Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dear Esther, Don't Come Back

* Note: this review is of the 2008 Half-Life 2 mod, not the 2012 retail release version.

How many years have I put off playing Dear Esther? Apparently four, by the looks of it, as the original Half-Life 2 mod was released back in 2008. When I first heard about it, I was intrigued. Experimental first-person narrative storytelling in a video game? A ghost story that emphasizes exploration and offers a uniquely haunting atmosphere? It sounded great, but for some reason I never played it. With the recent Steam release of a newer, updated version of the game, I thought maybe it was time to finally getting around to playing it.

And boy was it underwhelming. When the screen faded to black at the very end, my only thought was "that was it? This is the critically-acclaimed game everyone's been talking about all these years?" It does more than just "stretch" the definition of what constitutes a video game -- it brazenly defies it with practically zero interactivity. Even though the writing is rather poetic and the voiced narration is well-done, the story lacks any kind of narrative thrust. And so, I was not impressed with Dear Esther. More of my thoughts after the jump.

When I started Dear Esther, I really didn't know what to expect. I had a basic idea of what the game was about, from the comments I'd read a few years ago, but I didn't research anything before launching it. My initial impressions were mostly of muddled confusion.

I clicked "new game" and started out on a dock outside of a small abandoned building. I investigated the building and found nothing but useless junk. Through the window I could see what appeared to be a cave on the other side of a stream of water. I tried stacking a box in front of the window and crouching to crawl through it, but my efforts were in vain, as it would not let me through. So I tried swimming around the rocks near the spawn point, and inexplicably died, I guess because the game didn't want me going that way.

I started a new game and followed the more obvious path to the left, which ended in a dead-end. Along the way I heard the voice of the narrator whispering "come back, come back," so I spun around wondering "go back where? Is there something in that building I missed?" I checked again and didn't find anything useful. So I took the detour around the roadblock, climbing down to the shoreline and walking along the coast, until I eventually reached the end of the rendered game space, and felt confused because I thought I was going the way I was supposed to go.

I was about to start a new game, but I clicked the "load game" option and found an auto-save from some point. I loaded that, and then found myself standing in some place that I'd never been to and didn't recognize at all. "How did I get an auto-save for this obscure place," I thought as I clicked "new game" for the third time. Off to a great start, so far.

On my third attempt, I finally figured out what I was supposed to do and settled into the rhythm the game intended me to follow. "Alright, now we're getting somewhere," I thought, but that was when I slowly began to realize that I was just following an extremely linear path through the island, while listening to an unnamed narrator describe seemingly random scenarios or past events, or talking about his own thoughts or feelings on things.

I didn't have any kind of context for what the narrator was talking about, and found it difficult to keep up with. He kept talking about numerous different people (Esther, Paul, Donnelly, Jakobson) at different times, and his topics of discussion seemed to jump around without much rhyme or reason. Most of the time I had no idea how anything he was saying was supposed to relate to the environment I was in; all of his lines are triggered when you cross a certain point in the terrain, but it's usually irrelevant to that particular location.

Listening to the narrator talk proves to be a pleasant experience, however. The way he talks is very soothing, just by the sound of his voice and the rhythmic feeling he puts into each line (or verse, if you will). The script is very well-written, and has many of the evocative, artistic qualities you'd find in a piece of treasured literature or poetry. Just read these excerpts when he talks about his decision to cremate his wife after she passed away:
"Of fire and soil, I chose fire. It seemed the more contemporary of the options, the more sanitary. I could not bear the thought of the reassembly of such a ruins. Stitching arm to shoulder and femur to hip, charting a line of thread like traffic stilled on a motorway. Making it all acceptable for tearful aunts and traumatised uncles flown in specially for the occasion."
"I returned home with a pocket full of stolen ash. Half of it fell out of my coat and vanished into the car’s upholstery. But the rest I carefully stowed away in a box I kept in a drawer by the side of my bed. It was never intended as a meaningful act but over the years it became a kind of talisman. I’d sit still, quite still, for hours just holding the diminishing powder in my palm and noting its smoothness. In time, we will all be worn down into granules, washed into the sea and dispersed."
Some of these lines can be very moving and artistic, but the problem is that the story is just a little too sporadic. You only ever get small slices that only hint at the greater picture. The narrator never explicitly tells you what happened (or what's going on now); you have to assemble the puzzle yourself by reading between the lines, stitching seemingly unrelated topics and only tiny snippets together into something whole.

I would normally appreciate this kind of thing, because I usually like it when a game requires me to think a bit. It tends to make me more active in the narrative and it stimulates my grey matter in a positive way that doesn't always happen with video game narratives. But in this case, it doesn't come off as effective, and instead feels like it's trying too hard to be clever and steeped with hidden meaning that isn't necessarily there. If you pay close attention to every line of narration and replay the game multiple times, it eventually makes some sense, but there's no profound "eureka moment" in the ordinary game experience where things click and come together, because everything just feels intentionally vague and slightly random.

And if it feels random, that's because it literally is. On a replay, I noticed that some lines of narration from my first playthrough were replaced with new ones. I started a new game a dozen times and found the opening narration cycling between a few different options at random. The idea, I suppose, is to make each playthrough feel more unique, while making it so that you have to replay the game a few times to get the whole story, looking for new clues based on what you've heard previously, and thus supposedly adding more depth to the experience.

But if everything contributes to the same overarching story (it's not like the new lines are a different angle or anything, it's just more information that you didn't get previously), then why not just include the whole story in one playthrough, and script it in a more dramatic way? The lines are simply randomized, instead of being procedurally selected, so it becomes a slightly more tedious effort of replaying the game excessively as you try to find just a single new line that you hadn't heard before. It's not like the story changes depending on your specific actions, where you'd know how a replay would change things and would be able to control what you're exposed to more, so here it just comes off as tedious and kind of annoying.

There's a paragraph on Dear Esther's official website that strikes me as bit of a pretentious "fuck you" to the audience, in regards to this narrative:
"Forget the normal rules of play; if nothing seems real here, it’s because it may just be all a delusion. What is the significance of the aerial – What happened on the motorway – is the island real or imagined – who is Esther and why has she chosen to summon you here? The answers are out there, on the lost beach and the tunnels under the island. Or then again, they may just not be, after all…"
It sets up a very intriguing premise and asks all of these important questions, only to tease you with "maybe there are answers, maybe there aren't." This may just be marketing to entice me to play the game and solve the mystery, but after having played the game, it seems more like a reflection of the game's intention to be as vague as possible, without making the effort to craft any precise answers to its own premise. Call me cynical, but I find it hard to be impressed when writing begs these kinds of questions and then makes no attempt to offer a conclusive resolution to them.

(Yes, as I mentioned earlier, there is enough material in the game's writing to come up with a fairly solid theory about what's going on, but you have to read the entire script at once with everything laid out in front of you to really get it, which you just don't get to do with the actual game. And even then, a whole lot of it is still up for interpretation, so there's still nothing entirely conclusive to it.)

As far as the actual game is concerned, there's really not much to say because there's virtually no gameplay. There's absolutely no meaningful interaction with the environment, you just walk along a linear path looking at the environment and listening to the narrator. It kind of makes you wonder why they even bothered making it into an interactive video game when none of your input really affects anything. If this game is all about the story, then why not just make it into a cinematic? Having the freedom to move around doesn't add a whole lot to the experience when there's no feedback or sense of reward for your actions, and when you're railroaded into extremely narrow, linear paths all the time, and when, more often than not, your exploration just leads you to a dead end that doesn't even trigger a new line of narration.

Graphically, the 2008 mod is really primitive and not much of a looker. The island is supposed to be a big part of the mystery, but it's often just bland to look at without much detail at all. Exploration already feels kind of unsatisfying, considering the slow movement speed and the lack of a real response to what you do, but it's even more boring when you consider that most of the environments are just drab.

The music is absolutely beautiful. It doesn't play often, which can be kind of boring at times, but it makes the music extremely poignant when it does play. Some problems with the audio do crop up, though, like in some situations where you can wind up with two different narrations playing over top of each other, making it almost impossible to understand what's being said. The volume balancing is sometimes off, with the music completely drowning out the narration, and a lot of the sound effects are kind of primitive.

Bear in mind that all of these complaints about Dear Esther's vague story and presentation are coming from someone who actually kind of enjoyed The Path, perhaps the most pretentious "art game" of all time, and that I almost always find some kind of redeeming value in these unconventional "art games." And yet, I just wasn't impressed with it. I didn't feel any kind of emotional connection to it, I wasn't moved by the narrative, it wasn't visually stimulating, the premise of it being a ghost story wasn't all that intriguing in practice, and there's even less interactivity than in The Path.

Does that mean Dear Esther is a bad game? Well, kind of, yes, it is pretty bad as far as traditional video game standards are concerned. But is it a bad experience? Possibly. Even judging it as an "interactive art project" or an "interactive story," I still felt like its main selling point -- the story and the way it's told -- was kind of dry and unfulfilling. If people are moved by this game, then I guess that's enough to justify its existence, even though it's not something I would readily praise. Maybe I'll try the updated version when it's on sale, and hopefully the experience will be a little improved. 

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