An experiment is an experiment is an experiment.
If we're discussing science, they generally either work and save mankind, or awkwardly backfire. With art, it's a little different. One man's trash can very easily be another man's treasure.
When an entire game takes place on a deserted island, like The Chinese Room's - Dear Esther does, you may expect to find buried treasure. Instead you get metaphorical treasure, because that's how experimental art works. Seriously, this game is golden.
Anyone else getting bored of my pirate metaphor yet?
Girl, show me your bountiful booty.
Enough of this! Here are six Dear Esther features that makes it well worth spending a couple hours playing through the game.
#6 The Metaphors
In a film class, hours and hours are spent analysing exactly what is shown, and what it means. Spirals are seen a lot in Hitchcock's Vertigo, for example. They represent dizziness, and twisted trust. In literature, visuals are also important. The Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby's a good one. It represents the poverty and hopelessness of being lower-class. It's very different from Gatsby's rich lifestyle.
In video games, visual metaphors aren't quite as common as in books and movies. That's okay though, because Dear Esther's visual metaphors makes up for what all other games lack. It's full of visual hints both big and small. It's explicitly stated in the narration that the island is a metaphor for the narrator's sick body, for his disease, and his entrapment by these things.The gull you surprise when leaving your broken-down house can represent a thousand things: the ending of the story, in which you're suddenly a bird taking flight, for example, or an ability to finally escape.
The ancient characters the narrator tells Esther about are metaphors for present or newly-lost characters, like Esther herself. The shepherd who tries to build himself a new start on the island? He's the narrator piecing together Esther's accident. The cartographer? That's Esther, leading the narrator to his redemption.
It's so original to have a video game filled with metaphors both subtle and obvious -- and not just one big one towards the end, which is much more common (especially in horror games, for whatever reason). It's artsy to the max, and it's downright impressive.
There's no run option in this game. There's actually not many options at all. You can walk. You can back up. You can … zoom in on things. That's it, really.
In most video games, this would be crippling -- a death penalty and a headache to boot.
In Dear Esther, it's a good thing. I swear, it's a good thing.
It gives you the opportunity to take things slow, and take the game in. Dear Esther features a lot of beauty, mystery and intrigue. As Ferris Bueller will tell you, "life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Without the ability to rush through the caves, ruins and rolling hills of your arguable island prison, you're able to take in the marvellously detailed flowers, the way the water moves as you wade through it, and what all the writing on the wall actually say (you can also stop to Google the chemicals written down). It's worth it to take a stroll through this game.
It also helps that he character's leg's broken to the point that he's not sure he can complete his journey. Realism is a nice touch, too.
The soundtrack to Dear Esther suits its world perfectly. It's subtle, but it's definitely enjoyable music. It really pushes you to feel whatever emotion the place you're in should represent: it perfectly accompanies creepy writing on dark cave walls, searches through abandoned houses, and everything in between.
The music for the game was actually revamped to be even more impressive when Dear Esther was sold on Steam. There's just something genuinely nice about artists that are willing to update and improve upon their work, gotta say.
Probably the most well-known thing Dear Esther is that it's beautiful. And when we're talking about an art medium like video games, it's completely acceptable to get a little shallow and gush over how beautiful outward appearances are.
There's incredible detail put into EVERYTHING visual in this game. Every rock, the water, the sand. I mean, sometimes you think it's actual pictures of real places, and not just a video game. It's particularly lovely given the settings in Dear Esther. You can look out over an endless expanse of water, or you can be trudging through a cave covered in glowing writing, or perhaps you're travelling through a field where you can see literally every blade of grass.
One of the coolest things to do is look out at the night sky. It's simultaneously realistic and hyper-realistic; you actually have to stop and take it in for a moment, or you clearly don't have a soul. Especially when you're standing in the water, surrounded by paper boats made out of letters your beloved will never receive…
Shut up! I'm not crying! You're crying!
In Dear Esther, there's a lot of ground to cover in very little time. One of the game's shortcomings is that it's very, very short. as in, it only takes an hour or two to get through.
Through letters to the titular Esther, the narrator gives us a fair explanation of the island on which we find ourselves -- both in the objective and metaphorical sense. It's an island that’s been home to a few people over the years and it's also his prison now that he's gone and hurt himself. He also gives the player the narrative metaphors I've mentioned above using characters who once lived on the island, a timeframe, and slowly-revealed plot. This is a narrator with an interesting voice, too. He writes like Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, or Lolita's Humbert Humbert: articulate, well-versed in his subject matter, but very much human, and not always 100% correct in his assumptions as he picks apart his situation, and what's left of Esther's.
It's believable that these are letters, and now we know that this game isn't set entirely in the modern era. First off, no one talks like that anymore. And second, no one writes letters anymore.
Sometimes the narrator comes off displeased, sometimes he doesn't seem all that sassy. And this changes from playthrough to playthrough. If you don't explore a part of the island the first time you play Dear Esther, you'll hear about it the second time. Even then, there's enough narrative written so that it changes: there's a lot to learn from our protagonist, whether or not it brings us any closer to actually figuring out the mysteries of the island.
So, here's an artsy-farty term for you: mis-en-scene. Put simply, it means "the vibe".
Properly explained, it has a lot to do with the overall feel of a piece of art -- the way everything fits together to make you understand the world presented to you and the thoughts and feelings expressed.
Dear Esther is very much an art piece. There's been some debate as to whether it's technically a video game at all, what with the lack of enemies, or combat.
Whether or not you really want to call it a video game (which, for the sake of writing this list, I do), it's got a killer vibe. The settings, music, narration, and everything else leave you feeling haunted and heart-broken, even before you figure out the entire story and have an obvious reason to feel for the main character. The waves crashing against the shoreline, the crying of the gulls, and the narrator's voice, the overcast sky and the dark caves. All these things come together to give you a deeply moving experience, on top of the letters that are read aloud to you on your journey.
One thing's for sure: if you want a game with feels, you'll find it in Dear Esther.
As long as you count it as a game, of course.