[This message is crossposted from the Indie Fund blog.]
Our gift to you, on this very special Valentine's Day, is the worldwide release of the long-awaited game Dear Esther.
If you haven't heard of Dear Esther, watch this:
(Or hey, watch the trailer even if you are quite familiar with the game; the trailer is beautiful and worthy of multiple viewings.)
We expect public reception of this game to run wide: some will love it, and others will be very concerned about whether this thing can be called a game and what that means. So far, this has certainly been the case in pre-release reviews.
Game Informer scored the game an 8/10, saying: "You should consider checking out Dear Esther the same way you’d appraise a film. If you’re interested in absorbing an intellectual story and gorgeous visuals without having to exert a drop of effort, take a chance on this curious experiment."
VideoGamer.com scored the game a 9: "Discovery is such an important part of Dear Esther, especially when everything is so phenomenally pretty."
Meanwhile, Destructoid gave the game a lowly 4.5/10: "It’s as if it wants to be a part of this wonderful medium of ours without asking itself why, which is exactly why you should seek it out and learn from its failures as a game enthusiast, critic, or developer."
We like that there's such a big difference of opinion because it means the game is breaking new ground. It's playing in territory that is not safe; there is no established understanding there.
Dear Esther is a game that no publisher would have funded. Dan, Rob, Jessica and the other associates of thechineseroom have done an excellent job putting together a beautiful game. We are happy to be backing it; we hope you enjoy playing it.
If you'd like more information about Dear Esther, here's an interview with Dan, and here's a link the game's page on Steam.
Update: Dear Esther has been wildly successful, selling 16,000 copies in under 24 hours. As an investment, it reached profitability in 5.5 hours. More details are available at a new post on the Indie Fund blog.
“because it means the game is breaking new ground.”
And shows really well how ridiculously limited range of understanding the medium most reviewers have and that current style of writing about games doesn’t fit to their form at all.
Hmm, the difference of opinion shows that? How so?
The thing I find in all those reviews is flawed dialectics that comes from very limited knowledge about other media like literature, film or art in general. The difference in opinions is not a result of appropriate analisys and therefore it makes it more noticeable.
Aww, no mac version yet it seems :\
Already got a copy for myself and a copy for my brother.
I can understand why people don’t want to call it a game. Why they then proceed to evaluate it as a game, and not as an interactive story or whatever they want to call it, is beyond me.
I got it on steam thanks to Blow’s recommendation. I can’t really say I connected with the story, but the beauty of the island and the sense of mystery were worth the purchase. I feel like I learned something about games, but I’m not sure what it was yet.
I played it again, and it didn’t leave me any less mystified than the mod did. Is this an okay place to ask for help in understanding Dear Esther? Why does it work? Any interviews I should read?
And within 1 day it’s blown off the Steam New Releases list by a bowelful of Crusader Kings, Choplifter and Dungeon Defenders DLC :-(
That sucks. I will try to evangelize to help compensate for the Steam Store being terrible at advertising.
Dear Esther is a very interesting ‘game’. I purchased it due to Blow’s recommendation (in Blow we trust). I feel that the game didn’t really motivate me to continue playing it, something discussed in Jonothan Blow’s ‘Design Reboot’ lecture. At the start I was quite annoyed at low objects blocking my path (there’s no ability to jump) however I soon got over this. I enjoyed being in the world, however the monologues didn’t really paint a clear story for me and the ending is quite bewildering. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, as Braid is an ‘art game’ (i know you don’t like that term anymore) but I really felt a connection to that despite also not being clear cut, however I could not connect to Dear Esther. I recommend people try it at the least. Even if it is $10 for less than an hour.
Absolutely beautiful piece of work by the creators, especially the art lead. I have similar feelings to Diogo above in that I didn’t quite connect to the story being told, but I was completely absorbed by the atmosphere that was created. I often found myself moving much slower than the player was able, just to take everything in. Inspirational.
I’ve added an update and a link to the end of this post. A whole lot of people seem to want to play this game!
I’ve been waiting for this! It just popped up on steam without warning, I look forward to a sale on it :)
Alec Meer gave Dear Esther a very interesting review on . Spoilers if you haven’t played warning.
Meant to say on Rock Paper Shotgun.
Definitely enjoyed the experience, though again its hard to call it a game. I mean you could choose to call it a game but then you would be broadening the definition and the medium, thereby making it harder for people to understand what games are. It would seem more productive if this kind of thing was called interactive entertainment, so that we could analyze it on a different level.
But yeah, mainly bought it as support for the indie fund but was impressed nonetheless.
I don’t like all that “is not a gaem” talk.
Dear Esther wouldn’t work if it was a movie or as a book or song.
Dear Esther is Dear Esther because it’s a game.
As much as I hate interactive fiction and point and clicks, they are games to. Not very good but still game since they are limited (just like DE but not because it has to, Dear Esther choses to be limited)
The game is not about a story of a wife or whatever is more like Incepotion. Inception is not about dreams or what does the end mean plot wise or whatever. Is more about: Inception is about movies and the end is not about what it means plot wise but what it means in the world.
If its a dream or reality that is the movie and the plot, that is fake because is acted, is not real. Is, what does this mean in the real world and what does it mean for these cool and weird interactives thing and what they can do (or in the case of Esther, what they can not do and what does that mean. when you are upset that you can’t jump or run) this is why the game is good. Is about games not about some ghost, because that is just plot and that doesn’t get you mad.
What gets to you is why can I do this and why can’t I do this and why does this get me mad or bored or whatever feeling… But what does this mean.
To be in the island where you see, hear and feel through this medium, you are doing a wonderful thing. This is an experience that nobody anytime earlier in the history of humanity was privileged to have. There is magic here – something fundamentally worthwhile.
also… test to see if banned.
I found this game to be astonishing. Everything seems to be the way it is for a reason in the game. It seems so subtle in making you want to head to the tower, get out of caves, or hear the next piece of the story; its pacing is great and flows well. Some people seem to be complaining about not being able to jump but you are on a journey, not a mission to hop over rocks to force the game to be open world. I actually liked the speed at which you walk too because its makes you not want to backtrack and think about where you go. I’d even go so far as to say this is not only an amazing game but an amazing contribution to the gaming community with its deep writing, storytelling, and message it really blends literature, film, and game in a deserving way.
I’m afraid that Dear Esther is a video game. It took three playthroughs (not counting a few extra load-chapters to verify a few things) to feel quite certain. Unfortunately, there is no way to talk about it without spoiling the “aha” moment. So I won’t.
Both of the IndieFund titles so far were remarkable. Congratulations on the financial side of things. I hope this implies more funding for work in the future.
whachoo talkin’ ’bout Willis?
I just finished it and really enjoyed playing through. It’s a really beautiful game with a moving story. Also it has the first waterfall I’ve ever encountered in a video game that felt like a real waterfall, the combination of sound and effects were perfect. In fact it’s the best water effects I think I’ve ever seen, so realistic. I hope to see more of this type of work in the future.
For me, the most interesting aspect of storytelling in videogames – or interactive experiences, or interactive narratives, or whatever you want to call them – is when the designer makes use of techniques exclusive to this medium in order to tell the story or convey the themes. Personally, I don’t feel that Dear Esther made use of any techniques unique to videogames, and if it did, then it did unsuccessfully.
Firstly, no story is conveyed through the mechanics. In other words interactivity – the most essential aspect of a videogame – does not help further our understanding of the plot, which is Dear Esther is the most important part. Interactivity in Dear Esther feels more like holding down a play button to watch a movie, which is a mile away from what you want the player to be feeling in an interactive medium. Look at “Passage” or “The Marriage” in which the mechanics further our understanding of what is being conveyed.
Secondly, exploration of course plays a large role in Dear Esther. As has been seen in games such as “Bioshock” or “Half-Life 2”, so much information can be given to us from the environment without the need to be directly told it. Unfortunately I feel Dear Esther relies too heavily on the narration to help us understand the story. Points of interest in Dear Esther are usually too abstract to be understood without narration, and as a result feel more like pictures in a book, which again is not something you wan’t to be feeling in an interactive medium. In some cases even with the narration I still didn’t understand what some points of interest meant. For example the chemical and electrical diagrams.. thanks Wikipedia! It doesn’t really feel like “exploring” either, in fact it feels like a very restrictive environment. Paths lead to dead ends and small boulders form arbitrary barriers. It reinforces the linear feel of the experience, why would they do this in the only medium that allows for true non-linear experiences?
The slow walking is a strange element too I think. I simply don’t understand why it needs to be so slow. In the game “The Path” running would force the camera into a restrictive view and highlighting would be removed on certain things, almost trying to force us to walk. Why do so many Indie devs want us to move so slow? How does it further our understanding of the plot or make our experience more engaging? Is it meant to make me feel the same emotions of who or what I am controlling, why would I want to feel that way anyway? Haha, I guess it’s just one the the small aspects that bug me.
I’d love to hear some feedback to my post… if any of you even made it this far. But lastly I’d just like to say something on a habit I see in a lot of discussions on “arsty” games. There is always at least one who tries to undermine a criticism directed at whatever game in question, by stating that the reviewer has an outdated mindset, that they have a limited view of the potentials of the medium, that they are ignorant towards these type of experiences because they don’t fit into the mainstream mindset where everything needs to be “fun” and mindless entertainment. I think this is an extremely dangerous mindset, because we end up praising interactive experiences simply because they are different from the norm, where we ignore genuine criticism by saying they don’t understand the medium. Videogames are never going to progress as a medium when we are so desperate for piece of “art”, that we are deluded into seeing even the weakest examples of storytelling in an interactive medium as something that should be given worth.
TLDR – Dear Esther does not make use of the strengths of an interactive media to convey its story or themes, and therefore does nothing to progress medium or “break new ground”.
I disagree. Dear Esther does make use of the strengths of interactive media; it just does so in a much subtler way than people are used to. It does use “game mechanics” to do what it does; it’s just that they are subtler “mechanics” than people are used to.
(I have started putting “game mechanics” in sarcasm quotes, habitually, because I feel like we have entered an era of mechanics fetishism, but in an extra-perverse way, where many people using the term don’t really know what a mechanic is. So these days I am in a mode of discouraging people from looking at games this way, as it can often result in a shallow view of games.)
Thanks for replying!…but I’d really like to hear more, as I am still unsure of how it uses the strengths of an interactive media X] . Oh, and after re-reading my first post I realise I sounded a bit dickish. Totally not my intention, I was just stating how I felt at the time – I did like Dear Esther, but I didn’t feel the way in which the story was conveyed was anything special. Prove me wrong!
It would take a lot of effort to explain, and I feel the most productive use of my effort is to use it to make games. I think opinions like the one I now hold will be understood by many more people (whether agreed with or not) in the near future, say in 5 or 10 years, as long as designers continue to make good and subtle games. Since there are few designers even trying to do that, I feel the best course of action is for me to go that way.
Hehe, these things never are quite so easy to explain. Making games is definitely the better choice! XD
Dear Esther reminded me a lot of the chapter “The Rub’ al Khali” in Uncharted 3. Most people seem to respond very positively to that chapter so maybe it’s a sign that even the…er.. “average gamer” is eager to see something different, so maybe it’s a sign we’ll see more experimentation in the future. Oh, and it’s the only example I can think of in which I felt a slow walking pace has added to the experience and actually made sense given the context XD . The switch to running speed in a couple of moments was a nice touch too X]
Dude… You just brought such inmense sense of closure to me.
I agree with that Guy, He was able to put what I thought were unexplainable feelings into words. I could have never explained it that well.
Thank you so much. I feel at ease now. much better.
And for Jonathan, It can eaither be explained in a couple of words or it can’t be explained at all. Anyways though, why would you keep quiet when you understand something so incredibly layered and inmensivebly nebulous yet extremely important and meaningful to people? And “just wait 5 to 10 yeras nad you’ll get it.”
I am dissapointed Jonathan. It makes me sad that you don’t care about sharing things like this.
Justin, if you want a deeper understanding of game design, an appropriate tactic may be to spend less time posting weird stuff on internet forums, and more time building games.
I gather what your saying, but this is a very strong example of artistic game. Even though I felt the story told was far too abstact and patchy (making it difficult for most to truely understand), there is another side to the game.
By giving the player an astonishing environment where you can only walk and focus gives this feeling of a tour, or journey. As you see something, like a landmark, in the distance you start to get really intrigued by what is up there. But you still stop and look at everything else along the way! Turns out the house is empty and just gives a fantastic view… or has stuff painted on the walls.
But, its this point of slowing the game down really immerses you into the world and you can enjoy an hour of it without any problems. I ended up wondering towards candles far too often… Very few games could pull this off for more than a few minutes before players would start to detract from the experience.
I understand that most people who play it wont appreciate the qualities it portrays (not directed at you at all, btw) and will likely leave them feeling sour.
I do understand your point of the narrative, which I did find a little weak. Maybe I didn’t understand it, or piece it all together. I believe its randomised a bit every time you play so maybe another run through will change that. Either way, the narrative is hardly groundbreaking.
For me, this game was all about the atmosphere it produces, the pace of play and consistent intrigue I felt to delve in further.
Thats my 2 pence.
“By giving the player an astonishing environment where you can only walk and focus gives this feeling of a tour, or journey. As you see something, like a landmark, in the distance you start to get really intrigued by what is up there. But you still stop and look at everything else along the way! ”
I definitely agree with what you’re saying here. The island is undoubtedly beautiful and I felt the same way you did numerous times. Perhaps I’m wrong but I never really felt that this was specifically what the game was trying to achieve, because ultimately the game was trying to tell a story, not simply provide us with a cool sightseeing journey. It was a cool sightseeing journey at least, no doubt about that! XD
“But, its this point of slowing the game down really immerses you into the world and you can enjoy an hour of it without any problems.”
I’m still not convinced that such a slow pace helps immerse you in the world. Here’s my thoughts… with a little bit of a tangent. Firstly when you’re playing a game like this, immersion is key. You know you’re playing a game but you don’t want to “feel” like you’re playing a game. I think the developer said this is why they removed aspects such as a jump button, and also removed interactivity for the final scene for fear it would break immersion and flow, etc. So I’ll focus on the jump button first. You don’t need a jump button to complete Dear Esther… so then why did so many people want a jump button if there was no need to jump? This suggests a problem with the design – poor boundaries of the area of play. When players can’t reach an area because of small boulders, a slightly steep hill, or water in which the player will arbitrarily start to sink at certain points, then it feels like an “invisible wall” and the sense of immersion is broken, we become aware we are playing a game and are taken out of the experience. The solution isn’t to add a jump button, the solution is the make the boundaries of the area of play more clear and… well… logical. It isn’t always easy, but hey, that’s where the skill of the designer comes into play. This doesn’t just apply to the boundaries though, when control was taken away from us at the end it broke immersion because… well do I really need to explain why? I know the developer didn’t want the poignancy of the scene to be ruined but the “solution” was no better.
End tangent. I also think it applies to the slow walking pace, because it was slower than walking, so even from the start it feels unnatural. Also, the speed always remains constant, and thus doesn’t change to suit our mood – when I see something interesting in the distance it builds excitement and I just want to run to it, but I can’t, I feel restricted by the slow walking pace and my immersion begins to break. The game “flower” handled this very well – I’ll not go further into it but the contrast between the fast and energetic level 3, and the slow and peaceful level 4 is a good place to look (specifically the differences in music, art design, the general speed of movement, and also the speed of movement we choose to move at due to the arrangement of the flowers). As I said in another post the Rub Al Khali chapter in Uncharted 3 is also a cool example, as the change in speed not only has a subtle effect on our mood but also (perhaps more importantly given that this is a 3rd person game) informs us of Drake’s emotional state.
I think it’s also worth mentioning Shadow of the Colossus. To quote you, the exploration element succeeds because of ” the atmosphere it produces, the pace of play and consistent intrigue I felt to delve in further.” And you don’t walk around in that game, you ride around on a horse! Yet you still get incredibly immersed in the world despite the fact you are moving at high speed. People react better to a fast speed for a large distance, not a slow speed for a small distance. We just prefer moving at a fast pace whether it be moving around in a game game, driving a car, or on a roller-coaster X]
“I felt the story told was far too abstact and patchy (making it difficult for most to truely understand)”
I felt the same way. Heck, most people talking about the game seem to feel the same way. There is nothing inherently better about a story that’s difficult to understand. If most people who played the game found it difficult to understand the story and what it was trying to say, then this does not make it better for being vague or abstract or difficult to understand, it just makes it bad storytelling.
TLDR: Space Bacon
There’s actually a great interview with the Dear Esther developers at
where they explain a lot of their design philosophies and intents (among other things) quite nicely. I really appreciate a lot of their viewpoints.
One of the key aspects that they emphasize in a game is the feeling of presence that gives you an entirely different perspective on and relationship to the game. And personally, I found many times when the puzzling narration and environmental exploration synced up perfectly.
(As an addition, piecing together the plot could be considered a “mechanic” if, if you wanted to speak of “mechanics” like that – something you could obviously argue that could happen in any medium, but it definitely happens differently in an interactive context)
Dear Esther doesn’t feel like a movie at all, the experience is definitely not equivalent to seeing a playthrough on youtube or something like that. It’s kind of weird because I have read some reviews and I have expected it to be very movie-like.
I think the game is designed in a very minimalistic way mechanic wise because this is all what is needed to experience the game and there is nothing distracting the player (e.g. even the mere existence of the jump key would encourage players to nervously jump while walking, to try to jump up the hills etc). It’s easy and natural to fully concetrate on the things this game has to offer in this framework.
I think that interactivity in this game is used to make it possible for thoughts and feelings to emerge rather than provide a challenge or serve the plot. One of many examples – on one point my current state of mind made me want to explore some landmark (it was clear that I don’t have to go there for the story to progress). I got there and the way this landmark and the island looked from this location together with the mood and theme of the game reminded me of something I have experienced in my life and I stopped for a while looking at the island and thinking about it before continuing. It was a strong experience and it would not be possible in a movie nor a book, the acts of going there, seeing these things and not continuing from there for a while were very important. You can argue that this is no big deal and it could happen in any game, but I don’t think so. Very few games are designed in a way that encourages experiences like this. They don’t give the player space to experience them because they occupy his mind with traditionally gamy things and they are often mindlessly optimized for very specific experience that every player should have.
I come to this website to check in on Jon’s work. These comments are distracting from this blog’s purpose… I’m surprised Jon hasn’t disabled them.
It is rude to ask a professional to endow you personally with wisdom. Especially when your tactic is antagonizing him on his own blog.
Play Braid if you want to understand Jon. Watch all of his lectures. Not this.
From the blog post – “We expect public reception of this game to run wide: some will love it, and others will be very concerned about whether this thing can be called a game and what that means. So far, this has certainly been the case in pre-release reviews.”
Then it gives a sample of opinions for reviewers and follows with – “We like that there’s such a big difference of opinion because it means the game is breaking new ground. It’s playing in territory that is not safe; there is no established understanding there.”
This particular blog post is NOT about Jon’s work. You disagree but personally I think discussing Dear Esther in the comments of this particular blog post isn’t exactly off topic.
And hey, we’re just interested in what Jon has to say on videogames. “I think opinions like the one I now hold will be understood by many more people (whether agreed with or not) in the near future, say in 5 or 10 years”. Sounds like something he hasn’t discussed in a lecture or blog post before. We’re just excited to hear more :/
Wow; it was never my intention to antagonize him either. I personally don’t see my questions as rude no matter who I directed them too, considering I even asked if there were specific interviews on Dear Esther I should listen to or read by JB. I don’t want to take up anymore of anyone’s time than necessary, but I still would like to know why JB thinks Dear Esther is great. Specific interviews explaining why would be a great help; reading EVERY interview that he’s ever done and replaying Braid for the 5th time is a time investment I’m not willing to make.
Thomas Guererri: People like you are the reason I was/still am banned…
I guess you don’t like to discuss interesting stuff like this with like minded people…
or maybe you are socially retard that doesn’t want to share with other people.
You don’t like to discuss Jon’s progress and make fun of him too? Then don’t go any lower that the written post and close your eyes while in the comment section… or just don’t come here any more!
Sometimes Jon has worthwhile discussions with worthwhile posters. That is as much as I’d like to say.
Did I just read this right?
thechineseroom‘s Dan Pinchbeck next game is a spin-off of to indie developer Frictional Games’ Amnesia: Dark Decent.
Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs will be developed by thechineseroom (Dear Esther) and Frictional Games will take a back seat and act as a publisher/producer.
(more details in link)
Why it’s not a movie: The player controls the pacing of the experience. Perhaps the key word here is “player”, as in this game you are quite literally supposed to be the character. Movies allow us to merely watch characters interact, but it is quite difficult to insert ourselves into the role of someone in a movie. As a side note, I think one of the more pernicious trends of mainstream gaming today is that games are attempting to “be like movies”, to where the player feels more and more like he is watching the characters interact (cutscenes, shallow mindless gameplay) rather than genuinely being involved in the experience. The player should be the actor and not an observer, but the big developers are finding out that some people do not like the responsibility of being an actor. So they make games appealing to the lowest common denominator, and you get a watered down experience that “anyone can enjoy”.
Why it’s not a book: Comparing Dear Esther to a book is a bit closer, but still miles away. You do control the pace at which you experience a book, by how fast you read and how often you pause to imagine what is happening. Books are also a bit better at allowing the reader to become one of the characters, since internal monologues are possible. But books still offer one and only one path of experience, and the quality of the experience can’t be altered by the reader. In Dear Esther, you can spend as much or as little time taking in the experience as you want. I’ve noted from previous comments that people who spent 30 minutes on the game didn’t enjoy it very much, while those who took longer enjoyed it more.
I think what we’re seeing with both the reviews and the comments about the game here, is that some people can evaluate something for what it is, while some must evaluate it for what they WANT it to be. Sometimes you have to change your mindset to enjoy things for what they are.
It’s kind of funny, but this type of problem comes from lack of instruction. Most old games came with instructions that basically told you how to play it and have fun. People today claim not to have time for instructions or feel like they are entitled to always play without instruction. But then.. you see people unable to enjoy games because they were clearly “doing it wrong”. People will fire back with, “there is no wrong way to play a game!!11” but in this case that’s a bit like saying “there is no wrong way to experience a museum” You pay your admission and then run through the place like a chicken with your head cut off, then you feel cheated because you didn’t enjoy the museum? Could the problem be that players of modern games take no responsibility for their own enjoyment of the games? (this feels closest to true)
Could Dear Esther have benefited from some kind of disclaimer or instruction about how it is different from other games? Or should we just resign to the fact that artistic titles will be a case of “some will get it, some won’t”?
I didn’t expect to love Dear Esther when I first played it, but I seem to be coming back to it over and over again in my mind — especially after reading a few Steam threads about how others have interpreted the story. There’s something immensely satisfying in the way the narrative and its many metaphors interface directly with the physical world you’re in. I felt that as I moved through the story, I started to understand it both on an intellectual level and in a more instinctual way through the environment.
I think that the medium of games as an artistic medium will always be burdened by the connotation of games as “fun”. I didn’t have any fun while playing Dear Esther, but what I did get is a satisfying aesthetic and emotional experience. If I were a pundit I’d proclaim that we needed a different word to describe these works, but that decision isn’t up to me.
Has anyone else noticed that some of the most effective “art games” (I hate that phrase; is there a shorter way to say “games-that-try-to-do-something-interesting-with-the-medium”?) seem to deal with isolation, depression, insanity, and other dark, personal feelings? It almost seems to me like the medium of games is ideally suited to exploring these sorts of feelings. I can’t wait for someone to come up with a game that convincingly explores a purely positive feeling like love. (Rohrer’s “Gravitation” is an interesting experiment in this direction, but it didn’t have as much of an effect on me as “Passage”.)
I think “engaging” is probably the best word to use. A movie like ..uh..”Schindler’s List isn’t “fun”, and “entertaining” doesn’t seem like the right word either – so we use “engaging”.
“Video Games” isn’t really a good name either at the end of the day, because game = fun in most peoples’ minds. It’s also a bad name as it restricts developers from creating games that deal with more serious subject matter that other books or films would have no problem exploring. An example is the whole “Six Days in Fallujah” ordeal. If that guy who went Fox News said “I think there’s been a misunderstanding, we aren’t making a video game, we’re making an interactive narrative” then things might have went differently – because it’s disrespectful to make a “game” about war. An “Interactive Narrative” though? Maybe not.