Monday, April 23, 2012

Dear Esther fosters and hinders exploration in the same chord

Dear Esther is not a game. I don’t say that to sound elitist or demeaning, but it doesn’t share the same qualities that you might think of in a game. The narrative is scarce, there are no puzzles to solve, movement feels rigid, there is little interaction from the player, and no clear goal of what you must do. Instead, it presents a landscape that looks beautiful and illustrates the thoughts of a man as he reflects and accepts the troubles of his past.

Originally released in 2008 as a mod for the Source engine, developer thechineseroom began development as a research project at the University of Portsmouth in England. Dan Pinchbeck led the project, funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Robert Briscoe, former environmental artist on Mirror’s Edge, began working on a new version in 2009 in collaboration with thechineseroom along with the blessing of Pinchbeck.

The lush environments of Dear Esther are a result of Ben Andrew’s amazing concept art Briscoe based on much of the level design. The downfall to this detail is that there is no way to appreciate the fidelity of the visuals you find across your journey. Oftentimes I would find a cave or rock formation off in the distance that looked intriguing and wanted to take a closer look at, but no way to actually visit them.

A real example is a wrecked ship you stumble upon about halfway through. It’s tipped on its side with spilled crates fallen onto the shore. I wanted to climb inside the ship and look around in the dark, hoping to find any clues about where it came from and what its original destination was. However, with the limited controls that Dear Esther provides, I couldn’t.

You can't jump, only walk forward, backwards, left, or right. There wasn’t a ramp or haphazard path to an opening in the ship. There weren’t any cliffs above that I could possibly walk off and land on the ship. It was meant to be looked at, not touched.

That’s the big take-away with Dear Esther. It has great environments, especially when you begin to go underground, but without any kind of interaction or exploration, it feels like walking through a museum rather than an island. Dear Esther is an experiment of a game in the same way that Four minutes, thirty-three seconds is a song.

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