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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Dear Esther

Dear Esther is a Half-Life 2 mod that's achieved some serious clout over the last few years, and it's only now that I've had the pleasure of playing the game.
Or at least I think it was a pleasure.

It took me about half an hour to beat the game.
Or at least I think I beat the game.

I'm not really sure if Dear Esther is a game.

You start out on the dock of an overcast, dreary island. No weapons. No health bar.

Okay. I can get behind that. I like minimalism.

The first thing you really notice in this game? The MUSIC. It's incredible. Play it. Play it now.

And then this disembodied narrator just starts talking, like he's reading a letter. Hence, Dear Esther.
Except it's not always a letter to Esther. Sometimes it's a journal of some guy exploring an island. At other times it's about finding a road (maybe). According to what I read about the game before I started, all of the narration is randomized, so there's no rhyme or reason to the story. At least not chronologically.

As I continue exploring the island I come across a cave and the music suddenly gets extremely fucking scary, causing my Amnesia reflexes to automatically kick in. I look everywhere for some lurking nightmare that's undoubtedly stalking me in the dark. Something is hunting me, right?

The island is completely deserted.

And the scribbles on the walls. The strange markings. They all mean something, right?
This is obviously a puzzle game. There are probably a bunch of switches coming up and I'll use what I've learned from the environment to proceed.

There are no puzzles.
You do not need to memorize or understand any of these markings.

I am so conditioned to play a specific type of game that engaging myself in Dear Esther was like driving on the left side of the road. The basic elements of game-play are simply not here.

And despite that, it's really fucking interesting.
Let me try to explain why it's interesting by first explaining the single strangest element of Dear Esther: walking distance.

When you travel in this game, you actually walk. There's no sprinting. None of that I'm-fighting-aliens-fast-walk that most FPS games prefer.
You just walk.
And everything in this game is spaced out to a degree that feels perfectly natural in the real world, but in a video game it's like crawling on your belly for a mile.

And you know what? I liked it.
There's something about walking in a video game, just the travelling aspect, that I really like. Whenever someone says, "This game is too big," or, "All you do in Wind Waker is sail for hours and there's nothing out there." for some reason that adds an extra dimension for me. I'm no longer in a theme park. I'm on an adventure in an untamed, digital world.

I never fast travel

So, back to Dear Esther, here's a question that needs answering: What do you do when you're walking?

And that's the funny thing, because with all this downtime where you're not sniping dudes or looking for a special item to reach the next part of the game you end up having an incredible amount of free time to reflect on what's going on. You soak up the atmosphere. You start paying more attention to your surroundings.

And that's when it happens; when all the nonsense starts coming together and you begin to see order and narrative all around you. Even the fucking rock formations begin to further explain the story in a subtle way that no other medium (book, movie, whatever) could ever accomplish. It's really cool.

Is Dear Esther, technically, a game?

Not really. At least not in the traditional sense.

But are you still being engaged?


The gamer in you will be ignored, yes, but Dear Esther is very engaging in a very different way.

It's like if you watched low-brow action movies all your life and then someone forced you to watch Primer.
Maybe you didn't like the movie because Dwayne Johnson wasn't in it, but you could still appreciate just how deep the experience was.

The mod is so popular that it's getting dolled up for a full release.

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