Saturday’s Play – Dear Esther

I don’t play many games on my PC these days.  It’s not a particularly good gaming machine by current standards, with the only upgrades it has had in a long time being purely to get it to run World of Warcraft better, which wasn’t really a technical powerhouse.  When I lost interest in WoW and got back into gaming, it was consoles that got my attention, not the PC.  As such the only games I’ve played on it in a long time are The Sims 2, the first two Hitman games (which I went back to recently for a while) and pretty much anything by Valve (except Left 4 Dead, which I have on 360).

Though I think Valve are a great developer and I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done for digital distribution, I’m not actually keen on Steam itself.  Half-Life 2 was an awkward introduction to it, a game that needed online activation through a clunky service to play the game, without offering any benefit for doing so.

Without being much of a PC gamer these days (and when I am I’m one who doesn’t play online) Steam takes an age whirring away whenever I start it up, with no indication of what it’s doing.  Then it starts up and begins clogging my connection downloading updates (although that can presumably be turned off somewhere), and popping up ads for games I’m not interested in.  As I rarely use the service Steam itself generally needs updating whenever I launch it, and all in all it’s just a huge hassle.

Lately it became even worse, and trying to start up Steam (or play any Steam game I have) simply resulted in a “failed to connect to server” message, with no diagnostics or way to resolve it.  I hadn’t changed any settings, it wasn’t hitting a firewall, and everything else was connecting to the web as usual.  This continued to happen for a couple of days, until I lost interest and decided I probably needed to reinstall Steam at some point, if I could ever be bothered.

That was maybe a couple of weeks ago, but today I remembered why I’d tried starting Steam up in the first place, a Half-Life 2 mod called Dear Esther.  It was given a fairly gushing article on Rock, Paper, Shotgun so I decided to give it a try (immediately downloading it from FileFront), but Steam didn’t work.  It continued to not work on the few times I tried it in the next few days, so I lost interest. I tried Steam again today and it worked normally, which was nice.  I even managed to find the right folder for mods to go in (at least, it appeared in the My Games tab on Steam), so I clicked to launch it and…

SteamSDK

Obviously that’s not the fault of the mod or Steam, and is just presumably what happens when you install your first Source Engine mod (equally possible is that it’s what happens if you put a mod in the wrong folder), but it just added to the whole impression that some malevolent force was trying to keep me from playing the mod.  But with the additional files downloaded, I was finally able to play.

Dear Esther

DearEsther01

Dear Esther is a single-player Source mod (Source being the engine used by all Valve games since Half-Life 2) from games researcher Dan Pinchbeck and his team at thechineseroom.  It’s less a game and more an interactive story. You, as an unidentified character, start on a dock before a shack on an unknown island.  As you explore a man talks (apparently to Esther), hinting at some big event that brought him here.  The narrator seems to have several different narratives to talk about, with the game seeming to randomly choose which he talks about as you progress.

In its most basic terms that’s all it is, moving across the island and heading for its highest point, all the while being talked to.  What it actually is though is an exploration of the narrator, both why he chose to be here and the nature of the island.  The stories he tells are interesting, and to the end one in particular becomes quite moving as you get a clearer hint of what is (or what might be) going on.

It’s not flawlessly technically – I got caught once in a rock, the audio levels sometimes mean it’s difficult to hear the narrator over the music, and at points the narrator can still be talking when you reach a fresh trigger point, resulting in him talking to you in two speeches at once – and it follows a very linear route that isn’t always clear, so there are points where you can skip chunks of content or wander in the wrong direction.  Not only are these things forgiveable though, to a point they’re irrelevant (it’s also worth noting that Robert Briscoe, one of the level designers for Mirror’s Edge, is working on refining the ‘game’ side of the mod).

While not a game in the purest sense of the term Dear Esther makes for a wonderful experience and is really quite affecting.  While a lot of its strengths aren’t necessarily applicable to gaming in general, there are elements here that could possibly be used in other games and improve either their narrative or the emotional connection the player forms with the character, story or world.  With it being a free mod there’s no reason for anybody with Steam (and a PC capable of running Half-Life 2) to not simply download it and experience it for themselves.

Image Sources

Steam SDK Download – Personal Screenshot

Island Dock – ModMatic

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