It’s not quite a film. It’s not quite a game. Though it shares similarities with the aforementioned mediums, it really can’t be classified as either one of them. What it can be classified as isn’t strictly relevant either, as the sum of its parts have given birth to something rather exciting, particularly to those that value story.
If one were to pick hairs, Dear Esther strays closer to film than game; viewed as a gaming experience, it would fair quite poorly. While it’s important for appropriate games to include a rich and well-written story, the fact that Dear Esther features essentially no gameplay discredits a pure labelling of ‘game’. Gameplay is, after all, the whole point of gaming; in a rather blunt sense, Pong has more gameplay than Dear Esther.
Does this make it a film? Not exactly. A film is dictated by the whims of the director: the way it’s shot, edited, scored and ultimately viewed is, by and large, controlled. Films offer the opportunity to audiences to reflect and submit their own reading of them, but it’s virtually impossible for that viewer to, say, retool an action film as a drama at their own leisure. If Dear Esther were a purely scripted affair, in which the ‘player’ is afforded absolutely no controls, then it would absolutely be a film. However, giving the player control, even in such a rudimentary fashion, completely up-ends the notion of the traditional director/viewer relationship.
Dear Esther allows me to essentially create my own pacing for the story. If I choose to, I can let the poetry of the script sink in and be afforded more context by stopping progression and watching the waves rush to the shore. Yes, the story ultimately has a set path that it takes to the end, but that journey is not an A to B of frames being spit out of a projector: if something that I’m seeing on screen resonants as a result of the script, I can stop and reflect on it without jarring the experience, or leaving the world.
This is an incredibly powerful tool. In essence, it leverages the advantage that games have over films (that of player interactivity), creating something that is both mediums and neither of them at the same time. However, there are potential flaws to this, mostly in the form of the inherent lack of pacing. Watch any decent film and you’ll notice that the composition of the scene (the framing, the cuts, the score) is carefully orchestrated to propel the story forward, as well as provide some form of emotional resonance. An experience like Dear Esther, by its nature, cannot offer this same experience: if a player chooses to walk right when the story would’ve benefitted from walking left, an inherent pacing problem is presented. If a player decides to stop short, further story sequences will not be triggered until they choose to start again. There are ways of circumventing this (and not all stories require the benefit of controlled pacing, as evidenced by Dear Esther), making the future of this medium rather interesting.
The real issue, however, is authors flocking to this medium simply to ham fist their story into it. Every story benefits from choosing the appropriate medium to tell it in: be it film, novel, game or anything in between. Choosing this particular medium out of convenience, or out of the desire to embrace it as a gimmick will surely condemn it to irrelevancy. This would be a travesty to something that I would certainly like to see more of.
What is Dear Esther, exactly? Is it a game? A graphic novel? A movie, interactive or otherwise? Is it art? These are a few of the questions that the game poses after playing it. These kind of questions are the exactly the ones I want to be asking every time I play a game. It’s games like this (because yes, I do think it is a game) that will push the medium into new and interesting areas – areas that remain unexplored in games, and indeed, in any form of story-telling medium that exists today.
What are those unexplored areas? If I knew, I would be the one making games, instead of writing about them. I don’t have the creative vision or the drive required to be a designer. But you know what I think? Neither do most of the people actually working as designers in the big-studio game companies. The creative developers you see with real, pure passion and drive are few and far between in the AAA sector – Ken Levine, Shigeru Miyamoto, Tim Schafer, and a few others stand out, but honestly, the lack of exploration and innovation in the industry is very apparent. Yet again, we must turn to independant developers to create something new.
Anyway, let’s focus on the game itself. Dear Esther is a first-person game, but certainly isn’t a shooter. It would be more accurate to say it’s a first-person walker. Or perhaps an art gallery. Or maybe it’s a graphical reading of a short story? It’s actually all those things and more – what it actually is depends purely on the person playing the game.
As you wander through a highly-detailed game world, the narrator reads out a monologue. There are no puzzles to solve, no secret areas to find, no enemies to shoot. This is purely an exploration game – and aside from the incredibly detailed world, the only thing to discover is more of the story.
Most people rate a game based on how much they enjoy it. But there is more than one way to enjoy something, and that seems to have been forgotten by the mainstream gaming industry. Nearly every "AAA" game satisfies only the shallowest levels of enjoyment, such as that of achievement. Dear Esther and other games like it are attempts to engage players at a deeper level, in an attempt to stimulate thought and insight into areas that they might have previously ignored. So no, the game is not "fun", not on the level that most gamers would be expecting. There is no sense of achievement, no reward for finishing the game – it is aiming for a different target.
The story is constructed with the intent that players will draw their own conclusions, their own "ending" to the story – but for me, it did not deliver enough information to do that. I was able to draw conclusions, but not a satisfying or complete one. Does that make it a bad game? Certainly not – the thing that makes the game so interesting is that it made me think about it in the first place. I would recommend that everybody play it, as each person will walk away with a different interpretation.
Dear Esther is a small step in the right direction for the games industry. Just how small that step is, we will have to wait and see.