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I Spoke With Esther
by Adam Bishop on 10/12/12 03:20:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Many discussions of Dear Esther centre around the question of whether or not it is actually a game at all.  To me, that question is not especially interesting, at least not in the way that it's normally meant.  When people complain about some pieces of software not really being "games" they usually mean this first definition of the word from the Oxford English Dictionary:

1 a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.

I don't think all video games necessarily need to be games under that definition.  I think of "video game" as a separate category of things, some of which are traditionally categorised games and some of which are not.  I don't see that as a problem either; "starfish" aren't really fish, or stars for that matter. 

Now, when I say that I don't really care whether Dear Esther is necessarily a classically defined game, I think it is unambiguously part of the tradition of video games; it's made in the Source engine, it uses WASD and mouse-look for movement, it was funded by Indie Fund, and it was sold through Steam (which up until very recently only sold games).  The web site for Dear Esther describes it thusly:

"Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional game-play the focus here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here."

Your voice carries on the wind

So by its creators own description, it is about exploration and uncovering a mystery.  That's a good enough description for me, and it matches what I assumed the intention to be while I was playing.  It also establishes itself within the video game tradition, so that's the way I'm going to discuss it.

I've gone through this rather lengthy introduction because I'm less interested in a surface level discussion of what constitutes a game and much more interested in a discussion about whether a particular creative work is successful on the terms it sets out for itself.  I don't divide my time between "things that are games" and "things that aren't games", I divide it into experiences.  Heavy Rain may not be a game, but it was certainly an experience I'm glad to have had.  So what about Dear Esther, is it an experience I'm happy to have had, on the terms it sets out for itself?

The answer to that question is "no", for a number of reasons.  The first of which is that my experience with it was riddled with serious bugs of both a technical and design nature.  A list of bugs may be a strange way to begin describing a game, but so many people writing about games gloss over or minimise them and I think it's important to note when these difficulties cause a game to be difficult to play.  While many people think of bugs as "broken code", one studio I used to work at described a bug as "anything which negatively impacts the user experience" and I think that's a more useful (though admittedly ambiguous) way of thinking about it.  Any piece of software, game or not, needs to work, and in a number of cases Dear Esther did not work for me.

A number of recent games have gone the route of not explaining anything at all to the player, even the basic controls, and Dear Esther is among these.  I think this is a really problematic approach, and Dear Esther is emblematic of why: the first thing I did after I realised I could move around was to go for a swim.  I immediately sunk, and couldn't find a way to rise to the surface, and so I drowned.  A voice on the screen said "Come back", only I couldn't; the screen remained black and trying to move in any direction resulted in no noticeable difference.  I'm not sure if the game actually crashed, but it may as well have.  Thankfully I was only at the beginning of the game, so simply returning to the menu and starting a new game was enough to restore my progress.  This would have been an easy problem to fix though if the game had simply said "Press Q to surface" when I fell in the water, as I learned later by going through the games controls in the options screen.  In their attempt to make the game "immersive" the makers of Dear Esther shattered my illusion by presenting me with a situation requiring that I exit to the main menu in order to get past the opening moment of the game.  This may have been a deliberate design decision, but as far as I'm concerned it's a very major and easily avoidable bug.

It sure is pretty in this cave

Another thing that Dear Esther doesn't tell you how to do is save or load the game; you have to find that out from the options menu as well.  The game also doesn't save your progress at any point, ever.  And since the player is never prompted to save, the only way your progress is ever stored is if you hit F6, which as I say you would only know if you had gone looking through the key bindings in the options menu, which is a silly thing to expect a player to have to do in order to access vital functionality like saving and loading.  I also found upon restarting the game after quitting that it doesn't save chapters that you've completed, so if you haven't saved but have completed some chapters you need to play through them again anyway.

Once again I have to say that this is a pointless decision that is easy to remedy.  While I think games that require it should have clearly indicated save/load menus, all that needed to be done was have a message pop-up a few minutes into the game saying "You can save at any time by pressing F6" and have another message displayed on the main menu that says "Press F7 to restore your last save".  It's so simple it's really pretty amazing that it wasn't included.

I ran into a number of other smaller bugs, like one where emerging from the water at night often caused the screen to go nearly black, though I was able to fix that one myself by simply re-submerging for a second.  Dear Esther is a game that made itself difficult to play not through complex mechanics or clever puzzles, but through obtuse design and some code problems that I would have hoped would be fixed by now, several months after the game's commercial release.  Dear Esther plays on and into the traditions of the video game as a medium.  While no one should be bound by the conventions that games have built up over the years, it's still important to understand what they are, why they're there, and how players will react to their absence; I'm reminded of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and its eschewal of standard rules of punctuation which made the book unreadable for me.  When you disobey the structure of communication of your medium to a high enough degree you're not communicating something different so much as you're failing to communicate

The technical difficulties are only the beginning of frustration that Dear Esther has to throw at players, however; the gameplay also makes the game experience difficult to enjoy. Despite describing itself as a game about exploration, the game makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to actually explore in many situations.  The problems with the swimming I have already mentioned, and they're especially noticeable because the game contains a number of places out in the water that draw attention to themselves visually but are nevertheless inaccessible as the player begins to drown as they approach them (even when holding the Q key to surface).

There are also a number of absurd barriers to navigation in place.  For example, I can cross the tiny creek here from left-to-right where I've drawn the green line in this screenshot but not where I've drawn the red line:

Strange repelling powers this creek contains

The top of the hill looked like it might be an interesting vantage point.  The hill looks perfectly navigable on foot.  The game has already established that a river of this depth and width is crossable.  So I said to myself "I'd like to see what's at the top of the hill" but the game said "don't bother."

It's true that many games have invisible barriers, but when a major purpose of your game is ostensibly exploration, when navigation is literally the only method the player has of interacting with the world you've created, then in order for the experience to work you've got to actually let the player explore.

I ran into another frustrating situation with the navigation not far from this spot.  I stood at the top of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill in the distance I saw a shipwreck.  It was the primary distinguishing visual feature of the area, and so it seemed that the game was trying to draw me toward it.  In addition to this, the narrative fragments I had heard suggested that this island had been the site of a major shipwreck or two.  Surely then, I thought, I should go down to that ship and see what it's all about.  You can see the ship in the image below:

An empty vessel in more ways than one

If it looks from the screenshot like this shipwreck should be relatively accessible by foot I can only inform you that the closer you get, the more this seems to be the case.  There are several places where it looks like a person could easily get onto or into the ship with only minimal effort.  But despite my attempts to circle all the way around the ship looking for even one entry point, there's no way to get on.  Dear Esther had provided me with what looked like a fascinating piece of scenery to explore, but when I asked how to go about doing so the game said back, "Don't bother."

The one convention that Dear Esther does borrow liberally from other games is audio logs.  But audio logs are one of the most annoying, lazy ways of imparting narrative that game developers employ, certainly not something to base an entire game around.  Even worse, by playing those audio logs automatically at set locations, Dear Esther eliminates the one part of audio logs that is actually interesting, which is going to the trouble of finding them.

And so Dear Esther is a game about exploration where you are actively discouraged from exploring.  It is a game in which "exploration" has been reduced to holding down the W key until your finger gets sore and wishes there was something else for you to do.  There are many times in which the game presents you with places that look like they would be interesting to travel to, to visit, to explore.  And every time you try to reach them, Dear Esther says, "Don't bother."

On a surface level Dear Esther seems to bear some similarity to one of my favourite games: Myst.  Both games take place on deserted islands with an unnamed protaganist who searches for answers by travelling through the environment.  But while in Myst you explore so that you might discover and solve, in Dear Esther you walk along a path until there is no more path to walk on.

Instead I think a much more apt comparison is Journey.  Journey was another game that eschewed clear communication in favour of obtuse artistry, gave the player extremely limited agency, and covered the whole thing in some gorgeous art work that made the experience great to look at but didn't help make it much fun to actually be involved in.  Both games lead the player down a tightly defined path and provide the player with little to learn or discover despite a presentation that suggests that exploration is a key aspect of the experience.  And what do you get for playing?  A sore finger and a mystery that solves itself.
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Comments


Ashton Simmonds
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I played Esther and had similar complaints but it did make me feel something deep and without words. I think you need to come to these games and almost forget every convention you already know. It's hard to judge things when your too close to them. Imagine you make a game about blindness. Would it be fun? Probably not. I think it would be memorable and moving however. I found Myst to be equally frustrating to play and I would not use that as a juxtaposition in this case. Perhaps Return to Zork would be a better example.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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I enjoyed Dear Esther a lot.

I disagree with the gist of you said and had none of the problems except I did try to swim out to a wreck and drowned.

My guess is that the game isn't for you. To me the experience was about trying to figure out the story behind everything while you take in the scenery. And due to not having any gamey barriers I felt fully immersed all the time and really enjoyed the atmosphere.

I think your "exploration" is different than theirs. "Exploration is the act of searching or traveling around a terrain (including space, see space exploration) for the purpose of discovery of resources or information. ". So in Dear Esther it isn't so weird calling it an exploration game as you do travel terrain in the purpose of getting information (the narrative). You could argue that if the path is too linear then there is no searching to be had, but tbh there are many places where you are rewarded by searching around a little bit more.

What's the point of this blog? "I don't like Dear Esther because it isn't the kind of game I want?" I hope you do know that many who talk badly about dear esther and use the "it's not even a game" have the same motivation as you as in it doesn't provide good elements in interaction which I'm guessing is your main gripe citing all the bugs and saying you prefer Myst while calling it a similar game.

I hope I'm not being too offensive it's just that I'm tired of defending Dear Esther because I enjoyed it a lot and want more games in that vein.

Toby Grierson
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I thought he seemed plainly clear that it was having runtime problems such as not letting him move. This is not the same as "Where the men? Where are the guns?"

Is the ship part of figuring it all out? Suppose the player feels there may be hints or knowledge to be gained about the narrative by going inside. Now suppose the game won't let him. And _now_ suppose that a lot of games can handle things like entering a shipwreck (Morrowind, Mario 64) and consider that lots of games have collision _bugs_ that get in the way.

What conclusion is a player supposed to come to?

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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Well yeah, but every game has those things and tbh it was clear where you could and couldn't go to me even the ship part.

And no, he rapped on the runtime problems but to me it seems he didn't like the premise either:

"On a surface level Dear Esther seems to bear some similarity to one of my favourite games: Myst. Both games take place on deserted islands with an unnamed protaganist who searches for answers by travelling through the environment. But while in Myst you explore so that you might discover and solve, in Dear Esther you walk along a path until there is no more path to walk on."

"Both games lead the player down a tightly defined path and provide the player with little to learn or discover despite a presentation that suggests that exploration is a key aspect of the experience. And what do you get for playing? A sore finger and a mystery that solves itself."

To me that is a clear "I expected more interactivity or delivery as the way Dear Esther was made gave me nothing"

Toby Grierson
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Fair enough

Adam Bishop
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"What's the point of this blog? 'I don't like Dear Esther because it isn't the kind of game I want?' "

The point of this blog is to describe why the game didn't connect with me in the way that it was intended to. If we don't like something, I think it's useful to look at it from a design angle to try to understand and discuss what specifically about it didn't work and what could have been done to make it work better. And, conversely, I think it's just as useful when a game *does* work to describe why that is too (and I happen to be working on a piece about Heavy Rain that does exactly that).

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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But you made a jugdement error. This game wasn't intended for you. This game was propably more "intended" for people who likes The Path, The Journey and Thirty Flights of Lovin kind of games.

There is much about Dear Esther that could've been better but I disagree that it should take hints from Myst as I'd consider the aims of both those games wildly different.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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"The idea that art can only be critiqued those it's "intended for" is one of the worst sorts of exclusionary behavior."

Sure, it can be used in extreme cases to write off any and all criticism, but you cannot surely deny that personal opinions and tastes can conflict with criticism? Dear Esther seems to me to be game about narrative and atmospheric walking which ties in with this.

"Both games lead the player down a tightly defined path and provide the player with little to learn or discover despite a presentation that suggests that exploration is a key aspect of the experience. And what do you get for playing? A sore finger and a mystery that solves itself."

See how he completely undervalues what you learn and discover about the story or the exploration when you investigate the small scenes.

"But while in Myst you explore so that you might discover and solve, in Dear Esther you walk along a path until there is no more path to walk on."

And yet again you see how he values gameplay over the experience. Which is a valid argument! But then we arrive on the problem area where I love playing a game with no gameplay and being immersed in the story, sights and sounds and he prefers one with puzzles and a more clear agency.

So does his criticism make it a better game for me or a different that I might not enjoy at all?

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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"Dear Esther eliminates the one part of audio logs that is actually interesting, which is going to the trouble of finding them."

I don't have that much trouble with the earlier criticism of world construction or lack of fidelity in many set pieces but you can clearly see in that quote that he does not value the narrative at all and is sullen about the fact that they are not delivered as a reward for a gameplay event.

"I find this question ridiculous."

Why? Let's say I like games with little gameplay elements and more focus on narrative and atmosphere and he likes the opposite, that is more focus on gameplay which DOES come at the expence of the latter. You can't just say one way is more right. To me one of the big experimental parts in Dear Esther was the stripping of gameplay completely to eliminate the ludonarritive dissonance and even tie in the narrative with the actual experience even more http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludonarrative .

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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By having the audiologs triggered when you entered a zone let's you calmy take in the narrative while slowly moving through the scene and letting the words reflect in the world. By having the gameplay work like this creates a very relaxed and smooth flowing experience. If puzzles and more hard explorations would be introduced (like having to search the ship for objects) would create a different mood. So in my eyes they did strip that dissonance but Adam expected to find gameplay exploration so he played it wrong in the same way if I'd expect an NPC to act like a real human or similar things.

I still think it is valid to say certain people want puzzles and others don't right? There is a reason there are genres. Not as rules but more as a sectioning of interest. There is a reason Twilight is very popular and the same time very hated, do you think Twilight should take the advice from the haters? And before you cite it again, Adams first parts about the swimming and the minor complications of navigating the terrain is not the biggest criticism.

Adam Bishop
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"But you made a jugdement error. This game wasn't intended for you."

OK, I guess, but isn't that definitionally true of any game I end up not liking? I still think it's worthwhile examining *why* the game wasn't for me and what could be done in other games to alleviate those problems. That doesn't and isn't intended to change anything about Dear Esther, but it's useful for me as someone who designs games to understand why things do or don't work (for me) and I wrote this because I hoped it would also be helpful or interesting to other people who are interested in trying to understand how games communicate.

Daniel Accardi
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I'll start by agreeing with you, and saying that Dear Esther is not successful as a game.

However, I'll also immediately suggest that you probably came to the conclusions you did by setting the terms of the question against DE. The description you cited, from the creators' website, stated that DE is a story being told, with the incidental use of gaming technology, which does not correspond with "traditional game-play" (whatever that means!). However, you chose to interpret that description as "this is a video game, but an unusual one." There are other interesting examples of this kind of thing: for example, some people are using Kinect to make an interactive map of the body, projected onto the player, that students can point to and learn from. This is a lesson being taught, using gaming technology, which doesn't correspond with "traditional game-play," but here we wouldn't find it so simple to categorize the experience as a game anyway.

To be fair though, I don't think it's on you for having taken this approach. You're quite right in noting that DE used some of the common superstructures of games, and distributed itself through a game-distribution service. I think the creators got a bit taken away with the notion that they were creating a game that would change people's ideas about games; or conversely, they knew they had a kind of bastard product on their hands, and couldn't think of a better way to market it than to suggest it was most like a video game. Ultimately, I don't think you need to take it on terms as a game to call DE a failure; you could do the same by pointing to the tension over the issue, in the first place.

All in all, good piece - and a really good way to think about "bugs," definitely.

Toby Grierson
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I agree with you on the first part about the "is it a game?" discussion and this is a perfectly good way to look at it.

Trying to define what is and isn't a game tends to be a discussion of who's right and who's legitimate, and from there tends to be come a stick to beat someone over the head with ("it isn't even a game!").

The writer Tadgh Kelly and some others try to look at "what's a game?" from an academic standpoint in order to establish terms and find useful intellectual tools, but a lot of people aren't doing this; they're finding things they -feel- are legitimate (or not) then rationalize them into or out of the game club. The word "pseudointellectual" may well have been invented for this sort of thing.

Here you say it may or may not be a game, and that the authors don't call it a game, but it follows in video game traditions, employs video game conventions and winds up in video game markets, therefore, screw it let's move on. And I like that.

Roger Tober
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The technical glitches were because it was low budget. It worked fairly well considering and I had no problems other than drowning, which didn't seem like that big a deal to me. I found it a little slow and needing other activities for the gamer, but not too bad. In fact, the drowning was kind of an interactive highlight.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I didn't encounter -any- of these technical issues. One also wonders why you feel the need to write this so long after the fact-anyone reading this site is aware of the game, and has probably played it and formed their own opinion of it.

Adam Bishop
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"I didn't encounter -any- of these technical issues."

So the game did clearly explain swimming, saving, and loading to you?

"One also wonders why you feel the need to write this so long after the fact-anyone reading this site is aware of the game, and has probably played it and formed their own opinion of it."

Well because I just played the game for the first time a few days ago, for one thing. For another, I don't think it becomes pointless to talk about the way a game was designed as soon as the game isn't new any more. Most design issues are relevant to game design as a field long after any one individual game is released. This piece was partly written about Dear Esther, but I think it was also about using video games as a tool of communication in general.

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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I purposely drowned myself, and the game reloaded me from a checkpoint. As well, I was aware that it's incredibly short, and beat it in a single session-not something I felt warranted saving and loading to interrupt my experience.

Anyways, I don't think a game becomes irrelevant to discuss once it ages (obviously we talk about noteworthy games all the time), but I think it's important to have a bit more purpose to discussing something that's no longer brand new;

You talk about flaws in the game's construction and why they hampered your enjoyment of it. That's fine, but there's not much to that analysis-you basically tell us that it's a bad experience because it's failed some metric you've imposed on it, but then don't really contrast this until your final paragraph with anything that you feel works.

If this had been a traditional game in more senses of the word, maybe I'd be harder on the mechanics of it, but the unique experience it offered didn't demand anything beyond a basic participation on my part-if anything, it felt like going through something ethereal and dreamlike. Could something have worked better than audiologs to convey information? Sure. It also could have a jump button and puzzles.

I just don't feel minor quibbles detracted from what they intended to make...but I think that their next project will probably show a strong progression from this.

Adam Bishop
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"here's not much to that analysis-you basically tell us that it's a bad experience because it's failed some metric you've imposed on it"

Isn't everything a good or bad experience on the basis of some metric we impose on it? Also, as I said in the piece, I tried to judge the game on the basis of how it presents itself, so I do think I was being fair to the developers. I judged it as an experiment in game narrative, not as a first-person shooter.

"but then don't really contrast this until your final paragraph with anything that you feel works."

I don't think it should be necessary to point to specific games that do the same things better because all of my criticisms were accompanied by suggestions for what I think would have improved the experience (explain the swimming controls on screen, allow me to get on the shipwreck, etc.)

Robert Marney
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I agree that the opening level of Dear Esther needed a bunch more QA. The later levels have clearly defined places where the player can walk, look at a fun object, listen to an audio log, and return to the main path for the next section, and it's not confusing or buggy at all, but the first level (where the player can drown, or fall 3 minutes back to the beginning of the level, or easily miss the path required to progress) is quite frustrating. The wreck is also a standout example of bad signposting, since the player has been taught that any man-made object can be entered and visited in the previous levels.


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