Many discussions of Dear Esther centre around the question of whether or not it is actually a game at all. To me, that question is not especially interesting, at least not in the way that it's normally meant. When people complain about some pieces of software not really being "games" they usually mean this first definition of the word from the Oxford English Dictionary:
I don't think all video games necessarily need to be games under that definition. I think of "video game" as a separate category of things, some of which are traditionally categorised games and some of which are not. I don't see that as a problem either; "starfish" aren't really fish, or stars for that matter.
Now, when I say that I don't really care whether Dear Esther is necessarily a classically defined game, I think it is unambiguously part of the tradition of video games; it's made in the Source engine, it uses WASD and mouse-look for movement, it was funded by Indie Fund, and it was sold through Steam (which up until very recently only sold games). The web site for Dear Esther describes it thusly:
"Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional game-play the focus here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here."
So by its creators own description, it is about exploration and uncovering a mystery. That's a good enough description for me, and it matches what I assumed the intention to be while I was playing. It also establishes itself within the video game tradition, so that's the way I'm going to discuss it.
I've gone through this rather lengthy introduction because I'm less interested in a surface level discussion of what constitutes a game and much more interested in a discussion about whether a particular creative work is successful on the terms it sets out for itself. I don't divide my time between "things that are games" and "things that aren't games", I divide it into experiences. Heavy Rain may not be a game, but it was certainly an experience I'm glad to have had. So what about Dear Esther, is it an experience I'm happy to have had, on the terms it sets out for itself?
The answer to that question is "no", for a number of reasons. The first of which is that my experience with it was riddled with serious bugs of both a technical and design nature. A list of bugs may be a strange way to begin describing a game, but so many people writing about games gloss over or minimise them and I think it's important to note when these difficulties cause a game to be difficult to play. While many people think of bugs as "broken code", one studio I used to work at described a bug as "anything which negatively impacts the user experience" and I think that's a more useful (though admittedly ambiguous) way of thinking about it. Any piece of software, game or not, needs to work, and in a number of cases Dear Esther did not work for me.
A number of recent games have gone the route of not explaining anything at all to the player, even the basic controls, and Dear Esther is among these. I think this is a really problematic approach, and Dear Esther is emblematic of why: the first thing I did after I realised I could move around was to go for a swim. I immediately sunk, and couldn't find a way to rise to the surface, and so I drowned. A voice on the screen said "Come back", only I couldn't; the screen remained black and trying to move in any direction resulted in no noticeable difference. I'm not sure if the game actually crashed, but it may as well have. Thankfully I was only at the beginning of the game, so simply returning to the menu and starting a new game was enough to restore my progress. This would have been an easy problem to fix though if the game had simply said "Press Q to surface" when I fell in the water, as I learned later by going through the games controls in the options screen. In their attempt to make the game "immersive" the makers of Dear Esther shattered my illusion by presenting me with a situation requiring that I exit to the main menu in order to get past the opening moment of the game. This may have been a deliberate design decision, but as far as I'm concerned it's a very major and easily avoidable bug.
Another thing that Dear Esther doesn't tell you how to do is save or load the game; you have to find that out from the options menu as well. The game also doesn't save your progress at any point, ever. And since the player is never prompted to save, the only way your progress is ever stored is if you hit F6, which as I say you would only know if you had gone looking through the key bindings in the options menu, which is a silly thing to expect a player to have to do in order to access vital functionality like saving and loading. I also found upon restarting the game after quitting that it doesn't save chapters that you've completed, so if you haven't saved but have completed some chapters you need to play through them again anyway.
Once again I have to say that this is a pointless decision that is easy to remedy. While I think games that require it should have clearly indicated save/load menus, all that needed to be done was have a message pop-up a few minutes into the game saying "You can save at any time by pressing F6" and have another message displayed on the main menu that says "Press F7 to restore your last save". It's so simple it's really pretty amazing that it wasn't included.
I ran into a number of other smaller bugs, like one where emerging from the water at night often caused the screen to go nearly black, though I was able to fix that one myself by simply re-submerging for a second. Dear Esther is a game that made itself difficult to play not through complex mechanics or clever puzzles, but through obtuse design and some code problems that I would have hoped would be fixed by now, several months after the game's commercial release. Dear Esther plays on and into the traditions of the video game as a medium. While no one should be bound by the conventions that games have built up over the years, it's still important to understand what they are, why they're there, and how players will react to their absence; I'm reminded of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and its eschewal of standard rules of punctuation which made the book unreadable for me. When you disobey the structure of communication of your medium to a high enough degree you're not communicating something different so much as you're failing to communicate
The technical difficulties are only the beginning of frustration that Dear Esther has to throw at players, however; the gameplay also makes the game experience difficult to enjoy. Despite describing itself as a game about exploration, the game makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to actually explore in many situations. The problems with the swimming I have already mentioned, and they're especially noticeable because the game contains a number of places out in the water that draw attention to themselves visually but are nevertheless inaccessible as the player begins to drown as they approach them (even when holding the Q key to surface).
There are also a number of absurd barriers to navigation in place. For example, I can cross the tiny creek here from left-to-right where I've drawn the green line in this screenshot but not where I've drawn the red line:
The top of the hill looked like it might be an interesting vantage point. The hill looks perfectly navigable on foot. The game has already established that a river of this depth and width is crossable. So I said to myself "I'd like to see what's at the top of the hill" but the game said "don't bother."
It's true that many games have invisible barriers, but when a major purpose of your game is ostensibly exploration, when navigation is literally the only method the player has of interacting with the world you've created, then in order for the experience to work you've got to actually let the player explore.
I ran into another frustrating situation with the navigation not far from this spot. I stood at the top of a hill, and at the bottom of the hill in the distance I saw a shipwreck. It was the primary distinguishing visual feature of the area, and so it seemed that the game was trying to draw me toward it. In addition to this, the narrative fragments I had heard suggested that this island had been the site of a major shipwreck or two. Surely then, I thought, I should go down to that ship and see what it's all about. You can see the ship in the image below:
If it looks from the screenshot like this shipwreck should be relatively accessible by foot I can only inform you that the closer you get, the more this seems to be the case. There are several places where it looks like a person could easily get onto or into the ship with only minimal effort. But despite my attempts to circle all the way around the ship looking for even one entry point, there's no way to get on. Dear Esther had provided me with what looked like a fascinating piece of scenery to explore, but when I asked how to go about doing so the game said back, "Don't bother."
The one convention that Dear Esther does borrow liberally from other games is audio logs. But audio logs are one of the most annoying, lazy ways of imparting narrative that game developers employ, certainly not something to base an entire game around. Even worse, by playing those audio logs automatically at set locations, Dear Esther eliminates the one part of audio logs that is actually interesting, which is going to the trouble of finding them.
And so Dear Esther is a game about exploration where you are actively discouraged from exploring. It is a game in which "exploration" has been reduced to holding down the W key until your finger gets sore and wishes there was something else for you to do. There are many times in which the game presents you with places that look like they would be interesting to travel to, to visit, to explore. And every time you try to reach them, Dear Esther says, "Don't bother."
On a surface level Dear Esther seems to bear some similarity to one of my favourite games: Myst. Both games take place on deserted islands with an unnamed protaganist who searches for answers by travelling through the environment. But while in Myst you explore so that you might discover and solve, in Dear Esther you walk along a path until there is no more path to walk on.
Instead I think a much more apt comparison is Journey. Journey was another game that eschewed clear communication in favour of obtuse artistry, gave the player extremely limited agency, and covered the whole thing in some gorgeous art work that made the experience great to look at but didn't help make it much fun to actually be involved in. Both games lead the player down a tightly defined path and provide the player with little to learn or discover despite a presentation that suggests that exploration is a key aspect of the experience. And what do you get for playing? A sore finger and a mystery that solves itself.