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Old 02-25-2012, 05:20 AM   #1
dhmholley
 
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Dear Esther: Why I Was Disappointed

First off, the following is my opinion. I'm not writing this to try to convince people who liked the game otherwise, I'm largely writing this so that people who are more foresighted than me and research the game before buying it get a dissenting opinion.

Secondly, it's turned out to be much longer than I was expecting. You have been warned.

---

I've been a staunch defender of the "games as art" movement since the early days. I'm also a game designer/developer myself, and ultimately I think supporting the indie gaming community is one of the most important things for the future of gaming.

Probably because of this, I've always been willing to give indie game developers a free pass if their game is lacking in one area or another; after all, it's just an indie game and it's just an indie studio, and they need our support. There's also an element of trust there, too - I am happy to give more than a game is worth as long as I can see real dedication in the developers.

So when I saw Dear Esther at £7 I balked. Rather steep for what the review I'd read had mentioned was an interactive story barely an hour or two long. But hey, it's an indie game, and it's supposed to cater to the "games as art" crowd, so I decided to bite the bullet and try it anyway. And hell, as long as it delivered on its promise it's still better value than a cinema ticket.

The trust bar here hadn't been set very high. I'd not been promised a lot by the game except for an engaging and emotional story and spectacular visuals. Should have been a piece of cake, really. But, as it turned out, it wasn't.

The visuals were good. About what I'd expect from the Source engine with some HD textures done by an artist who knew what they were doing. But ultimately the visuals aren't enough to carry the game.

And that brings me to my major disappointment with this game - the writing. Now, I don't pretend to be the greatest writer in the world, but I do understand how to pace a story properly and drive narrative arcs which inspire emotion - and this game failed on both these counts.

The writing is overblown and essentially masturbatory. The use of metaphor is interesting in the first half of the story, but breaks down totally in the second half as the metaphors become unsubtly overplayed and repeated until their impact is completely lost. As themes, they have promise, but their execution leaves an awful lot to be desired. The best piece of writing doesn't even happen in the game itself, but rather the trailer's version of the paper metaphor (parts of those lines are cut out in the trailer, which I think is a key example of why this game would have been much improved by removing half of the hacky writing which tries too hard to be poetic).

And then there's the narrative arc itself, which absolutely fails to inspire the emotion that the game's themes held in potential. The only moment in the entire game where I actually felt any sort of serious emotion was my reaction to the photograph of an ultrasound on a table, implying that the car crash took more than just his wife's life. But any themes of loss were essentially abandoned in the quest to find yet another blunt metaphor to beat to death in a mistaken attempt to be cryptic and artsy.

Not helping with the pacing is a technical provision for alinearity without any practical provision. Yes, it is possible to trudge back along the shoreline for ten minutes, but it's an utter waste of time and then you have to walk back at the same snail's pace. The game probably wouldn't have suffered at all if the developers had reduced progression through the game to a "click to continue" button after taking you through each of the relevant sights they wanted you to see.

So what's the problem here? Well, Dear Esther is a piece of art delivered in the form of a video game (as opposed to, say, a film - which could have been an equally valid medium), and the video game medium's great promise is interactivity and a measure of control over the experience. However, unless you design the game with this explicitly in mind, you're wasting the potential of the medium and ultimately hurting the experience when people expect you to have done so. In Dear Esther there is absolutely no need to give the player any control whatsoever - and it's clear that the developers think so too, as I'm about to highlight.

There is one moment in the game which exemplifies everything about the way that Dear Esther fails to exploit the medium effectively - and that's the game's ending. The emotionally satisfying end to Dear Esther would have been to make the player complicit in the narrator's decision (even if doing so eventually would be inevitable). But the player isn't complicit in any meaningful way - all control is wrested from the player at the point of emotional payoff, leading to an underwhelming ending where the player is left wondering what the point was. The choice to take control away from the player was ultimately made to keep the experience from being inconsistent and frustrating - but rather than addressing that issue from a game design perspective (which should have been the natural solution to that problem) it was solved by neutering the ending entirely.

The other problem implicit here is a lack of motivation for the player to follow the narrator's lead. The only reason I finished the game was because the linear progression forced me there - I felt no real connection to the narrator's desire for catharsis because I had no real connection to his motivations, which is itself symptomatic of poor writing.

Now why was all this disappointing? Well, as far as I'm concerned I'm disappointed because it could have been so much better. The game had incredible potential to break new and interesting ground, or even just to stand on its own as a piece of art. Ultimately though, it was poorly executed and failed to live up to that promise.
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Old 02-25-2012, 05:24 AM   #2
PGuybrush
 
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Ultrasound? I haven't heard anyone else comment on that yet, very interesting. Anyway, thanks for the post. I personally enjoyed it, but you've presented a very valid and reasonable criticism here.
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Old 02-25-2012, 05:32 AM   #3
Irongiant666
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dhmholley View Post
Now why was all this disappointing? Well, as far as I'm concerned I'm disappointed because it could have been so much better. The game had incredible potential to break new and interesting ground, or even just to stand on its own as a piece of art. Ultimately though, it was poorly executed and failed to live up to that promise.
Thanks for at least taking the time to offer some constructive criticism instead of just ranting. Suffice to say that I completely disagree with you, but that's what opinions are for.

But poorly executed? Sorry, not seeing that at all. I thought it was extremely well executed - I would in fact deem it utterly flawless. It engaged me on a few levels - emotional, spiritual (and I'm not in the least religious) and cerebral.
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Old 02-25-2012, 06:01 AM   #4
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I thought they took away the controls a bit too early at the ending. I would have liked to climb the tower myself.

Those ultrasounds could be of the kidney stones often mentioned.
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Old 02-25-2012, 06:13 AM   #5
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The ladder thing was for several reasons. The first is due to the way source handles ladders. It would be possible for the player to accidentally fall off halfway up, damaging the pacing of an important moment. Aside from that, the developers also did it as an artistic choice, to reinforce the inevitably of that moment. They have admitted it was a difficult choice to make though, but it's understandable why they went the way they did.
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Old 02-25-2012, 06:52 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dhmholley View Post
The writing is overblown and essentially masturbatory. The use of metaphor is interesting in the first half of the story, but breaks down totally in the second half as the metaphors become unsubtly overplayed and repeated until their impact is completely lost.
Quote:
this game would have been much improved by removing half of the hacky writing which tries too hard to be poetic).
Completely agree with these points. Throughout my playthrough, I constantly felt as if they had converted their basic script with a thesaurus and a dictionary. I understood the long, lavish words, and I understood their placement, but I didn't think they were neccessary for the narrator to communicate. It seemed like an attempt at high literature, the sort you'd find being discussed in lectures at Oxford.

Its great that a game dev tries to do this (who really wants to hear that idiot character Duke Nukem?), but did they pull it off? In my opinion, no. It seemed tacky and forced, as if a student had written it.

I know its ambitious to try this, and good on them! But I did pay $10 for it, so criticism is important where it is due and I could of paid less for several decent novels

Quote:
I'm disappointed because it could have been so much better. The game had incredible potential to break new and interesting ground, or even just to stand on its own as a piece of art. Ultimately though, it was poorly executed and failed to live up to that promise.
Pretty much how I felt. I bought DE because I was bored with playing your run of the mill shooter, RPG and beat em up. I wanted something different, something that would make me think and appreciate a dev's artistic merit.
But in the end, I think they ballsed it.

If they made a successor to DE, I would definitely consider buying it to give them another chance.
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Old 02-25-2012, 05:41 PM   #7
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Great criticism; I just want to point out for some people who have liked the game and don't seen to enjoy other people criticizing it:
- There is no such thing as constructive criticism if there isn't someone asking for it.

If another human being lower their guard and ask, sincerely, what you think of something. Then, it is of good taste, to give your criticism in a way that it can generate improvement and not only happiness or sadness.

You see, it cut both ways;

Someone who says: "I loved this game, this is what games should be, it's way better than Call of Duty and Skyrim" and someone who says "I hate this game, it sucks so bad!" are doing the exact same thing: Expressing how they feel. If you can tolerate one, or even enjoy, then be ready to do the same with the other.

Now, if somebody asked for my opinion and constructive criticism (not that it matters now, the game has already made 500.000,00 bucks) I would say that Dear Esther fails on where it aims to do.

It's not about the lack of game-play, puzzles or length. I would rather play Dear Esther without any traditional Game-Playing than many other games. Because the lack of interactivity does not bother me, bad interactivity do.

The problem is that, if you enter in my room and hide my computer, my drawing board, my guitar and my books... Then you better be a VERY interesting person to keep me "enjoying" staying there with you.

Dear Esther has the premise of a "Open Storyline", a Joke where the punchline in your head is the one and only. No big reveal at the end, it is what you think it is...

The problem is that, the storyline isn't open. The details are, but on the big picture, they are just details.

Esther is Dead, Your miss her more than you can bear, you die at the end. Ghost, who was paul, who was jakobson, who was donnely... all these things are details. Details lost in the endless repetition of metaphors for car crashes, diagrams for brakes and alcohol.

My mother died 2 years ago;
Maybe it was from cancer or heart attack, maybe she died in a hospital or in her bed, maybe her name was Maria or Carla, Maybe I'm her oldest or youngest son...
All these maybes, and probably what you're thinking now is: "Jeez, I'm sorry to hear that man. I miss my mom too/I hope it doesn't happen to me." And this is the problem of Dear Esther, while we all can have very different playthrus, with ghosts, seagulls, pauls and hermits... The game is still hammering the same thing.

So, this is my criticism.
And on a side note. I think taking the control away from the player at the end was totally uncalled for. While I do realize the technical limitations of source engine stairs. I felt bothered by it when it happened.
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Old 02-25-2012, 07:51 PM   #8
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I agree with you on the ending, that would have made things much more interesting if your first and only gameplay action was there. But I rather like the jumbled and repeated metaphors in the last area of the game. The narrator's mind slowly becomes more and more confused as it goes on, and by the final level he's rambling and mixing all this symbolism and stories in his head together and toward the very last bits of dialog his voice becomes a little erratic for the first time. That's very effective to me. His purple prose also seals the idea for me that he's an unreliable narrator.
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Old 02-26-2012, 01:20 AM   #9
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I agree 100% with the OP on this. Instead of creating my own thread talking about how I disliked the game I think I will just agree with this OP as he explained it better than I ever could. I am all for games as art. Like most will point out the visuals were very impressive in this game. That being said I was let down by everything else. If this game could have had a story that sucked the player in a little more it might have worked however it did nothing for me. Maybe I am just an ignorant American and missing something but I just didn't buy into this story.

When I think of emotional stories the first thing that comes to me is 1000 years of dreams in Lost Odyssey. Now if this game could have held to a story like that it might have been more interesting. After listening to any of the stories from 1000 years of dreams you could almost feel like you was there. You understood the characters, you could visual the area, you felts the emotion of the people/person in the story, and it no doubt sparked emotion. I feel like this game did none of that. I see alot of posts where people are making up their own interpretations. Maybe that is what the devs wanted but I feel like it is poor story telling. The story was left so vague people could come up with tons of variations and none of them could be anything close to what was originally conceived.

When I bought this game I didn't really know what I was getting into. I knew it was supposed to be almost completely story driven but I didn't know it would be a hour long game with no interaction what so ever. It would have been neat if I could go into an old house and picked up a book and it go to a cutscene with some story/background. Instead the way this game is set up your better off to just follow the main path and not bother looking at anything else.

If I knew then what I knew how I wouldn't pay $10 for this game. I think it was over hyped and way too short. I think this type of gameplay could work but it needs some interaction, better story, and much longer gameplay.
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Old 02-26-2012, 06:49 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by Mpsai View Post
I rather like the jumbled and repeated metaphors in the last area of the game. The narrator's mind slowly becomes more and more confused as it goes on, and by the final level he's rambling and mixing all this symbolism and stories in his head together and toward the very last bits of dialog his voice becomes a little erratic for the first time. That's very effective to me. His purple prose also seals the idea for me that he's an unreliable narrator.
This. A bit pretentious? Sure. But overall I think the pretentiousness and stubborn ambiguity helped the atmosphere and reinforced the idea that the narrator is, in many ways, completely lost.

As for people complaining that it was too short, keep in mind that it was originally a free mod that was released four years ago. It was not originally intended to be a commercial release.
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Old 02-26-2012, 08:18 PM   #11
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Thank you for this clear and well-written bit of criticism. I enjoyed Dear Esther, but I wholeheartedly agree with many of the points the OP makes. I was disappointed by...

1. The lack of interactivity, or even its illusion. The game really could have worked just as well if it was entirely an on-rails cutscene. But it could have excelled if there was some way, even minor, to explore deeper. To find alternate paths and see alternate potential outcomes.

2. The pacing. This would have been bad if you could run the whole time. But about four times, I walked too far in the wrong direction and had to endure sluggishly plodding my way back to a crossroads or turn-off. The scenery is nice, but not so nice that I want to be punished for poking my nose into dead-end pathways.

3. The stillness. I get that the feelings of helplessness and melancholy are part of the game's intended atmosphere and user-experience. But aside from the wind and a few seagulls, nothing seems to move on this island. Maybe I'm asking too much, but some details like doors loose on their hinges, canvas tents rippling in the wind, etc would have made this feel much more organic. At times it feels like a slow-motion fly through of a level put on "pause".

4. The length. I've put dozens of hours into games people have criticized for being "too short" because there was so much to do and experience. A "don't smell the roses" play of Portal could be completed in a few hours too. But Dear Esther took me 90 minutes- the length of a short-ish movie, and honestly had far less to offer.


I would still recommend this game to someone who likes the atmosphere of titles like Braid, or the limited play of titles like Dinner Date. Some people might even want to shell out just to marvel at the pretty scenery. I don't regret paying $10 for this game, because I support the idea of independent developers putting time and resources into risky non-mainstream products.



But there are definitely other places I could have spent that $10 and been better compensated.
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Old 02-26-2012, 10:15 PM   #12
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I agree about that last segment, I really wish we could have jumped on our own. Maybe a modder can make that possible.

Otherwise I enjoyed it. Personally I've noticed that it's pretty fun to use obtuse language. As a result I don't care if a writer uses that sort of language, so long as they aren't preaching with it.

I hate literature because its preachy. It has an agenda, some high cognitive truth its trying to convey, some comment on "the human condition" it's trying oh so very hard to portray.

I liked Dear Esther personally. The reason that obtuse and metaphoric language didn't bother me personally is because it was relatively straight forward in its intentions. It, to me, was used to hide the narator's perspective and not some greater truth. It was used to make the narator's intentions more difficult to discern and not to make the player understand some larger situation.

I also don't mind it because cryptic or highly literate language is a great way to disguise emotion. This is something I do all the time.

I recognize your points and consider them all valid in that they all hinge on a subjective assessment of this game's writing. I don't mind it, you do, we're both right.

Thank you for voicing your opinion, it was well written and I (and most likely others) appreciate that.
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Old 02-26-2012, 11:20 PM   #13
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GuardianAngel42... The Lack of an Agenda is probably the most interesting praise I've seen anyone give the game, so far... I haven't thought about it, this is some really valid piece of praise. great post.
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Old 02-28-2012, 01:08 AM   #14
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I really can't say I was completely disappointed, but I do end up agreeing with the OP for the most part. I could not figure out what was really going on, because the writing was too dense for me. If I was following what was trying to be portrayed, I think I would have understood the direction and the ending way more.

That's really the most disappointing thing for me, is that when I finished it, I asked myself "WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?!", and had to come onto the forums to understand who even Esther was, or any of these people were, and even a lot of the people talking about it don't even really know, they're just theorizing. I kept thinking Esther was a friend or something because of what seemed to be the male shadow off in the distance, but I guess I missed a lot of the texts about some of the stuff people were talking about, even though I tried really hard to grasp what he was talking about.

I just think that something is off if a player has to go to outside sources to figure out what was essentially the point of the story in a game. That's what the game itself is supposed to do. I enjoyed the scenery and what they did with everything, I just didn't understand the context until way after the game ended.
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Old 02-28-2012, 01:21 AM   #15
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To the OP. I think you've overthought this a way too much. It reminds me of English literature courses that deconstruct favorite books into component parts that never seem to go together in quite the same way again. A story is an illusion that lacks only one thing, the reader, or in this case, the player. Depending on what the player brings to the table the story either becomes whole or does not. It was an emotionally rewarding experience for me and assumed a measure of reality, but for you it was a failed experiment. Either experience is valid, but I prefer mine because I got full value for my $10. That's my opinion; my vote is counted and that's all I'm going to say about that.
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