Bottomless Boats: Thoughts about Dear Esther

Love it or hate it, I think it’s impossible to deny that Dear Esther is fascinating. Called by some a “first person explorer”, Dear Esther is just that, and nothing more. All you can control is where you look and where you walk to within the boundaries; you can’t even jump or pick things up. While moving through the environment, narrations are triggered which tell the story. Each narration is randomized from three, making each playthrough different, and making it impossible to get the “complete” story. Even if you were to listen to all of the possible narrations you still wouldn’t get a complete story. From what I’ve seen and heard, Dear Esther’s minimalism instantly divides the opinions of the people who play it.

But to fully understand what makes this game so fascinating, I think it’s important first to know some background. Originally built as a Half Life 2 mod by Dan Pinchbeck,  a Creative Technologies professor at the University of Portsmouth and founder of the university funded indie game studio The Chinese Room, Dear Esther is an experiment: an experiment in minimalistic gameplay and abstract storytelling, and an experiment to see how people would react to such a thing. Released in 2007, the mod gained a quick cult gathering and received high praise. I played the mod a couple years ago and loved it, but felt it needed something more; it’s status as a mod definitely shows. Luckily, the mod received the full fledged remake it deserved by Robert Briscoe which was released on Valentines day last.

In a ZBrush class that I help tutor on Fridays, a student visiting the class started playing the game on the projector. Seeing the classes response did a great job of exhibiting the game’s experimental quality. Sadly, very few people in the class seemed to understand the purpose of the game. The person playing it instantly focused on what she couldn’t do. There was no gun or hand holding something on the screen; she couldn’t interact with anything, and couldn’t even jump. In everything I’ve heard from people who’ve played or watched the game, this seems to be the decisive factor. Some people instantly think about what’s not there, and thus in general dislike it. Other people, however, just accept it for what it is and focus on the beautiful environments and story. These are the people who love the game. Thus the experiment of the game is about gamer’s preconceived notions, and about how they settle into a game world.

I’m probably making generalizations, but as far as I know the vast majority of class is used to playing little other than action oriented games, be they shooters or rpgs or strategy games or whatnot. In general, such games are good if they have good action (I’m using action as more of an umbrella term), or bad if they have bad action. With Dear Esther, this is not the case. For people used to playing mainstream action games, playing or even just watching Dear Esther is probably like going to see a Tarkovsky movie with no explanation or preparation after spending a life watching only Hollywood movies and YouTube videos. Presented with something so entirely different, almost everyone I heard talking about it actively found things to attack, ranging from criticizing the lack in variety stalactite models (still confused about that comment), the tiny size of photographs, and to the voice of the narrator. One student in the back, however, seemed to be a fan of the game, and talked about the original mod and other unique Half-Life 2 mods he’s played. I’m not trying to criticize anyone here. As I said, I think the way people react to the game has almost entirely to do with the player’s preconceived notions and expectations, and negative reactions say more about the state of the industry than about the particular person.

On the other hand of the experiment is how people settle into a game world. I’m not sure whether or not it was intended to be part of the experiment of the game, but I think Dear Esther is a perfect grounds to study that. A review from my favorite game news site held a similar view as that of the class in general in regards to the lack of interaction. At first, the reviewer clings to what the game is not, rather than to what it is. And, like the students in the ZBrush class, he too finds little things to nitpick, such as the grass being 2d billboards rather than 3d meshes. But he goes on to say that once he got to the caves he finally accepted the game for what it is and started really enjoying it. His major criticism of the game is that it doesn’t introduce itself well; it doesn’t explain itself to the player at the beginning. Which is, I think, a very valid point, but a point that misses the experimental aspect of the game. A different review (take heed of the spoiler warning) on the same site has almost unbound love for the game. The reviewer states that he “played Dear Esther on [his] own in a dark room, headphones on, distractions banished, night outside, and subtitles resolutely turned off,” and how important he thought it was to play in that setting. Clearly, playing the game in a hot and noisy classroom full of people sculpting fantastical creatures wasn’t the best setting.

I played Dear Esther in a similar setting to the second reviewer: at night, lights off, distractions aside. It would’ve taken quite a bit for me to not enjoy the remake, but I was instantly amazed by the beautiful environments of the game. The remake is far beyond the Half-Life 2 era Source engine used for the mod (I believe the remake uses the Portal 2 engine with some add-ons). Robert Briscoe definitely provided for more than what I felt what was needed in the original mod. As I explored the game, I couldn’t help but take way too many screenshots (all the images in this post or screenshots I took), just like how I always take way too many photos when hiking in the mountains. I’ve seen comments wishing that the game had item inventories and such, but I think that would completely ruin it. The lack of any real “gameplay” created an intensely contemplative mood for me. I actually started getting irritated by the narration; I just wanted to explore the environment and think about what I wanted to think about.

When I first played the mod, I loved the writing. This time, however–and here’s my one critique against the game–I thought the writing was pretty lackluster. Almost half the narrations I got had something to do with a bottomless boat, which even after the second time started getting tedious. I get it. It’s not that great of a metaphor. For the most part, the writing does a good job of maintaining mystique while parsing out information that makes you contemplate and build up the story in your head. But to me it often felt like it was trying too hard to be poetical. But maybe that’s just because for some reason I’ve never been the biggest fan of written/spoken poetry. Unless it’s William Blake, of course. Bottomless boats aside, the story is about loss and grieving. I don’t want to spoil it, but depending on how you look at it, the grief could progress into either a tragic or positive end. It’s intended to be abstract; it’s intended for you to read into and project your thoughts. At first I couldn’t decide how much I liked the story which, as abstract as it is, still has somewhat definite characters and plot. But the more I think about it, the more I like it. And unlike the latter review from Rock Paper Shotgun, I can’t wait until I have the time to enter that contemplative world a second time. I find it interesting that so many people say that it might not be worth the $10 because of how short it is–but, well, I won’t get into that now because that’s an entirely different subject that I could rant about for a long time. So, suffice it to say this: I think Dear Esther is worth more than the $10 price tag, though I don’t know if that really means anything.

The mere fact that this remake of Dear Esther was made is enough to get me more excited about the future of “video games” than I’ve ever been. And the fact that it has done so well–it was profitable within 5.5 hours of being available–has me inspired about possibly taking part in that future all over again. I think the game industry is in dire need of gems like Dear Esther.

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2 Responses to Bottomless Boats: Thoughts about Dear Esther

  1. Pingback: Waking Nightmare (Part 1) « beyond marathon

  2. Great write up – I was a little on the fence, but you’ve convinced me (as soon as the Mac version arrives). Lets hope the success expires more risk taking, alternative games in future.

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