Dear aspiring indie filmmakers, novelists, musicians, and other such pests: Will you please leave video games the fuck alone already? Games are meant to be played. They're supposed to have gameplay. At its most basic level, a game is something that becomes meaningless once you take the gameplay away, and you're doing just that. I understand that it's really easy to throw together some brushes in a level editor, but if you just spend an afternoon reading up on it, you will quickly discover that it's possible to turn the whole thing into a more conventional movie. In fact, there's a whole community based around that, it's called machinima, and yes if you present your little $10 waste of time as a game rather than machinima maybe more people will pay attention to it, but that's because machinimas suck! You are only deceiving people into thinking there's some chance of finding any entertainment in your... your... thing!
|You know you're in for a treat when the controls look like this.|
Dear Esther is, of course, another one of those games which aren't actually games. I understand there's some controversy over this one point - all I gotta say is, fuck anyone who even considers seriously participating in such an argument. No, it isn't a game. It isn't a story. It isn't a concert. It's barely a picture, and a boring one at that. It's a waste of time, is what it is. It only took about an hour, and by the end I was genuinely sad, because while I has wasted so comparatively little of my time, I had wasted it so utterly, so absolutely, it was depressing.
|It's 2012, and after spending 4 years on remaking a mod with no gameplay, no enemies, no NPCs, only one small island level and putting it up for sale at $10 a pop, the textures still have 13 pixels.|
From the beginning, you are made intensely aware that this is a game meant to be watched, not played. Your freedom is rudely taken away – you can’t jump1, you can’t run, you can’t crouch. Jump in the water and your vision is blackness, even just below the surface: “You’re not supposed to swim, dummy!” Enter a dark house, the flashlight automatically turns on. You can’t turn it off if you want to. Your path is stubbornly linear, affording nary a step off the designers’ predetermined course. Dear Esther railroads in the most obnoxious manner possible. Okay, I get it, you want some "interactive storytelling experience" bullshit. Whatever... But do you have to make every single road exactly the width of my collision box? I feel like a bloody marionette in this game! Why am I even controlling anything? I don't provide any input that matters, except maybe if I stop and the story pauses... But I can pause an animation, too. So what?
|What lines, game? What are you even talking about?|
Yes, there isn’t any game to play – instead, you are left to wander about a sort of gallery of maudlin landscapes, realized with mediocre skill and imagination through the Source engine’s outdated graphics2, listening to overly long excerpts of purple prose about nothing in particular every once in a while when you pass a trigger threshold. And the thresholds are not even well placed. Half the time I could tell that the voice-over referred to some scene I should be seeing, but having followed a perfectly reasonable course through the level, I couldn't even see what it was.
|Whatever it was that you smoked, buddy, it must have been something good.|
At least the narrators have done a good job. The voice acting is excellent. I would love to listen to an audio-book narrated like this… Hey, that’s a great way to describe Dear Esther! It’s an audio-book. The book is not particularly good, and it is one of those tiresome texts which are about nothing at all3. And you are forced to look at CGI animations badly made with Source, and to wander at an agonizing pace between each “paragraph”. Naturally, the book is actually quite short once you cut out all the pointless, tedious non-book. There is also very little in it: Dear Esther is about a woman who died in a car crash and a guy who climbs a tower on an island and kills himself. That's not a summary - that's all you're told. That's all there is. Most of the "narrative" is just inane bullshit.
|No seriously, this is like one of those deliberately bad books in cartoons and stuff.|
If you do actually play this (don’t!), at least spare yourself the idiotic shuffling: You can set your walking speed with de_playerspeed x in the console, where x is the walking speed you want (default 90). Because the game is made by assholes, of course, it will constantly reset this back to default, so you’ll have to enter the command many times over.
|Dear Esther is monumentally lazy. For instance, you better love this fucking can, because for me it got old the first time I saw it and it is literally the only kind of can on the whole island.|
Dear Esther is awful. It's boring, it's ugly, it's rude. It smells its own farts. It commits that unforgivable error of insisting that it is very smart, and then promptly displaying exasperating stupidity. It seriously depressed me because of what a pointless waste of an hour it was. Yeah, the music wasn't bad and the voiceovers were good, but that is literally the only thing it has going for it.
2: I would not normally complain about Source’s graphics. Indeed, I think they are wonderful for many games! But firstly, Dear Esther has managed to squeeze nowhere near the mileage out of the engine that Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, Left4Dead 2, HL2: Episode 2 and Alien Swarm 2- err, Alien Swarm, did. Moreover, I don’t mind non-stunning visuals in games which have some gameplay. A game is about playing it, so visuals don’t have to be pretty, they just have to show you enough to let you play. But there is nothing to play in Dear Esther – it conspicuously omits gameplay and quite obviously expects you to just gape at the scenery, expecting you to find it beautiful enough not to care. That’s laughable! On an aesthetic level, Source graphics are already sub-par. You can do some great stuff with them if you know what you’re doing, as the Team Fortress 2 Meet the Whatever videos show. But Dear Esther has no clue what it’s doing. It’s deluding itself that utter mediocrity is somehow exceptional.
3: There are many writers who are so good at writing that the value of their books comes as much from their insights and observations as from the events of the plot. Indeed, such writers can write a book truly about nothing at all, and it will still be a great read. Many, many more authors, however, are complete hacks who think they can do this, and only write about nothing, producing tomes upon tomes of wasted tree-flesh, morbid monuments to celebrate their arrogance and narcissism.