Luna plays...Dear Esther

Translation Note: The Engels version of this content is being displayed because the Nederlands translation is unavailable.

Note: this article was written several months ago, when Obduction was first announced. It's been on the backburner for all these months, thanks to the heroic laziness of the magazine's editors, but it's out now, so... enjoy!

When Dear Esther was first released as a standalone game, I considered writing game reviews for the magazine, starting with Dear Esther.  A lot of people on the forums were enthusiastic about it, but I never found the time to sit down and write it all down. Now here we are, over two years later, and here is my review of Dear Esther.

When I downloaded Dear Esther, I played with the game for maybe half-an-hour and then uninstalled it, too disappointed by my own expectations to continue.

I expected it to be a game. It isn't.

I was reminded of it recently, when The Stanley Parable was released, and after watching TotalBiscuit's talk on what constitutes a game, I decided to go back and finish playing Dear EstherPlaying it again without any real expectations, I found I could actually appreciate it more than I thought I ever would. Simply by not seeing it as a game, I could appreciate it for what it is: art.

Dear Esther tells a story through narration and by attempting to show it to you (which they could have done better, to be honest). In the end, whether or not the story moves you doesn't really matter, but know that it will definitively influence your decision to experience the story up until its conclusion. However, is the story and the ability to experience it yourself enough to make it a game? No.

The only way you can fail in Dear Esther is by not finishing it, if that can even be considered failure. This is the core reason for it not being a game. There are many theories on games and what elements a game should have, but the ability to fail is a pretty common one. If you cannot “fail”, then how do your decisions matter? Not to mention that failure is a very personal experience: if the player doesn't have a certain interest and emotional attachment to the outcome, why should he care about failing? Why should they even finish the game? 

This is something Dear Esther doesn't do very well, because it's pretty much impossible to identify with the character you're playing. The narrator is you. You are hearing your own story, but there is no link with me, the player. Playing Dear Esther, I never really had the feeling I was walking around on the island.

On the other hand, when playing Myst, I've always felt that The Stranger was me. I had used the Linking Book, ended up on the island, and by freeing Atrus, I was trying to find a way home. The beginning is similar to Dear Esther, but unlike Dear Esther, it doesn't tell you who you are, allowing you to personify the character you play, which makes you more attached to the possible outcome. When you fail, you do so without dying. Failing is actually rather easy in a way, but I don't think anyone would be satisfied with the endings where you fail. This is the essence of what makes Myst and Riven such great games: you want to finish them. You want to find a way home. Uru's story never managed to capture me like that, but that's something for another article.

And now Cyan is making Obduction. It sounds interesting, although I would have liked it if the description was filled with information instead of hype words. They're referring a lot to Myst and Riven, which is good because if they can pull off the same sense of wonder and curiosity, it will be an awesome game. However, I hope they remember what makes a good game. Myst and Riven were not awesome games because they had great graphics - they were awesome games because you, as the player, cared.