Thursday, 5 August 2010

Come Back: Dear Esther


I'm daft and I forgot to post this after writing it up at around 4am, weeks ago. Did I say I'm daft already?

I seem to be playing Dear Esther quite often. It's good enough to warrant a replay on quality alone, but this time I wanted to experience it again, possibly for the last time, in its original visual form before Robert Briscoe's rebuilt 2010 version of Dear Esther will be released. On with it, then.

Let me make this post very anti-climactic: In my mind, Dear Esther still lives up to its reputation and deserves all the praise it got, maybe even more. So much has been written about this interactive experience that I struggle to come up with my own version of praise. I finished it just moments ago. Jessica Curry's music still swirling through my head, I can feel Nigel Carrington whispering Come back. Esther. Esther... In gamer parlance, he owns Dear Esther.

It's a beautiful piece of bits and bytes, but its hard to explain exactly how so. The calming sound of the shoreline and the piano pieces add a romantic feeling to the loneliness and isolation of Dear Esther's Hebridean Island locale. And then they're so starkly contrasted by the terror you encounter in the caves. The tight spaces seem to harbour this impossible feeling of a danger that isn't quite there, a glimpse of that ungraspable foe. Madness.

Aside from Silent Hill 2, this may be the only interactive experience that touched me this deeply. And they have more things in common than just the mood they get me in. Both have the loss of a wife at its centre. Both skilfully and effortlessly communicate the desolation of an abandoned location. Both are subtle. Dear Esther is not beating you over the head with it. A few noises here, a few technical drawings there. An alluded accident. A broken femur. A submerged car in a cave. The implied impossibilities. They're all ingredients in this unique and thought provoking broth that I ladle up vigorously and whole.

With Dear Esther, thechineseroom have created a stellar masterpiece of game design that in itself is not even a game. It's short and to the point, being over in little less than an hour. The deliberate, slow pacing does not feel detrimental, quite to the contrary. Dear Esther gives you time enough, nearly forcing you, to actively take in everything you see and hear. Everything it has to offer. My recommendation would be to savour it in the dark, alone and without hurry. What unfolds may very well be one of the defining pieces of digital interactive storytelling to date.

Fair warning for the uninitiated (and what are you doing here anyway? Go get Dear Esther!) The header image does not represent the current visual fidelity of Dear Esther. Robert Briscoe, formerly of DICE, is currently overhauling the visuals as well as remastering the audio. The official page already features pictures of his version. I take that as my justification for including one as well. Also, I was so engrossed in Dear Esther, I forgot to take actual screenshots.

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