I was having my haircut at the weekend, and the barber and I (seems very impersonal calling him, ‘the barber’) got to talking about superhero movies. He was a fan of them, I wasn’t (Guardians of the Galaxy aside), and he was surprised. I pointed out that it was simply due to the CG, and how it just totally takes me out of the moment. I recounted years earlier watching Dan Poole’s Spiderman movie during the Sundance Film Festival (it wasn’t actually part of Sundance, I watched it in a Park City bar at one of the spin-off festivals), where all of the web-slinging and building-traversing were actual stunts, not just pieces of awkwardly rendered animation, and I loved it.
Looking back further, to a couple of weeks ago, I was in the car on the way to EGX, and mentioned to my friend’s friend (also very impersonal, I know) that I was reviewing Dear Esther. He’d played through it on Steam, so asked how I liked it so far. I replied, quite bluntly, that I thought it was a ‘pretentious pile of dross’, to which he said that he thought it was really enjoyable and maybe not for everyone. At the time, I felt a bit offended by that; was he implying that I was too much of a neanderthal to enjoy such a high-brow game? I’d nearly cried at the end of Journey, for Pete’s sake.
Developed by the Chinese Room, and inspired by System Shock, Doom and Stalker, Dear Esther originally started life as a Half-Life 2 mod released in 2008. Following a few years of success and support from the Steam community, it was redeveloped and released as a standalone title a few years later, and now gets an Xbox One release, with some added extras. Despite the developer’s insistence that this is a ghost story, the game has the dubious honour of being considered the forefather of ‘walking simulators’; a genre that is slowly getting better populated with recent company such as Firewatch, Gone Home, and the Chinese Room’s own Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture.
Dear Esther begins by placing you on the beach of a bleak, remote Hebridean island, with a derelict building and uninviting cliff-face in one direction, and the violent sea in the other. Of course, the first thing I did was ignore the obvious path and drown myself, quickly realising that there was no jumping or swimming allowed. With the game whispering ‘come back’, I decided to stop being an idiot, and headed toward the building. Entering through the door frame, my torch automatically turned on, and a raft of purple prose flooded through my headphones. I felt both uneasy at the chilling surroundings, and turned off by the labouring voice-over. I thought I was in for a bit of an ordeal.
It’s difficult to talk about the premise of the game without giving away information that I don’t really want to give away. Whilst from the opening tone of the above, you might wonder why I care. Essentially though, you’re a man that’s been living on an island due to a major incident occurring in his life. The series of voice-overs, objects you find whilst wandering, and a particularly effective scene later in the game help the story to unfold.
Anyway, after having a quick look through the opening building and realising that nothing was interactive, I started my walk along the cliffs, and I walked, and walked, and walked. Sometimes, the walking would be broken up by more ridiculous monologues, but by the time I reached the end of the first act, I was perhaps more relieved than ever to see an Achievement pop up. Compared to what I’d just spent the last 15-or-so minutes doing, that little notification felt like a simultaneous, colourful rest-bite (my notifications are aqua; exciting!), and an endurance reward. I wasn’t best pleased.
As I started Act II of Dear Esther, more of the same. Eventually, I came across a giant hole in the ground, and, of course, I jumped into it and died again. ‘Come back!’ begged the game, ‘I don’t want to!!!’, I cried. But then, as I made my way to Act III, I awoke in an absolutely stunning cave, and I was converted. All of a sudden, the dull, miserable outside island had given way to a brilliant blue hue, matched by adept sound design, and even the story was starting to get interesting, if still completely pompous. The caves as a location serve a massive purpose in your character’s progression; full of symbolism, and it’s really annoying me that I can’t explain it more.
Lastly, the fourth and final act of Dear Esther builds and releases tension masterfully, and after around 90-120 minutes, it’s all done. So, after finishing an experience that was half fantastic, and half felt like a complete waste of my time, it was time to undertake the jewel-in-the-crown of the Landmark Edition, the ‘director’s commentary’.
Now, to be totally up front with you, I felt like I’d sooner cut my eyes out than play the first two acts of the game again, but I’m more than happy to admit that the commentary is captivating, and makes you appreciate the game in a new light. Learning how the game was made, what influenced the developers (System Shock, Doom, Faith No More and STALKER), what they did differently between the mod and commercial release and insights into the story was fascinating.
There’s a section of the commentary that particularly resonated with me, and that’s where they’re talking about the internal debate about whether to put a ‘run’ button into the game. At the start of the conversation, I was shouting ‘Yes! You totally should have!’ at the screen, and by the end, I had been converted into, ‘Good decision, the character wouldn’t be running about’, it’s not realistic’. On finding out that some of the game’s objects are procedurally generated, and there are variations in the speech, I set aside another couple of hours for a third time through the game, and this time, I appreciated nearly every moment.
So, to tie this all back to the beginning like a good episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm; say what you like about superhero films, you can’t beat a low-budget independent offering where people’s blood, sweat and tears have poured into every single aspect. It makes it a more personal experience, and you won’t find yourself being taken out of the moment every time there’s a design decision that is simply the result of someone throwing money at something.