Dear Esther Review
Posted by Alex Jordan on
The following is from an email I wrote to my brother when he asked me for my opinions on Dear Esther. He didn't respond to the email, but Tweeted at me very briefly: "Apparently, you emailed me a review for your website."
That's a good idea. Here's my review, with tons of spoilers, so please beware.
Okay, first: it's beautiful. It's very beautiful. It's the most beautiful game I've played, until the next one. I think it's because I used to be a level designer that I look at this and just see a collection of pixels, shaders, and lighting choices, so that a good chunk of it is largely lost on me.
Since I can appreciate the beauty without really giving a damn about it, let's move on to the story: we've all heard it before. I learned the title of the game and immediately thought, "$10 says Esther is dead." Which she is, of course, killed in a car accident in the south of England. The narrator wants to blame the offending driver for being drunk, the offending driver blames birds that flew in front of his car, but whatever, Esther is dead. And the narrator is now walking around this island in the Outer Hebrides, reading snippets of letters that he wrote to her, presumably after her death.
The whole thing reeks of "level designer who can't model and writer who can't program decide to make a game without models or programming." You only have those two components: a very pretty world and a narrator reading bits of exposition... randomly, it turns out. If you leave a level designer to his own devices, what does he do? He makes something pretty. If you leave a writer to his own devices, what does he do? Write about death, apparently. And unfailingly, it seems: I've already played a shit ton of indie games that have practically this exact same plot. Oh, and the plot is a ripoff of a Ken Follett book from 1975: family gets into a car accident in England, horrible results, family goes to live in exile on an island off the coast of Scotland and become shepherds. So my patience is a bit thin.
And I really hate how game design writers always go for purple prose. I only forgave it in Amnesia because the backstory itself was fascinating, as opposed to the line delivery. Out of all the spoken lines in Dear Esther, only one caught me off guard in a way that impressed me. "Fire, or soil?" Took me a second to figure out that the narrator was debating cremating Esther or burying her. That I like.
Since it's a guy just wandering around, talking to himself, the whole thing plays on ambiguity. Except that I figured out the "twist" (Esther is dead) within moments of starting the game. We live in a post-M Night Shyamalan world, where anyone who isn't blind and has read a book or watched a movie recently knows that writers shouldn't use ambiguity to hide a twist, because it's been done to death at this point, and every other movie or book or game is experienced with the notion that you should be on the lookout for the inevitable twist! I'd rather assume that there isn't one and then come across one that was hidden in plain sight, like Bioshock's Would You Kindly? zinger.
And since the twist is about death, let's talk about death. Or, rather: why don't game designers ever write about small ideas? Or at least smaller ideas, like love? Jonathan Blow spent all of Braid disguising an anti nuclear proliferation theme as a squabble between a couple. Points for delivery, no marks for my interest in it. Oh gee, you don't like nuclear weapons? Nobody likes nuclear weapons, welcome to 1949.
The result of all this sturm und drang over Big Ideas is that I'd just really like to play a story-driven indie game that I can't hang the adjective "pretentious" from. Make me care about characters, make me care about smaller, more relatable themes. Maybe try your hand at good poetry instead of purple prose. Stop doing this "big ideas + twist!" bullshit.
In the end, though, it appears I'm the only guy who doesn't like Dear Esther. Which, it turns out, I'm fine with. It's a beautiful game that tries something new and attempts to be meaningful. Just because it didn't float with me doesn't mean you shouldn't try it. In fact, I've been hectoring everyone to give it a whirl, seeing as how I appear to be in the extreme minority. Support indies!