Published on March 2nd, 2013 | by Mark Gibson, Editor/Community Manager
Games That Could Have Been Great – Episode Two: Dear Esther
Released on Steam for PC only, Dear Esther was essentially a short story come to life. Originally a mod created for Half-Life 2 back in 2008, it evolved into an experimental adventure developed by thechineseroom and featured about two hours of gameplay. Overall, the title was well received by the media. The only problem being it left no impact on gaming, and it is not a well-known title — as it should be.
What it Did Right:
Dear Esther took us on an exploration of a mysterious island. You play a shipwrecked sailor venturing to a lighthouse in hopes of rescue. You have no weapons, gear, armor or enemies to fight. Instead, you explore the island and listen to yourself recite letters you have been writing to a woman named Esther. Each monologue is triggered by your movement through the environment.
Although the game appears to be open-world, it is actually quite linear without being too constraining on where to go. After all, this is an adventure game, so exploring is encouraged. Although there is only about two hours of gameplay, the story itself is engaging with fantastic voice acting, and drives you to make that next step to get closer to solving the mystery of where you are, how you got there and who Esther really is.
The most notable thing you can take away from the game is the graphics. When making a game that has such simple gameplay, you would almost have to expect stunning graphics, and this game delivers on that.
My personal favorite level is The Cave where this stunning blue light is shimmering from the moss growing on the walls. There one particular room where the music, narration, and stunning graphics come together and sent chills down my back.
What it Did Wrong:
Dear Esther shapes itself as a first-person adventure experience. However, there is no combat, no crafting and no real physical interaction with your environment at all. The gameplay is quite simple: you walk. That’s it. No running, fast walking, jumping, obstacles, puzzles or confrontation. Each time it seems like some kind of mysterious action is about to take place, it results in being anticlimactic.
The whole feel of the island makes it seem as though there will be a jarring moment or scare about to occur. In fact, I would gladly take the simple gameplay had there been some sort of “creepy” or “horror” element to the game. It seems as though there are natives on the island, but we never meet them. There are remnants of their existence all over the place. Most notably, the lit candles all over the island, especially the ones floating on paper ships in the ocean. Where is everyone? I would have even been okay with not seeing any natives or people if there was even more mystery surrounding where everyone is. But alas, this is never really addressed.
The ending is even more confusing and leaves players with a lot of questions. There is nothing wrong with an open ending of course, but it should not leave you feeling betrayed and bewildered. There is no real conclusion as to what the island or who Esther is. We are to assume Esther is your character’s significant other, but this is not made clear. I felt as though I was left with more questions and confusion after the game than before I began.
With a game that has an ending such as this, I typically play the game again in hopes of catching something I may have missed. I have learned nothing new from my second play through. (which was the same day since the game only takes two hours to complete). There is not much more to explore the second time around that you would not have figured out in the first run (or walk in this case).
The biggest issue you will notice with Dear Esther is the lack of difficulty. That is largely due to the fact the there is nothing to challenge you. No puzzles, mind benders or physical obstacles to overcome. You just walk…and look…and listen.
Dear Esther was a critically acclaimed title that was well received by the public. However, it was known as an “experimental” game. To the game’s credit, it took the first-person genre experience to new type of interaction and piqued our interest for a brief time. However, this game was right on the cusp of becoming something even greater. All the elements were there: the mysterious island, the fantastic narration, the stunning graphics and the simple enough gameplay that every type of gamer could enjoy.
What the game was missing was a sense of satisfaction and remembrance. There is nothing memorable about the story or gameplay, except for, “Remember that game where all you did was walk?” All this game needed was some added element of challenge. With a few environmental puzzles added in, the game would have been vastly improved.
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