Recent years have seen the lines of what defines a game blurred significantly. Games like Heavy Rain eschew normal game mechanics in favour of only minimal interactivity, instead focusing very heavily on the story. Most gamers called titles like these playable movies or cinematic gaming (although the later is now more often used for big budget titles that have a movie feel about them) in order to set them apart from their more traditional gaming ancestors. Dear Esther is another one of these such games, being re-released as a stand alone game after it enjoyed some mild success back as a source engine mod. The game made waves as it recouped its cost in no less than 5 hours after going on sale and with the usual friend recommendation I thought it would be worth a shot.
Dear Esther drops you on an unnamed island, put in charge of an unnamed person. As you move through the world a narrator reads sections of dialog describing one of 3 separate story lines. There’s really no driving goal, the narrator doesn’t prompt you to move anywhere, but there’s enough clues to show that you’re pointing in the right direction. There are no puzzles to solve, no enemies to defeat, you must simply keep progressing forward as the narrator reads and you explore the island.
Graphically Dear Esther isn’t that impressive, mostly due to its source engine roots. Whilst there are some scenes that are quite beautifully created the rest of the game is ridden with over-specularity that makes the objects appear fake. It’s not exactly terrible though as there’s really not that much you can do with a long deserted island to make it visually interesting so overall the graphics are passable but nothing really spectacular.
Now this is where I’d usually start talking about the game play, but there’s really nothing more to say about it. All you do is walk around, look at things and have the narrator read passages to you. There’s no sprint button so you’re stuck walking at the exact same speed every time and the only real secret to the game play is to try and find all the places that you can walk to as the majority of them will trigger another dialogue section.
However doing that is not an exact science either as there are many sections that look like they’re inviting you to come down there for another piece of dialogue when in fact there’s nothing there at all. This wouldn’t be so bad but the achingly slow pace at which the main character walks means that what looks like a short trip can take you several minutes to accomplish. When there’s nothing else to do but walk and hope that the narrator starts talking again this gets quite laborious to the point where I just stopped trying.
What’s worse is that if you do play Dear Esther as a game by say trying to decipher the all the clues that are seemingly littered around the place you’re in fact just wasting your time. Sure they tie into the story somewhat but there’s no rhyme or reason to them, they are just there to break the game up visually. Indeed without them you’d spend long sections looking at nothing but varying shades of brown, green and grey. Even then though after seeing the same pattern repeated over and over again they don’t really even serve that purpose, instead just blending into the background as noise.
All of this then combines into an experience that is, for what its worth, completely and utterly boring. There’s really nothing interesting about the experience at all as the jumbled story (done deliberately, apparently) slow pace and so-so visuals do nothing to inspire enjoyment on any sort of level. It got so boring that at a certain point, where a giant hole in the ground is presented to you, I threw my character in there in the hopes something interesting would happen. Instead I was just catapulted back a couple minutes which just extended the painful time I had to spend with Dear Esther.
Reading other people’s experiences had me questioning whether it was fair to judge Dear Esther based on its merits as a game. Indeed nearly all traditional elements that we’ve come to expect from a game have been stripped away from Dear Esther, even further than that of any of the playable movies that have been released to date. Judging Dear Esther as a game then would seem unfair as it’s more akin to a strange kind of performance art than anything else.
The thing is though Dear Esther is sold as a game on a platform that deals exclusively in games. It has the same controls as a game, for the most part, and is being talked about almost exclusively by the gaming community. Judging it on its merits as a game then seems fair to me as whilst it might be far removed from even its closest cousins to completely exclude it from that genre is to ignore some of the core aspects which constitutes a game.
As a game then Dear Esther is astonishingly terrible in every regard. It’s (thankfully) very short with my play clocking in at just over an hour and the longest plays barely touching 2. The graphics, whilst capable of producing some decent set pieces like that shown above, are nothing spectular and above all the game play is simply non-existent. Even forgetting for a second that the lack of game play is intentional the story, which is what should carry a game in absence of game play, is boring and uninspired. I felt nothing for any of the characters in any of the stories and the whole idea of giving you random sections of the story so you have to draw your own conclusions is a hacky way of trying to make each game play unique.
Dear Esther then fails to entertain as a game, as an art piece or whatever it set out to be. The added insult is that I paid $10 for the experience, a price which has netted me other titles like Cave Story+ that managed to not only entertain me but also did so for more than an hour. Based on this I can’t really recommend Dear Esther to anyone unless you feel the need to torture yourself with a slow moving game that will ultimately leave you unsatisfied.
Dear Esther is available on Steam right now for $10. Game was played entirely on the PC with a total of 63 minutes played.
The number of quality, well polished games that independent developers have been releasing recently has been great for the games market. Gone are the days where the idea of making a game was constrained only to the big developer houses or specific platforms and today we have a thriving independent ecosystem to support these talented developers. One such game to come out of the indie scene is Bastion a game that’s received much praise and developed something of a cult following. I’m not sure why I avoided it at the time but after getting frustrated with the end-game situation in Star Wars: The Old Republic and on the recommendation from friends I gave Bastion the once over.
Bastion puts you in control of a character known solely as The Kid. You awaken in your bed to find the whole world around you has fallen to pieces and every move you make is narrated by a gravely, disembodied voice. You then make your way to the Bastion, a safe place that everyone in Caelondia (The Kid’s home ) agreed to head in times of danger. There he meets a stranger, later revealed to be named Rucks, who’s voice is the one that narrates your every move. Ruk then informs you of the terrible event that occured, The Calamity, and how they need to go about restoring the Bastion after it was damaged during the event. So begins your long journey as you seek out the items required to restore the Bastion and uncover the truth about the Calamity.
Visually Bastion is quite pleasing on the eyes with its heavily stylization, bright colour palette and cel shaded 3D models that blend seamlessly. This style is reminiscent of other isometric RPGs like Diablo which use visuals like this in order to make sure you don’t get bored. This works quite well as whilst I was initially frustrated with Bastion (more on that later) my second session saw me play it all the way to the end and not once did I feel that the environments I was playing through were repetitive. It just drives home the idea that cutting edge graphics aren’t a requirement for good story telling, especially if you do them right like Bastion has done.
Bastion incorporates many aspects of traditional RPGs whilst doing away with others in order to simplify the gaming experience. There are levels for your character, which you gain in the traditional way of killing enemies and allow to add additional buffs to your character, but there’s really no loot system to speak of. Instead you have an arsenal of melee weapons, ranged weapons and special abilities that are all interchangeable. The weapons are also upgradeable allowing you to make them far more powerful than they originally are. This means that it’s likely that no 2 play throughs will be the same and lends a decent amount of replayability past the initial encounter.
I believe this simplified system is what lead me to get frustrated with Bastion in the early stages of the game. Initially you’re limited to a rather small arsenal, only a few weapons for each slot. You do pick one up every second level or so but progression at the start feels a little slow as most of the weapons and upgrades don’t feel like they’re making any difference. Later on, when your choices are much greater, that initial feeling starts to slip away in favour of you becoming somewhat unstoppable, at least my character did. I didn’t make it anywhere near max level (I think I got to level 6) but my combination (all fully upgraded) of Cael Hammer, Scrap Musket and Hand Grenade meant I could dispatch waves of enemies with little trouble.
It becomes apparent very early on in the game that whilst the Calamity might have destroyed much of the world there are still some people left alive. After you find them they’ll join you in the bastion and they’ll give you some insight into the various mementos that you find scattered throughout the world. They also bring with them challenges that you can complete for extra experience and cash to spend on upgrades whilst fleshing out the background story of one of the characters. The challenges are gauntlet style affairs and are a nice aside from the dungeon crawling that makes up the majority of Bastion.
One of Bastion’s most notable features though is the near constant narration. It serves two purposes, the first being to give a running commentary what’s currently going on. This gives you a great sense of the character’s motivations, feelings and gives the story solid direction in what would otherwise be a rather dull dungeon crawler. Secondly having a constant voice over allows Bastion to develop an extremely rich lore without having to result to giant walls of text that are common in RPGs. Whilst I can understand the reason why this is rare (voice acting is a time consuming and costly activity) Bastion’s use of it is quite unique. Plus Logan Cunningham’s dulcet tones aren’t hard on the ears either.
Where Bastion does fall down however is in the final throws of the story. Right up until the last 30 mins of the game your entire experience has been completely guided, your decisions ultimately made for you with a little freedom in what order things are built or upgraded. This is a fine way to tell a story, in fact this is how the vast majority of games play out. However right at the end you’re presented with two very distinct options to choose from on two different occasions. For a game that’s been choice agnostic up until this point adding in a choice at this part seems to only be for the sake of adding in some replayability. As a mechanic, I find that particularly cheap.
Warning, spoilers below:
Worse the first of the choices, whether or not to save Zulf, doesn’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the rest of the game. Granted the choice comes so late in the game that there’s not much it could really affect but that just makes its inclusion even worse. I’ll admit that the scene itself felt quite powerful, the notion of a selfless hero willing to put aside all the hurt someone has caused in order to save them, but the fact that your decision only mattered for then and there makes the choice arbitrary. The same goes for the ending as it basically boils down to the same problem that Deus Ex: Human Revolution suffered from. Instead of choices you make doing the game leading to an ultimate conclusion, you’re instead presented with a blunt “Hey choose your own ending!” screen. Though unlike Deus Ex you can’t just reload and see the other ending, meaning the intent of that mechanic is simply to encourage a second play through. Whilst it didn’t ruin Bastion for me it did sour the idea of going for a second playthrough as there doesn’t really seem to be a point to it.
Bastion is yet another shining example of games being used as a great story telling medium. The characters are well developed, the story thoroughly engrossing and the game play is rock solid, carrying all these elements along beautifully. Whilst I might disagree with some of the arbitrary moments that the game presents you with that doesn’t discount the rest of the game. Bastion then represents another magnificent independent release that shows just how far indepedent games developers have come, and how far they’ll be able to go.
Bastion is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $14.99 and 1200 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the regular difficulty with around 6 hours played time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.