Indie Jeff's Weekly Pick: Dear Esther

Dear Esther is a curious and compelling experiment in interactive art. Its humble first iteration began as a fan-made mod for Half-Life 2, but indie developers Dan Pinchbeck and Robert Briscoe later obtained a Source engine license from Valve, permitting them to remake the game and publish it as a standalone title. That new version of Dear Esther hit Steam last week on Valentine's Day, featuring an expanded story, and some spectacular presentation.

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The future of the Dear Esther remake wasn't always certain. In fact, the decision to go commercial with the title created a conflict of interest with the University of Portsmouth, where the original Half-Life 2 mod began its life as a research project. With a remake that was only about three-quarters finished at the time, thechineseroom finally found the funding necessary to finish the project through Indie Fund.

Calling Dear Esther a "game" in the traditional sense isn't all that accurate, but it's an experience that does use some of gaming's frameworks to convey its non-linear story. Part mystery, part ghost story, Dear Esther's narrative is one whose power depends largely on the how susceptible the player is to its poetic charms. Bits of voice-over narration are presented to the player based on where they explore, creating a sort of patchwork storybook, where each individual monologue reveals (often cryptically) a new piece of the tale. As with much interpretive art, player subjectivity (and receptiveness to the experience's poetic delivery) will go a long way in determining how much the journey resonates on a personal level. Those that prefer narrative meanings that are clearly spelled out may ultimately find themselves adrift in Dear Esther's solitary tale.

Exploration is Dear Esther's core interactive task. It's done at an intentionally methodical pace that's perfect for encouraging the player to stop and smell the virtual roses. Given that much of Dear Esther's enjoyment comes from letting all of the near photo-real vistas, sound, and music wash over you, the slower pace is a great choice. Some might bemoan the inability to run, jump, or interact with the surroundings, but such complaints miss the point of the experience.

I really, really enjoyed my time playing through Dear Esther, and I'll likely play through it again somewhere down the road to see what narrative bits I missed the first time through. The $9.99 price tag on Steam seems quite reasonable to me, given the emotional resonance and amazing presentation I was able to find therein, but those who spend their gaming cash on a dollars-to-hours gameplay ratio might be turned off by its incredibly short length. I personally found Dear Esther's storytelling method quite to my liking, largely due to its non-traditional execution. I hope other interactive storytellers take note.

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