I’m detecting a theme in the Humble Bundle 8 games; first Little Inferno made me feel terrible for enjoying the mindless entertainment of burning precious items in a fireplace for the sake of gamification, and now Dear Esther presents a non-game in which you walk through a series of scenes and listen to the occasional musings of an unseen narrator (meant to be your character), watching as the cryptic images graven in white into the cliffside walls of an abandoned island slowly resolve into a tragic story. There are worse ways to spend an hour, though I’d argue that your journey through the seaside, past the ruined crofts dotting the once-shepherded cliffs, down into the darkness of some warped and luminescent caves, and across the sort of moon- and candlelit night that Tim Burton probably finds quite appealing, isn’t the only thing that’s linear. The landscape itself is beautiful–so nice, in fact, that the only action you can take aside from moving is to zoom in closer so as to take screenshots–but the story and symbolism is so obvious that by the end of the second scene, you’re ready for it to end. Spoilers ahead!
Unlike the best short stories, there seems to be little that’s up for interpretation; worse, because of the chosen medium, you can’t simply re-read the dialogue to get a better sense on the blurring cast of characters (which spans a hundred or so years, and are therefore most likely projections of the main character’s wounded psyche). I suppose you could walk through the landscape all over again, but that seems like a lot of work for very little reward; this isn’t some great enigma worth puzzling over for hours. In any case, the island is almost certainly a metaphor, as it is filled with the physical objects that the narrator refers to sharing with Esther (in his letters). They’re enshrined in little vestibules slotted into the walls, and text that sounds like (or is) scripture can be found everywhere toward the end of the game. (An intrusion, a warning that last rites are upon us, a sign of faith waxing like the full moon?) Chemical notations (for alcohol) are etched into stones or glowing alongside the mushrooms in the deepest caverns; they’re meant to signify a connection to the drunk driver, as are the many coincidences involving the number 21 that your narrator grabs onto as if they might explain the horrible accident that left his wife dead. (Does this plot sound familiar to anybody else?) At one point, you literally hallucinate a bloody hospital bed and a broken car door at the bottom of the ocean and swim down to it before waking up elsewhere on the island. I’ll say this much: there’s a much more satisfying and coherent ending found on this island than on that of Lost, but the latter’s was a lot more enjoyable to explore.
But it’s unfair to judge Dear Esther as a game. Unlike Bastion, which used similar ideas in a more conventional game form, or Half Life, which focused on long exploratory sequences before bringing back the gunplay, all you can do is walk; much to my frustration and ultimate resignation, you can’t even jump. There are no puzzles to solve (as in the similarly themed Trauma), unless you find the lightly labyrinthine corridors and seemingly open landscapes of the various parts of the island to be confusing. Instead, it’s a true visual novel, and it succeeds in creating an atmosphere (the gentle musical scoring helps, as does the voice acting), even if the overwrought emotions never quite hit home. Instead of turning pages, you’re turning corners; as you continue to plod slowly on, you’re meant to feel the weight of the inevitable. (It’s a little surprising, then, that the game does not allow you to make those final steps, taking over for a fully automated sequence.) Dear Esther is a game like Koyaanisqatsi is a film: it’s an experience. For further evidence of the ways in which Dear Esther rebels against the form, check out the audacious non-ending, in which the game doesn’t end until you choose to stop “playing” it.
I didn’t enjoy Dear Esther–my left ring finger is irritated with me just now–but I at least understood its artistic choices, and perhaps that’s enough. Still, I play games for the safe and assuring sense of achievement they provide upon completion: in particular, I crave that nice little rush of euphoria that comes with overcoming an obstacle, no matter how slight or digital. Because Dear Esther lacks all of these, I feel tricked into having “played” an artsy film in the hopes that the end would justify the means. So when is a game not a game? I suppose that’s when the illusion of interactivity is broken, and you’re left simply reading between the lines of code.