Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Unfinished Business: Steam Sale Backlog - Dear Esther (Games)

[Unfinished Business is a feature where I take an unplayed game or unwatched DVD that has been languishing on my shelf and chronicle my experiences with it.]

As is the case for many people, my games library is filled with many unfinished or unplayed titles - many on my Steam account, thanks to countless surrenders to the temptation of a holiday sale - so it seemed a good idea to bring back a feature that hasn't been used since last year's Breaking Bad season one retrospectives to try and push through the backlog. It's all dependent on how much free time I have, so don't expect these to crop up on any sort of schedule, but hopefully they'll contribute to an increase to the gaming content that has recently been a little sparse.

The feature kicks off with Dear Esther, one of the this year's more experimental releases for its heavy focus on atmosphere and storytelling and eschewing of the medium's traditional reliance on action. The game has been a success for developers thechineseroom, reportedly reaching 50k downloads in its first week. Given how gaming discussion often revolves around a familiar slate of AAA titles, it's an encouraging sign of the diversity of the gaming audience that such a quiet, contemplative game can make its mark on the sales charts.
Dear Esther started life as a Half-Life 2 mod in 2008, a University Of Portsmouth research project into the medium's potential for non-linear narrative and level design. It was redesigned a year later by a development team led by Robert Briscoe. Financial backing from The Indie Fund was successfully repaid within five hours of the game going on sale.

The game has undergone a significant visual overhaul from the original mod, whose texturing and detail was unsurprisingly basic. The retail version could not be a greater contrast, with every corner revealing a new tableau: grass fluttering over a Hebridean cliffside, a midnight beach glowing amber with floating candles, a red beacon flashing through dense fog, or crystals sparkling in the walls of an underground cave network. Such sights are underpinned by a pervasive ghostliness: this beauty is not that of an island in full life, but the affirming sadness of intimate souvenirs left behind. The developers deserve credit for enriching the original mod's visuals without enlivening them: this remains an island of memories, strewn with the debris of the long deceased.

The visual disparity between the two versions of Dear Esther creates very different experiences, as you can see in the video below:

Thechineseroom have done away with the 2008 version's trudging footfalls and bleeping torch, which distracted from the somber mood. The original is bleak where the updated version is wistful. Walking through the 2008 island is a challenge in itself, deliberately off-putting in its grubby, aged aesthetics. It is reminiscent of Russian developer Ice Pick Lodge's 2005 game, Pathologic, which deliberately presented an ugly, crumbling cityscape in order that players would share the stresses of the protagonist's quest to discover the source of local plague.

The similarly depressing 2008 Dear Esther, whether intentionally or not, offers a more direct take on its central theme. In the 2012 iteration, the player occupies the position of someone walking across an island, remembering the dead through the mementos left behind. The 2008 version feels more like the player is among the dead – perhaps sharing more in common with Ice Pick Lodge's also outstanding The Void in that respect- wandering across Asphodel in a fog of barely coherent memories.

The updated Esther stays true to the original's ethereal loneliness, but its visual beauty eliminates any trace of the angry starkess and suffocating greys and browns. The 2012 island is a poetry book, where the 2008 one was a gravestone. That lyrical elegance does not always work in the game's favour: where the clumsiness of the dialogue could be justified as the meandering thoughts of a dead man in the original, its clunky metaphors and opacity become more cloying in a world dedicated to poetic remembrance.

The game's themes are too often shouted rather than softly whispered. The frequency with which the dialogue recitals appear gives the player little time to consider their meaning. The developers appear to have little trust in the lasting impact of their words or world, seemingly hoping that volume will cover for a lack of depth. That the game's climax is taken out of the player's hands only reinforces a sense of how little confidence thechineseroom had in the story and atmosphere's power to drive the player to perform the final act on their own. Players are naturally mischievous, but a well-constructed story should instil a desire to honour, rather than mock, its creators' intentions. The people buying Dear Esther will not be the stereotypical Call Of Duty crowd and should have been trusted to respect the artistic integrity of the experience.

The island is also distractingly overdesigned, with every shore littered with the carcasses of rusting ships and every wall daubed with cryptic messages, one of gaming's more recent entries its cliché canon. A cave section in the middle act is the worst culprit, turning what should have been a harsh descent into the island's hollow bowels into a mood-breaking graphical showcase, with the environment so blatant in its artifice as to annul any meaning the location might have carried. The jumps into chasms and occasional swimming sections are inappropriately video-gamey moments, although one underwater environment's transformation into the scene of a motorway accident is an effective shift to more abstract territory.

As far as 'serious' gaming goes, Dear Esther is more accomplished than David Cage's embarrassing efforts and demonstrates the medium's capacity for telling stories without resorting to bombast and action. The game's financial success, along with the PS3's downloadable title Journey (a more creatively confident take on similar themes), suggests players are ready for slower, more in-depth emotional experiences: hopefully, in the future, other developers will continue along the trail Esther forged.



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