Deep Plaid One guy trying to make some interesting decisions

My Dear Esther “word-spew review”

Posted on June 20, 2012

I sat down and wrote out my thoughts on Dear Esther for a mailing list I'm on. I thought it was interesting enough to be worth sharing here.

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Dear Esther, like the work of Tale of Tales, isn't really a game at all, and shouldn't be approached as one... it's an "experience" first and foremost. I'm fundamentally interested in games; but I also sometimes have to remind myself that no matter what creative work you're making, you're first and foremost making an "experience". Seeking out things like Dear Esther, which are purely experiential, is an important exercise for me, to focus on these elements (and stop trying to "see through the code" and focus on pure game mechanics).

So as an experience, I think it mostly succeeds at what it's trying to do, i.e. the emotions it's trying to evoke. I feel like it's pointless to even try to put these emotions into words, you really have to play it and experience them. Suffice to say that the opaque way in which the "story" is related really works, and will probably leave you wondering exactly what was going on until the very end.
I did notice that when I replayed an area, different voice snippets were played in different places. I assume these were random, though perhaps it was somehow responding to my actions? I suppose this gives the game "replayability" and more puzzle pieces to work out the story from. Interesting, but definitely not enough to make me want to replay it.

The rest of all this is full of SPOILERS...

There's an incredible moment in the game where your character falls into a deep pool of water... the screen goes black, and when the next area loads, you're underwater as you expected, but as you look around, you realize you're on stretch of UK highway... that's underwater. And that in the middle of this highway... is an operating room table. The highway and the operating room table are things you know are elements of the main character's tragedy, and seeing them confusedly transposed together is so uncanny, as you realize that the place you're looking at is impossible. This moment is powerful partially because the game is SO beautifully photo-realistic. However, I was disappointed: I hoped that this moment was going to be the first of a continuing theme through the game of moments that you realized were impossible hallucinations... leading you to question everything you were seeing... etc. Now you certainly can do this, and the interpretation of the entire game (and especially the very ending) as a hallucination is a valid one. But I wanted to see the walls of reality clearly break down like that more often, and more done with that.

Okay, so story interpretation. Basically I'm still not 100% certain of the identities between "you", the speaking character, "Donnelly", and the individual who presumably did all the things on the island that you're finding. But I'm pretty sure all of these are actually the same character. Confusing since the speaking character talks about "Donnelly" in third person so much, but yeah I think he's talking about himself. Also confusing that you're exploring an environment that you yourself "created"; but I think that perhaps that the entire game is meant to be a hallucination you're having moments before you're hitting the ground in your jump to suicide, as your mind explores the island and all the changes you've made to it.

That's my interpretation though I'm by no means sure, and personally I like the ambiguity and the confusion of identities and I think it's intentional; probably there's no "correct" interpretation and the speculation, and the association and confusion of these identities in our minds, is part of what the creator intended. Which I appreciate.

I'd call Dear Esther "explorable environment as poem." It's something that can only happen using the medium of digital games; it's powerful for what it is; and I'm glad someone is making things like this. It's not my cup of tea, but I'm glad I experienced it and I'd recommend it to anyone who wanted to see a game that could give a more thoughtful and ambiguous experience.

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