Dear Esther : A game that isn’t a game

I have been playing video games for the best part of my short life until now. I am sure my mother would be of the opinion that games are just an useless waste of time and I am sure that many would agree with her. For many games I do see her point, games like Call of Duty are fleeting experiences and even if you chose to say that it gives a way to escape from the real world, I do not see the point of doing just that even though I have enjoyed such games before, a good game of football with friends will do just the same, but feels much nicer and gives a greater sense of togetherness with your friends. Dear Esther isn’t anything like that.

Yes, I like playing computer games but I would take mainstream games like football, basketball, and tennis any day over any computer games. They just make me happier. I cannot even say that I can play a regular computer game anymore. I do not know exactly when I grew tired of the regular computer games, but there is something powerful behind the desire to play games involving multiple players, online or on local networks, they are just better. I think that I just like the connection that you can build in such games, even if its for the duration of a single game. There is a sense of trust, risk and reward in such games as Counter Strike, Dota 2 and League Of Legends, that pulls them from the brink of commonplace and creates an experience that can be repeated and yet is markedly different every time you experience it.

But sometimes a game comes along and tries something so different that it blows your mind and forces you to reconsider what you consider a good game, or what you expect from any game. I have been playing computer games for 2 decades now, but I cannot count too many games that fits that description. I remember playing Doom, and going WOW! I remember playing Unreal Tournament and getting a sense of multiplayer experience that hasn’t truly been replicated since. I fondly remember Half-Life 2 and thinking “This game is really really well designed”. All these games have added something new to the world of gaming, and are all genre defining in their own rights. But apart from Doom, the others haven’t really created a new genre. Dear Esther is a game that does just that.

No, Dear Esther is not your run of the mill game, and no there are no zombies in it, nor are there any nazis in it. Its just a walk in the park, or actually in an island, quite literally. You walk around a deserted island and as you reach certain landmarks or vistas you receive a piece of narration from a faceless voice, but its not an adventure game. Sometimes you think like you saw something from the corner of your eyes, maybe a shadow or something, but its not a horror game. There is nothing for you to interact with other than falling into a well of water or walk through a waterfall. You truly just walk around and listen to a story. The story seems odd and disconnected at first, but if you keep going, and you will want to because you want to see the spectacularly detailed island, the story becomes more riveting as slowly you make sense of the narration. More you understand though, more you feel the pain. The voice gives just a plain narration and includes no tears, or laughter but the pain starts to becomes real until it becomes a lump in the back of your throat as you make your way through the jaw-dropping cave sequence. As you learn more though, you start to piece together the meaning of the narration, of the location, of your goal of reaching a glowing red beacon on a hill top. The experience keeps on going though, relentlessly it shows you more, more of the island, more clues, more of the oddities of your experience and slowly as you reach the fourth and final sequence you start accepting the fate of your journey, the ghosts, the narration, the letters, the luminous scribbles on the walls, the dilapidated houses, the abandoned bothy, the photo, the candles, the medical equipment, it all starts making a sort of heartbreaking sense, but the spectacular journey isn’t over yet. As you go through the final sequence and finally make your way to the red beacon on the top of a tower, and then jump headfirst from the tower, a change occurs in your experience, a sort of acceptance, and you see this acceptance in the visual sense as well, and then as you reach the end, you hear the voice one last time, and it all sort of makes sense, it all sort of falls into place and you are left with a sense of intense sadness and wonder. There is no definitive end, there is just an open ended realization and an unasked question – What do you make of the story?

It made me feel the sensations of reading a book, something I never thought was possible outside of a book in the present day. I never thought anyone would dare make a game that didn’t have a proper ending, unless there was a sequel coming. I never thought anyone would dare make a game that doesn’t allow you to accomplish anything. Today’s instant gratification chasing teenagers will never accept a game that doesn’t allow you to make anything happen as Dear Esther tells you a tale of immense pain but never gives you a chance to wipe off that pain, it never allows a hero to come and save the day. You have to live with the pain because that’s just how real life is. Make what you will of the ending, but you will have to accept it just as it was told to you.Dear Esther is full of a powerful message, one that will linger with you, if you allow it to, and I think I will do just that. Dear Esther is not the best game that there is, in fact I am not even sure if I should call it a game at all. It’s a story, it’s a memory, it’s a shadow, it’s an experience, it’s a life lesson.

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