As my posts have perhaps indicated, I've been pretty pleased with the crop of indie games that I've sampled recently. For a long time, I associated 'indie' games not so much with small budget versions of the types of games that I like to play, but rather with small 'experimental' games that I often found unsatisfying. I fully support people making whatever games they like, but I've got precious little time to indulge people's wildest imaginations. It doesn't help that many such titles hinge on a single mechanic and fail to develop a full actual game around it (again, at least in my experience).
I feel as though I've now circled back to playing just such an experiment in Dear Esther by UK indie studio The Chinese Room. I'd heard some controversial scuttlebutt about the title in the Twitterverse, and when it went on sale on Steam last week I decided to take a look for myself.
Dear Esther is a Source Engine 'mod' - the engine that powers Valve's titles such as Half-Life 2, Team Fortress, and Portal - in which you take the role of a man marooned on a deserted island. As you 'explore' the island, the protagonist narrates a series of letters written to the titular character of Esther, describing some tragedy that took place in the past.
I put explore in single quotation marks above because using this word is somewhat insulting. Dear Esther essentially consists of a 90 minute 'corridor' with zero interaction. You simply walk forward looking at the environment, occasionally crossing points where the protagonist's narration kicks in. That's it. Thankfully, the game is absolutely gorgeous, the voice acting is top-notch, and the foley-work is great. And yet I don't feel like I got very much out of the experience. I don't want to be closed-minded about what constitutes a proper game, and if people get enjoyment out of what Dear Esther provides then more power to them. Rather I'm going to try to lay out my reasoning for why the title failed for me.
I often rant about narrative in games, both about how it's typically very poor (most game stories are at about the same level as the pulpiest pulp fantasy/sci-fi novels), and how it's often misapplied. I think that each medium offers different benefits and challenges to storytelling. Books are the most personal - everything is constructed in the reader's imagination, while film is the most shared - every viewer has the same point of reference for what everything looks and sounds like. Good authors/directors play to these strengths, taking advantage of their mediums to connect with their audience.
In my mind, the biggest asset that a game could possibly deliver is to have a shared experience that also molds to reflect player agency. We all got to experience Baldur's Gate and Skyrim, but each of us got to experience them in such a way that reflected our decisions and actions. We got the multimedia experience - the ability of musical cues to influence mood and voice acting to imbue personality into characters, and we got to control the outcome, if only within pre-defined bounds of course.
Dear Esther does a worse job than most games on this count: whereas typical titles feature boring, linear narratives, at least they give you something to do in between the cutscenes.
I'm certainly impressed by the developer's ability to create atmosphere and mood with the environment, and I'm sure that the limited interactivity (I can stop and look around!) hides some deeper meaning that I can't quite grasp. But I can't help but feel that there's really no reason why this couldn't be a film... except that it would be an extremely boring one. I guess that being able to gawk at the brilliant scenery disguises the fact that nothing is actually happening.
Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that this 'game' released at a whopping $10 price tag, which is frankly insane. Post-modernist lit ideas aside, I feel like I got as much value, if not more, out of some free tech-demos and mods (like Valve's Lost Coast). I don't feel like I wasted my time with Esther, and I'm glad that I experienced it to be part of the conversation. Regardless, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I would've been pretty ticked off had I paid full price for 90 mins of walking.
Lest I seem unduly harsh, when I found out that the developers of Dear Esther were working on the sequel to Amnesia: The Dark Descent - an excellent PC horror adventure game - I immediately made a mental note to make it a day-one purchase. Amnesia's all about atmosphere, and The Chinese Room are clearly more than competent. I guess I'm just excited to see what they'll do when they add in an actual game.