Island boy returns.
Developer: The Chinese Room Publisher: The Chinese Room Format: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One Released: September 20, 2016 Copy provided by publisher
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition marks the third time Dear Esther has been released. From its humble beginning as a free Half-Life mod in 2008, The Chinese Room updated and released it as a full game in 2012. Four years later, an invite to Depression Island has been extended once more for the current generation of consoles.
The Chinese Room is proud of Dear Esther‘s part in the popularity of so-called “walking simulators.” Where the term is often used disparagingly, director Dan Pinchbeck is unashamed of the association, personally naming his game a seminal title that helped “kick off” the wave that brought us Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Beginner’s Guide.
There is no doubting Dear Esther has been hugely influential among independent game developers, perhaps crucial in introducing the concept of “narrative driven” games to a larger audience. It’s earned a place in history for doing that much, at the very least.
It’s a shame the game itself really isn’t very enjoyable, and this Landmark Edition, gussied up with some visual overhauls and director’s commentary, only serves to highlight how threadbare it is compared to games that followed in its footsteps and creatively blew it out of the water.
I find it difficult to say Dear Esther is “narrative driven” because that would imply there’s some actual driving being done. It’d be more accurate to simply say it’s a narrative. A visual novel with less visual stimulus, less story, and less to do.
A visual novel with simply less.
This sluggish dawdle through the beaches and caves of an overcast Scottish isle amounts to little more than a monologue spoken at the player as they walk slowly toward the game’s nearby conclusion.
Rather than involving the player in the plot, awarding them any agency, or even making them feel like a part of the world, Dear Esther prefers to treat its audience like glorified camera operators – their job is simply to point toward the relevant stuff and let the game enjoy itself – and it enjoys itself tremendously.
The island is as wax fruit, visually notable but serving as little more than a backdrop with which no meaningful interaction can be had. There’s no opportunity or reason for exploration, nothing to touch or affect. Anything of potential interest, be it a discarded book or the remnants of past activity, are there simply to be observed from a cold, impersonal distance.
It’d be easy to say it should’ve been a book, but there’s not enough here to even fill a pamphlet.
This is a game famously praised for its sense of “immersion” but I can’t say I’ve ever been able to feel it. How can one be immersed in a world that keeps them at arm’s length? How can I feel a part of something that gives me no other task than holding a camera and listening to other people talk about the interesting things they’ve done without me?
I could replay the original Homefront if I wanted that.
Dear Esther and Homefront are genuinely the same in terms of how they contemptuously treat the player’s presence.
I don’t need puzzles or combat, I don’t need arbitrary distinctions between failure and success, I need none of that in order to enjoy a game. I need something though, some sense that the game actually wants me involved and wouldn’t just be far happier chatting to itself in the corner.
Even the mere illusion of agency, as seen in a game like The Stanley Parable, can make a huge difference between fascination and boredom.
Dear Esther is boring. Not because it’s a “walking simulator” and not because it lacks puzzles.
It’s boring because it’s about strangers who remain strangers in an alienating world that remains alienating. It’s unconcerned with reaching out to its audience and inviting them in – consequently I’m uninterested in forcing myself to care about the drip-fed, vaguely presented story.
This same issue plagued The Chinese Room’s last release, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – another game in which one’s expected to relate to the hint of characters as opposed to genuine characters, set in a thoroughly hollow world where all the interesting events have transpired long before the player arrives.
The developer’s love of audience isolation is frustrating as I’m a fan of its foray into horror, Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs. Released between Dear Esther‘s 2012 remake and Rapture, Amnesia‘s curveball sequel featured just enough investment, just enough involvement, to grip its audience despite restricted player options.
It was a good example of how to limit interaction without shutting players out, but sadly it’s not an example The Chinese Room followed after providing it.
Dear Esther‘s island isn’t enjoyable to explore, with deliberately misleading pathways to send would-be adventurers in circles or toward dead-ends, all at a lackadaisical walking speed that serves to punish any who dare stray from the beaten path and find themselves needing to backtrack. It’s another element that would resurface in Rapture, as a thimbleful of content is stretched to near breaking point via transparent delaying tactics.
It’s been said this game is great for allowing exploration “at your own pace” but this is patently untrue. If I were exploring at my preferred pace, I’d be shut of this thing within ten minutes. Instead I’m forced to move with miserable lethargy, dragging myself from one self-absorbed slice of exposition to the next.
The Landmark Edition offers nothing worthwhile for those who have wandered the halls of this dead museum before. In fact, glaring graphical problems have not been fixed. It still suffers from obnoxious fish-eye distortion that only worsens as you raise the field-of-view slider. Setting the FOV to the lowest possible is the only way to minimize the visually painful effect, and even then it isn’t perfect.
It’s also blatant to me now how zooming in – the only thing players can do besides walk – compresses the environment and shunts it toward the player like a bizarre accordion, deforming surrounding objects as they squash themselves closer. I never noticed that when I played it back in 2012, but here it cannot be unseen once it’s spotted.
As to be expected, the soundtrack is beautiful, remaining the only good aspect of the game. The Chinese Room follows Supergiant’s philosophy on soundtracks – join one’s game to fantastically stirring music in order to create a mental association between what the audience hears and what they’re actually playing. The music does all the heavy lifting, eliciting an emotional response from the player who – if all goes well – will marry that response to the game in totality rather than just the score.
Personally, I only wish the soundtrack was in a better game.
Dear Esther may have played a huge part in the growth of interactive drama, but it remains an acorn compared to the trees it helped grow. It’s an ultimately shallow game, one that rattles off a story directly without any finesse or attempt to integrate it with the gameplay. Its disparate elements are boldly segregated, and there are none more filtered from the production than the players themselves.
It’s a landmark title, that much is true. Like most landmarks in the real world, however, it’s something you get to look at for a few minutes before growing weary and deciding to have much more fun in the nearby pub.
I’ll see you all again when Dear Esther gets a third rerelease in a few years’ time.