We need to talk about Esther

19 Feb

It’s a struggle to articulate the flaws of Dear Esther – of which there quite a few more than the flurry of 8s and 9s out of 10 would suggest – mainly because it’s surprisingly hard to describe the game itself, as I discovered two days ago when my housemate asked what the hell I was playing. Self-doubt starts to creep in even before you start typing out detailed complaints about the excruciatingly slow walking speed or the complete lack of anything to actually do, because this isn’t a game about doing – it’s a game about looking and listening. Still, it’s on Steam and it costs seven quid – the time for chin-stroking is over.

The main issue is that it’s a story-led affair without a very good story. I care more for the shouting, musclebound thugs of the Modern Warfare series more than the disembodied narrator, his dead wife slash girlfriend slash sister or the completely undefined entity I’m directing through the outer Hebrides, as Dear Esther has the kind of narrative the designers can easily explain away with “Oh, we want players to draw their own conclusions”, but instead awkwardly occupies the space between ‘compellingly vague’ and ‘an actual story’ – a depressing limbo filled with plot points that do exist, but have been cruelly denied any meaning. A few specifics get spelled out quite quickly, but they’re neither open to interpretation nor particularly interesting; someone called Esther has died in a motor accident, the narrator is very sad and wants to top himself because he’s ill anyway, he’s gone a bit nutty and is scribbling on the walls etc. etc. et goddamn c. For £6.99, that’s your lot. I’m increasingly losing patience with writers who expect me to fill in the gaps when they clearly had something specific in mind, but willfully neglected to include it. I’m not here to write fanfiction, I’m here to experience the story you – you! – wanted to tell. Unlike, say, The Stanley Parable, Dear Esther uses a hell of a lot of words to say absolutely nothing at all.

Which is a shame, because the island (which is frankly a better character than any of the ones with names) is beautiful. Stunning. Even when you’re being funnelled FPS-style to the end of each section, it feels expansive and barren, with some of the best caves in gaming – and that’s a lot of caves. The score is impossible to fault too, a restrained and ethereal mix of strings, keys and gentle vocals that hits the loneliness aspect out of the park. And herein lies another problem: you can experience all the best bits (landscapes and atmosphere) and avoid all the worst bits (holding down the W key for an hour and a half) of Dear Esther by simply watching someone play through it on YouTube, with no real effect on how you’d approach the barely-there story.

I truly love the concept of Dear Esther, the exciting notion of exploring hidden landscapes to uncover lost truths. Yet, for reasons I’ll probably never comprehend, it remains so reluctant to give up its secrets that I can only feel like I’m wasting my time even trying. Whether you consider Dear Esther to be a game, an experiment, an interactive story, or all three, that feeling can only ever be the sign of failure.


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