18 March 2012

Review: Dear Esther

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.

Score: 1/5

1: Not only is this irritating and offensive, but it’s also stupid. The levels are badly designed, in a game sense, and you often get stuck on scenery. Jumping would have made it all a trivial matter, but no. Every mistaken footstep means pitifully walking into ankle-high rocks and hoping to find that one spot which is marked as climbable. But hey, immersion! Jerks.
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.


  1. "I feel like a bloody marionette in this game!"
    So, you don't feel like a marionette in those games where they tell you all the time "shoot here, move here, now shoot here, ok, now shoot this big monster, ok now the game is over you'r the best!"? and you play like what? 50 games that are exactly the same? 100 games? 1000? from DOOM to the new Doom3, is there really a differnence? or is just the same "shot move shoot move" game that they want you to play and buy? You don't feel like a marionette there? they tell you what to do ALL THE TIME, excepto some really good games, that are obviously guided too, but "HalfLife" is an awesome game, but again, you have to do this & that and is linear as shit. Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout3 and etc, those game are different, in those you are not guided ALL THE TIME because you can do some stuff that is not important for the MAIN QUEST but you still HAVE the main quest, and in these side quests your gidded too "oh my child is lost! go to the cave of the rats and kill the rats and so i'll give you a reward!" And, c'mon think about it, don't you feel like a Marionette in the world? in real life? They tell you all the time, "go here buy this spend some monney here buy this game where you have to KILL OBSESIVLY, kill in the present, kill in the future, kill in the past, kill in space, kill in the city kill monsters kill people kill kill o fuck yeah kill some more and show me the moooneeeeyyy!!" And you don't have to criticize the people that want to make a difference, if you dont like that kind of game and you are so shure about everything that games have to offer then why do you play this kind of games? i dont like strategy games, so i dont play those and i dont hate people that make those games and i dont hate the people that play them. I think "Dear Esther" is a revolution in gamming, the future of games is going to change becouse theres going to be more options in the market for different kinds of players. Think about this, cinema has like 100 years of life and keeps changing all the time, games have like 40 years since "pong" was born, so maybe its time for players to see more of what developers and themself have to give, to make videogames better experiences. Im a desinger, ilustrator and photographer, and Im starting to realize that Im actually a videogame designer, and I think this videogame is not perfect, but is the vision of some and i had a fucking awesome time playing it, my 70 years old that too. I know it's not easy for everyone not to be all the time stimulated by lot of action, explotions & a clear story to follow that last like 20 hours of gamming that makes you feel like you payed your good monney, its not, its thinking in a different way. Its seams like you hatted that can that you find there, and maybe you hate every time you croos a can in your life, but maybe if you can get a little closer & see that that can its telling a got demmed story, maybe you can start to imagine something and not being all the time waiting for others too feed you with colorfull explosive porno killing action all the time, I mean, stop & smell the fucking flowers man. And I know my english sucks, Im from fuking super Uruguay. Cheers.

    1. So, you don't feel like a marionette in those games where they tell you all the time "shoot here, move here, now shoot here, ok, now shoot this big monster, ok now the game is over you'r the best!"
      Yes, I hate CoD, which is why I don't play it.

      Doom and Doom 2 do not railroad you.

      Doom to Doom3, is there really a difference?
      Oh boy, did you just seriously say that!?

      but you still HAVE the main quest
      No. Many RPGs, Morrowind among them, let you ignore the Main Quest entirely. Interesting stuff still happens, you can still do what you want. You obviously won't see the ending FMV and other things, because those pertain to the main quest.

      [various claims that Dear Esther does not railroad you, and is somehow revolutionary because of this]
      I'm sorry, you seem confused. There is nothing revolutionary about Dear Esther. The only things you might say are not cookie cutter are the purple writing, artsy "plot", and the lack of gameplay. Actually, all three of these have been well known cliches for years in the indie community, and there has been tons of (poor) games which use them. Before there was a real indie community, commercial games did this. Before there were games, movies and painting and sculpture and books and art in general did the first two.

      Dear Esther's defining trait, the artsiness and the lack of gameplay or control afforded to you, is old news. It is not revolutionary. Moreover, you accuse conventional games of taking control away from you, well, Dear Esther is even worse in that respect. It's the worst game you could make, in a sense.

      I disliked Dear Esther, because it presents itself as something so extremely meaningful and so substantiated that it is above and beyond mere "games", when in reality it's shitty even by game standards, and it's downright laughable as art. And whenever there's a game like this, the gaming press always goes into overdrive about how it's the second coming of Jesus Christ and how games are now art (because they want so bad to have that label, and even worse they only care about the label and not what value and meaning the game actually has as art, which is another pile of stupid but that's a whole different rant) and how this is the Citizen Kane, and I felt like being that one guy (I doubt I'm the only one, but anyway) who says, man, this is bullshit.

      Because Dear Esther is bullshit.

      Artful games have been made. There was Braid. There was KotoR. There was Arcanum and the first two Fallouts. There was Planescape:Torment. I'll agree any day that these have artistic quality, and I don't even like all of them. But Dear Esther is a gimmick, which takes a really stale cliche and presents it to you as original. It's insulting and offensive to me, and I feel it detracts from the gaming community, and that's why I hate it.

  2. And I apollogize for the violence and rather strong languaje, but thats the internet, i dont even know wou you are and I dont hate you or anything, I just thing your really angry about something, and I think lots of gammers feel like this and I thin that sucks.

    1. Apologizing on the internet? What's that, an April Fools joke or something? Anyway, eh, I don't mind angry. It would be silly to do so, given my general tone.

      I am angry because Dear Esther is a poor con-job and tried to fool me into buying its lies, and its very bad at lying, so it's the kind of anger you get when a very stupid person tries to fool you with a very bad excuse and you feel taken for an idiot.

      I don't like that many mainstream games are trying to be movies either, but that's not related to this review. I feel Dear Esther fails to make any coherent commentary on games in general. You could make a game like Dear Esther and create some really nice criticism of mainstream gaming of these past few years, and it could actually be quite interesting from an artistic standpoint (aspiring indie devs, take note!) but Dear Esther does not make any attempt in this vein.

  3. So, man, what kind of games do you like? what was the last good game that you played?

    1. There's a couple of positive reviews right here on the site, buried somewhere in the "reviews" tag listing.

  4. a c'mon, "buried"? thats not reallt temting, did you forgot what games you like? also, you can cheq out my screenshoots blog: http://thescreenshooter.blogspot.com/
    not very popular...

  5. Hello again man, I'll like to share this with you:
    My blog about videogames.
    Have a nice

  6. Sorry to have to be patronising in what I write, but this 'game' has really flown over your head. I most certainly don't claim to be some elite intellectual who 'understood it while you didn't', but as you're obviously so strongly against this sort of 'game' in the first place I don't fully understand why you even bothered to play it, let alone write a review about it. Different people want different things when they turn on their PC and drop £8 on Steam - some people want an experience that is built within a very familiar framework whilst other people might be looking for a new framework entirely. The conventional computer/video game is inspired by several other mediums (board games, films, art, 'choose your destiny' fantasy novels, real life simulation). Unfortunately there are always people like you that expect games to adhere to some sort of strict code, unaware of what a powerful medium the computer/video game really is. Luckily I do and I loved this game.

    1. Sorry to be patronizing in how I reply, but this is not "game". It's a cutscene that requires you to hold W to watch.

      I played the game because I was curious about it, I was disappointed and annoyed. Since I couldn't get the time I spent on it back, I figured I might as well write a review and derive some entertainment out of it (the "game" sure didn't offer any).

      Also, you seem to have deluded yourself into a number of strange fantasies.

      Incidentally, are you that one tripfag?

  7. I believe that to describe dear Esther as a game is wrong in itself. It’s hated by people who like to turn on their pc and look at the pretty lights and colours of more conventional games. And there are people who are open to new, more thoughtful experiences.

    Some people like new things that require them to think for themselves and develop there own opinions and ideas. New games like dear Esther tend to appeal to these type of people more than people who like information to be handed to them on a plate.

    To truly experience dear Esther you need to approach it with a totally open mind and not expecting a normal video game.

  8. I recently bought this game because a friend recommended it.. I wanted to punch my friend in the face after 5 minutes of "playing" this game. BTW it's not a game it's a screensaver with some guy spouting off poetry in the background. Save your money watch the entire game on youtube. So wish steam would offer a refund, I only spend $2.49 on this game and still feel as if I was ripped off!

  9. OK, it's not a game. Then what is it? I think the "screensaver" description fits it pretty well. But a slightly interactive one where you can move about in the screen landscape. Hmmm. What category does that fit into? The dustbin?

  10. Dear Esther is made for more sensitive people, that's for sure.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly with your review on this ... 'game' but want to disagree one one key point. Ya ready?

    ... Most good novelists, independent or otherwise, 'd balk at any story presented like this. It's full of classic literary flaws in both story and presentation. I think the answer for games like this is to involve more writers, not less - and to double check their credentials, when possible. Just saying 'I'm a writer, and this is my ~ masterpeice ~ ' does not make it so.