Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dear Esther

I actually started writing this on the 19th or something of May - we played it on the 18th May. But again, I was having a great week and stuff kept happening.

In what I hope to be the start of a really fun and nice tradition (perhaps even with recording - turns out that I come out with rather spontaneous outbursts of funny and oddly cute nerd commentary) of playing through games with The Boyfriend, we played through an indie game called Dear Esther. (Currently around £6 on Steam - bear in mind it takes about 2 hours to play through, depending on how much exploring you decide to do.)

It is first and foremost an atmospheric game. There are no action sequences, no dungeons, no fighting, no tactics involved. You are exploring, allowing yourself to enjoy the gorgeous but bleak scenery, discovering strange runes in florescent paint, abandoned shacks, wrecked ships - boats became a thing for me - and listening to the entries of a diary being read. What soundtrack there is is very quiet and background, perfect for immersion in the scenery.

Once night has fallen. Unfortunately we did not think to screen cap any of the inside of the caves.

And what graphics they are. From the cliffs of what appear to be Devon to the insides of gorgeous caves to the running water and ocean, no details are spared. If only to experience some amazing sights, you should play this game.

(Click the second image to see it in its full screen glory. Look at the detail of the sand, the rocks, the reflections.)

The voice acting is ideal - it's understated but not boring. It's doesn't chug along and it's not a dramatic reading. It is simply the thoughts of an old? man being put to paper, written to someone named Esther. Who she is, we don't know, but I think it is generally assumed that it is his late wife.

The story is based, as I've indicated, on diary entries of an unknown person. Whether we are the person writing, or whether we are simply following through his life as a ghost is uncertain. There is a lot of ambiguity in the storyline, which makes it all the more interesting. Only one thing is clear - we are following the last days of his life. As we make our way across the shoreline to the caves and abandoned shipwrecks, we do see shadows of people - just that. I called them ghosts. Perhaps shadows of the player's past self, if we are to assume that we are the reader. Since it is possibly using the same engine as Amnesia, there was one mildly creepy noise that made The Boyfriend suddenly yell "GET OUT GET OUT" when I was looking around an empty shack. However there is NO scary evil here. Maybe a creepy sadness about the game. And strange ghostlike figures, but nothing will take over your mind just because there's a dark corner.

The story is very simplistic. I will avoid spoilers as much as possible, but the only thing clear from the start is that Esther is dead.We learn how quite quickly, and when jumping into a very deep water pool deep in the caves, we experience the visual memory of the scene of her demise, which is poignantly shown as he makes his way back to the surface. We also know that he - possibly they - is an explorer, and he's nearing the end of his life. But aside from what he's been doing on the cliff sides, from the diary or letters we know little else - just the writer's feelings and thoughts.

As we travel through the wilderness of Devon (actually, it turns out it is an island in the outer Hebrides, but I think the Esther's accident happened in England), we discover many strange markings. Is it science? Aliens? Madness? Towards the end of the game, there are whole phrases and sentences on the cliff face - they both mean something and nothing to us. We have no idea otherwise who the author is, whether he even painted all these strange markings! Just that he lost someone very dear to him and is going through grief.

The ending is quite the climax, for a game in which technically nothing happens. It is a journey and all journeys have to end. How it ends, you'll have to play to find out.

Were the 2 hours worth it? From a couple play through point of view: yes. We had fun. We were both engrossed as I navigated through, investigating anything that the boyfriend pointed out, or that I felt was worth seeing. There are no directions as such in the game, and I guess we were just lucky that we'd taken the "main route" and played through more quickly. There may have been some more at the start, outside of the caves.

From a gaming point of view? It's a short game and not a lot of effort is required. I think it was worth it, if only to play through once, and I believe that on Steam it is never much more than £7. Which is reasonable for what the game is.

I'll certainly end up buying it just to play through it again - maybe play through with my brother. Some things just have to be shared. Aside from that, the game apparently offers a unique experience each time you play, as the audio is randomly generated, and so aspects and emphases might change. Either way, you should probably play through at least once.

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