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Dear Esther: Landmark Edition

Score: 60%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Curve Digital
Developer: The Chinese Room
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Adventure

Graphics & Sound:

Dear Esther is one of those experiences that fuels the fire of discussion regarding a topic that has only really come into peopleís periphery relatively recently. Itís indicative of the growing pains felt by the medium as a whole. While youíll probably never get a consensus on what exactly constitutes a "game" from the development community, youíll undoubtedly get a wide variety of responses. After all, look at the sheer diversity of experiences that have been coming through the pipeline over the last decade or so. However, releases like Dear Esther challenge most preconceived notions; its interactivity is so slight it may as well have been a forethought during development. While the video game medium has certainly come into its own as a vehicle for experimental storytelling, its efficiency as such is often tied to how its unique properties facilitate and augment that storytelling. Itís there that Dear Esther fails. While its literary ambitions are on naked display throughout, the medium is an incredibly poor choice for a delivery system. If itís an unorthodox narrative youíre looking for, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition provides the most complete version of a release that embodies the term "unorthodox narrative." But is it a game? If it is, it's not a good one.

Dear Esther began life as a Source mod and was further developed with the Unity engine, so donít expect it to wow from a technical standpoint. Itís just not that kind of experience. Instead, look at it from a creative perspective, and youíll find this an adventure that appeals to the eyes. It takes a while to really come into its own, a quality it arguably shares with the story. As the narrative becomes more surreal and complex, so do the visuals. And given how important the story is, Iíll simply leave it at that.

The importance of Dear Estherís sound design isnít readily apparent, but pay careful attention and youíll see how brilliant it is. Superb ambience and sound effects transport the player to the Hebridean island upon which the story takes place, and Jessica Curryís soundtrack plays the player like a fiddle. Rounding it all out is the narration, which keeps the player grounded and connected.


Gameplay:

On an unnamed island in the Hebrides, a man takes a fateful, introspective walk. His narration, comprised of a letter written to a deceased woman named Esther, is the only company he has. Just exactly why heís there and what heís supposed to do is initially unclear. All you can do is proceed forward where you can.

The less said about Dear Estherís narrative, the better; its blend of symbolic visuals and overwrought prose verges on pretentious most of the time, but its clarity of vision canít be denied. What can be denied, however, is how effective it is as a game. While some might argue that it succeeds as a melancholy, introspective, metaphysical journey, none of its successes can be credited to its interactivity. And frankly, the interactive elements on hand simply arenít enjoyable or fun. Personally, I think Dear Esther would make a more compelling short film. And even still, I fear I'd find it a self-indulgent art project that thinks it's smarter than it really is.


Difficulty:

Without any meaningful gameplay elements to speak of, there is no inherent challenge. Dear Esther is a no-stakes experience that doesn't seem to have any interest in punishing the player for missteps. In fact, the environments you explore donít really feature any hazards. While wading too far into the sea triggers a reload, most of your wandering mishaps result in the having to retread stretches of the same ground to get back to where the mistake occurred. That, in and of itself, is punishment enough.

Game Mechanics:

Dear Esther has no mechanics, save walking and having the camera zoom in on whatever you want to look at. Your walking pace is dreadfully slow, especially when you take into account the lengthy expanses of land you must traverse. But I suppose it ties into the narrative; after all, your character is in no hurry. Thereís clearly been urgency and danger in this manís history, but the time for that is long past.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition features director commentary, in the event that you're curious as to the thought processes that led to the finished product.

While I sincerely appreciate the intent behind Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, it is completely incongruous with its medium. Itís a bizarre but interesting piece of experimental storytelling that misses the mark more often than it hits. And ultimately, it does not work as a game.


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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