I just finished my first walk-through of Dear Esther.
When I say “walk-through” I mean, walking through the narrative of this incredible mod on top of Half Life 2‘s Source Engine by Dan Pinchbeck.
You’re guided through it by a narrator who tells you about an island, its inhabitants, and a few events in their lives.
The narration is randomized, so each play through may tell a different story.
It might be a bit pretentious, but that is OK. If you give it a shot, I think you will like it. It is about the closest I’ve ever seen a game come to approaching the narrative elements of interactive fiction. Unfortunately this is mostly at the expense of the interaction. You walk through the island on foot at a snail’s pace and gain some knowledge of the story through a beautifully perfect vocal narration.
The modification of the game isn’t really complete, though. Interspersed are hold-overs from Half-Life 2.
The HUD you see in the screenshot above isn’t actually present in the game (I got the screen from the moddb page for it.) Trying to “use” something will either pick it up and allow you to toss it about like a special-needs child in a funhouse, or generate the canonical Half-Life 2 use-error sound.
Walking though the world you’ll witness textures painted on the geometrical canvas of the island. Some of them stretch and break the narrative’s grip, others are perfectly placed in-line with the world.
Sounds while walking are also sometimes inappropriately like those from a sound-stage instead of something from a game.
If the developer had had more money or time he should have been able to completely pull off the feat. I feel like this is the ultimate failure of American game design. To come so close, and then ignore some obstacles towards the finish line.
Shipping may be the ultimate demonstration of talent, but the nits must be picked with even more vigor on a game so close to narrative excellence.
Anything that takes you – be it a save dialog, or a misplaced texture – out of the narrative is the worse kind of slap in the face to the player.
Games as art? Fuck that. Games as narrative. We’re half way to the finish line, and Dear Esther is the best runner in that race. I hope that the confines of an engine and resources of a mod will not hold back the next narrative from thechineseroom.