Dear Esther, Are you even a game?

Dear Esther is described as a first person exploration game. The game features very limited mechanics and you simply wander around an unnamed island, using the WASD keys, while hearing bits and pieces of letters to a woman named Esther. The fragments are almost poetic and the games soundtrack is beautiful. Each time you play, you hear different fragments so each play-through is different. The game itself is a bit of a puzzle for you to piece together. The bits of narrative are like “clues” for you to arrange in you mind to piece together the story of how Esther died. However, despite all of this, I don’t personally consider it a video game.

Below is the trailer for the game that was released in 2010.

I looked at reviews on Steam for Dear Esther to see what other people thought of the “game”. One of the first reviews I saw said “It isn’t a game, it’s an experience.”

Dear Esther Review

The first element of a video game we discussed in class is there is an objective. When you first begin playing Dear Esther, you aren’t sure where you should go or if there a specific destination you are supposed to head towards. You don’t know if you should be looking for clues, following the path, leaving the path to explore. You just start walking. Eventually the game does end but there isn’t really a goal you have in mind while you play. In my opinion, the “game” has no objective, at least, not that you’re aware of.

Next, we discussed that games have stakes. When you play a video game, there is potential to lose. You may not be able to advance in the game. You could lose money or not score as highly as someone else. There is something, whether it be real or just in the game, at stake. While playing Dear Esther, nothing is at stake except your sanity. All you do is wander the island. You can’t lose. You can’t even die because the game just sort of, picks you up and puts you back on the trail. The only way you could really “lose” would be to give up before reaching the end and just stop playing.

Games are something you voluntarily interact in. Some activities may be called “games” but if you are participating against your will it isn’t really fun or much of a game. Gym class is a good example of this for me. This is one of the only elements of a video game that applies to Dear Esther. If you begin playing the game, it isn’t hard to stop if you don’t want to play anymore. You begin playing because you willingly did so.

Another element that is important to not only video games but games in general are rules. One rule is that you must you specific keys to move your character. You cannot run. You can only walk. As I said earlier, another rule is that you can’t drown yourself in the ocean surrounding the island. You are sort of, lured towards a radio tower but there are no rules that only allow you to explore new parts of the island to advance you towards it and you could spend hours backtracking if you really wanted to. The game has very few rules to go along with its simple mechanics.

Finally, a game is expected to have choices. Generally these choices make each play-through unique and affect the outcome of the game. This is another category that somewhat includes Dear Esther. You decide if you move forward, backward, left, or right. You also decide if you continue moving at all or stop moving. However, these are basically the only choices you can make. Also, your choices have a limited impact on the game. No matter what direction you move in, you’ll eventually hear pieces of the story. Like I said, with each play-through you hear different fragments and this makes them all unique but this is not a result of your choices. It’s just how the game is designed.

Overall, I think Dear Esther fails to possess most of the fundamental elements that make a game a game. It is certainly interactive. The story wouldn’t begin or reach the end if you didn’t participate. However you don’t have enough freedom and there isn’t enough of a story behind what you are doing or why to say that it a “game” that you “play”. I would have to agree with the Steam review and say that it is definitely an experience, but not a game. It is a story, a mystery, that you must piece together but in my opinion it isn’t very fun or particularly interactive.

If you’d like to check it out for yourself, below is the link to the Dear Esther website.

If you’d like to read another opinion on this controversial game, IGN has a review too. You can check it out here:

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