Indie Showcase: Dear Esther

It’s always nice to find a game that has a bit of controversy surrounding it, and few games have as odd of a discussion surrounding them as Dear Esther. You see, there’s quite a few who have played it that wonder if the game can even be considered just that – a game. So, let’s take a look at this odd little game and you can be the judge of whether or not it’s a game or something else entirely.
Now, after games have been played for decades, and have created an entire community about themselves, I think it’s safe to assume we have a fairly solid definition of what it takes to be a game. First and foremost, it has to have some electronic portion to it – console, PC, or any of the countless hand-held devices floating around. Second, it has to have some sort of story attached to it, though the story can be as in-depth or shallow as the creators need it to be. Three, there has to be conflict – this can be a part of the story, or just something happening within the game that has no connection to the overarching tale. And four, there has to be obstacles to overcome, in some manner or other. While this may not be the most comprehensive list of items to measure something’s ‘gamitude’, it will work well enough for our purposes. So, now we get down to the brass tacks of the matter – how does Dear Esther meet these requirements?
Well, it immediately meets the first two requirements. For an indie PC game, it has a very striking setting and story line. When you enter the game, you find yourself on the decrepit and forgotten docks of some remote shepherds’ island staring at a radio tower far off in the distance. As the waves crash on the beach and the clouds swirl stormily about, a narrator begins talking to someone b the name of Esther. From what you are able to gather, there’s nothing linking you to either the narrator or this ‘Esther’ person.
As the game progresses – and you quickly discover your only controls are the WASD keys, the mouse, and a zoom function – it becomes apparent that, as you choose various paths on your unspoken journey to the radio tower, the narrator will continue talking, at random, to this Esther person (after a while, it becomes apparent that the format of the narrations is a letter – hence the game’s title). And it’s on this rather surreal journey that the certainty of the game’s qualifications become muddled.
For one, there’s no outright conflict within the game. It seems that, for all intents and purposes, your only goal is to reach the distant radio tower and listen to the narrator while you do just that. While the game has a very tangible, eerie vibe to it, there’s really nothing to be worried about. There are no enemies, no puzzles, not even an out of the blue jump-scare like in the similar game Gone Home. In these respects, the game seems much more like an interactive movie than an actual video game.
However, while the action may be rather lacking – and while the gamitude may be questionable – it is certain that it is a compelling experience. As you grow closer to your goal, the world around you becomes more surreal, the narrator more frantic, and the story a bit clearer. What’s more, after completing the game (roughly about an hour, depending on how much you explore) there’s a lot of incentive to play again. Apparently the game chooses the narrations given to the player somewhat randomly – giving up more information with ach play through.
Whether or not this experience can really be called a game is up to each individual player. That being said, if you love a good story, music, or atmosphere, then this game is certainly made for the likes of you. For $10, it’s quite the ride.