There was a watershed moment in the early 90s with the introduction of the CD-ROM to gaming. While consoles and floppy disk-based PCs were chugging along with hand-drawn art and MIDI-based music, CD-ROMs allowed for full-motion video (FMV) and fully orchestral scores that heightened the presentation dramatically. Back then, games like Myst or The 7th Guest brought you into crazy new worlds of incredible detail that only the shiny disc could allow. Pre-rendered movies allowed for an exponential leap in visuals because home PCs at the time weren’t even slightly capable of processing the visuals stored within in real-time. On the flip-side, the problem is that interactivity, especially early on, was limited, and video by nature is an inherently linear medium. These new ‘movie/art games’ had little deviation and as a result, had very little immersion.
Why do I bring this up? Because twenty years later, Dear Esther fulfills the promise of art in an interactive medium.
You come to on a windy, ragged shore next to a lighthouse. At no point does the game ever instruct you about your controls until you move the mouse to twist your view. You’re all alone out here and you’re left to discover this sea-battered land. You’re given some liberty to explore, but your path is a rough and shrouded by foliage, lined by wooden pickets intermittently linked by barbed wire. The narrator pops in periodically to divulge some random portion of the story, like Alan Wake’s manuscript pages, revealing some story about the land you’re wandering. There’s no real action here, or jumping, or any real interaction to speak of; this is an experiment.
As you wander through the picturesque settings, you get to spend all of your time admiring them. As beautiful as Gears of War or Rage could be, they were merely a backdrop to all of the ruthless violence that was the star of their show. When you fall under the mountain through the glowing caves, it’s almost as if the game has abducted you. But to call this a game would be a misnomer, Dear Esther relies so much on your intuition to guide you that it makes thatgamecompany’s flOwer look like Pac-Man. You’re a stranger in a strange land and you’re left to your own devices to figure out what it all means.
The ride only lasts an hour and change and while the price is twice what it should be, Dear Esther is a one-of-a-kind piece of work that won’t leave you any time soon. It does so much better than those old high-concept FMV adventure games because it actually places you in the action. Completely devoid of bizarre tile puzzles and shapes to memorize, you feel like you’re interacting in the game far more than you ever did back then.
Dear Esther isn’t something that’s played, it’s something that’s experienced.