It’s a few years ago that I bought Dear Esther on Steam. I played it for a bit, and didn’t really enjoy it. Since then it’s been languishing in my backlog. As part of my Steam Backlog Project, I re-downloaded it and gave it another go.
Sometimes first impressions really are correct. Sometimes they’re not. Anything can happen between two playings to change my mind on a game and I have later enjoyed a game I didn’t like when I first played it. In the case of Dear Esther that didn’t happen. My first impressions were correct. You probably figured that out from the title of this post.
Dear Esther is what has become known as a walking simulator. I think the term was originally used in a derogatory sense, denoting a game type where there’s no real challenge except to walk around and absorb a story. In principle I think that’s a great idea for a game. I like a good story, and I like exploring, but in actuality I found that the experience of both these was lacking in the short time I was in the game.
But first, I want to talk about the good points.
The game is a very good looking game, and it has a great sound/music score. When I first found myself standing on the jetty before the lighthouse I felt a great sense of atmosphere and a feeling of anticipation. It was a combination of a little bit creepy and little bit sombre. A dead, broken place. I had a look around and started walking along the beach, and then up a hill towards a stone circle. There was a cave with graffiti. Some chemical notations, what looked like neurons, and other things I wasn’t sure, maybe even a penis. As I mentioned, the graphics were great.
Unfortunately for me, that’s where the good stuff ended.
The Bad (and The Ugly)
I kept walking, got to the end of one path and doubled back to find another, then doubled back again. There was also some narration that popped up every now and then, either describing some feature of the island, or something the narrator was dealing with. There was some Biblical allegory thrown in there too.
Perhaps I didn’t get enough of it before I finished but it didn’t seem to be that coherent. Apparently the reason for this is that the game procedurally generated the story by randomly selecting different bits when you hit the various story triggers. I found this out later after reading some reviews. Imagine reading The Hobbit when each paragraph in the book is randomly selected out of order and presented to you. It wouldn’t make sense and it would be frustrating to read a bit of the Battle of Five Armies while Bilbo is entertaining the Dwarves in the middle of his conversation with Smaug.
Given that the game seemed to be fairly linear (I felt like once I had backtracked once or twice that I was going the only way I could go, which was forward) then presenting a story out of order is fairly awkward.
I also felt I needed some sort of marker, not just the narration, to bring the various places of interest to my attention. When I arrived at the stone circle, all it was was a bunch of stones in a circle. What did it mean? It didn’t seem to have any meaning except to fill space. I was wondering if I was just breezing past places that the developers wanted me to ‘see.’ What was I missing?
A few hints on the graffiti might have been good too. I felt like I was missing something. I think that was pretty much the sense I got in the whole game. Normally, that would be stir my curiosity to find out more, and I’d keep playing. A good mystery will keep me enthralled but all I could think after about an hour was: This is really, really boring.
I should say I also had a false start. I initially turned on the directors commentary, which gave the story behind the game, which is all good. Except that turning on the directors commentary turned off the story narration. So here I am wandering around with no story listening to the directors with no context. For a while I was wondering what was happening. Again feeling I was missing something. I restarted without the commentary and then played through with narration. There should have been a notice that enabling the commentary disabled the story.
Dear Esther Isn’t My Type Of Game
Overall, Dear Esther is a fairly bland game with some good ideas, some great visuals and music, but isn’t my idea of fun. After playing it, I’m not sure I’d want to spend any money on another walking simulator. Unless anyone can recommend one that is much better than D.E. I think I’ll steer clear of them from now on.