contains little of substance. The ending could be seen as ridiculous and also unsatisfactory, while the meandering storytelling will bore some players to their wits end. There is much to be learned from Dear Esther, and like all art, it will draw detractors as much as devotees. In any event, it is an experience which enriches the gaming world by its existence and its success opens an avenue to new ventures and ideas in what is an ever growing industry.

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