As I played through Dear Esther I couldn’t help but to compare it to Gone Home, and for the most part I found it lacking. It comes down to the idea of what makes a game a game, and many would say neither Gone Home nor Dear Esther are games, and they certainly aren’t in the traditional sense. However, what I want to know is what playing something rather than reading or watching it actually adds to the experience. In Gone Home, though it is not particularly more mechanically complex on the surface asked me to do a lot more in terms of constructing the narrative through source documents and that felt much more game-like to me. Furthermore, if a game is going to ask me to explore an area I should hope that it would feel deliberately designed and placed. In Gone Home each item felt important, or at a minimum helped me understand the characters more, whereas in Dear Esther I would stumble upon dead-end and dead-end that I felt added nothing and merely wasted my time.
That’s not to say Dear Esther was all bad, I particularly appreciated the voice acting and I felt the game did a good job in terms of the fragments they presented to the player. The blurring of identities between Paul, Donnely, Esther, and Jakobson was interesting and did get me thinking. Some sections of the game I thought were designed well like the cave (screenshot above) and I appreciated some of the visual metaphors like the empty hull with a cross in the middle meant to represent Jakobson’s weak chest (unfortunately some of my screenshots did not save correctly so I lost this picture). I did feel though that in a medium that allows infinity creativity in settings that perhaps some more surreal sections of the game meant to represent the inside of the narrator’s head would’ve been helpful. I think abstraction in general would have served the game better than an attempt at a realistic looking island which falls short with muddy textures and an uninspired aesthetic.
I did find myself thinking of Richard Bell and his discussion of Gone Home as a history game and Dear Esther as a literary game. I feel like Bell got the strengths of each game correctly and Dear Esther’s best parts do indeed lie in the literary nature of the narration. That narration was from the first person perspective, but unlike Gone Home I did not feel as if I was the character I was controlling. I was surprised that for a game that was intent on telling a story it did not try to create as much empathy between the player character and the player as they could have, and ultimately is the reason I felt like Dear Esther fell short of its lofty ambitions.