Look, folks, here’s the first rule of Popzara: don’t argue with the managing editor if you don’t want to lose a finger. He’s vicious, guys, and if he says to play something then you’d better darn well play it. That’s why I’m playing Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, a game that simulates walking.
Confession: I didn’t want to play Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, the game that put indie development studio The Chinese Room on the map, because I’m familiar with the genre it spawned and figured it would be boring. Consider my complete lack of surprise when I found out that it is! It’s a first-person shooter, only without shooting, where you walk around, look at stuff and listen to a narrator talk about his dead wife. Your interaction with the experience is limited to where you walk, what you look at and zooming in if you wish. An unseen narrator goes on and on about potentially interesting events that you aren’t present for and never see. You carry on with this until the game is over.
If you are the sort of person to be emotionally moved by video games, then this may or may not have that effect on you. I, generally speaking, am not, though there have been exceptions such as I Am Setsuna, which does what Dear Esther tries to do re: emotional involvement and is also a pretty great RPG besides, so maybe it’s possible for games to do both and we were wrong all this time? Who knows.
Let’s digress for a second because really there’s not much else to say about the game itself: a portion of the gaming community seems to be pretty invested in games being considered “art,” something I believe is connected to a deep-seated desire for the hobby to win mainstream legitimacy, and Dear Esther was one of those games that was risen up on a pedestal as a work of art. It almost single-handedly created an entire genre of games where you walk around and look at stuff, sometimes while listening to a narrator and rarely while shooting anything, and they are almost universally boring. It’s generally considered taboo to say so, but I’m blazing a trail and saying so. Can’t stand these things, guys, sorry.
Further, it spawned a debate spanning several years about whether or not this sort of thing could even be considered a game. Frankly, the debate itself is kind of ephemeral because Dear Esther is boring, the vast majority of the clones it spawned are boring (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, from the same developer, was OK, and I liked The Stanley Parable), and there are other games to play that offer a more entertaining experience in the same amount of time.
Boring art is art, I guess, but it’s also boring, so who cares, and who is anyone to tell anyone else what art is and isn’t, anyway, and what value is there in something being art as opposed to not being art? Nobody seems to talk about that kind of thing, they mostly just get angry when you say that games probably aren’t art in the first place and even if they are, it doesn’t really matter. Oh, and the other, smaller debate, regarding the term “walking simulator” as it pertains to this sort of game: that’s a silly and reductive term and it’s probably worth avoiding it solely because the inevitable discussion of how it’s silly and reductive tends to draw attention away from legitimate criticism of these very boring games which may or may not be art.
Think about that, then maybe think about playing Sunset Overdrive (if you’ve got an Xbox One) instead. There’s some art for you. You shoot zombies with a gun that fires vinyl LPs while sliding around on power lines. It’s awesome. You definitely don’t do any of that in Dear Esther. Really, if we stop worrying about whether or not any given game is contributing anything to games as a medium, then you can play whatever you want without caring about how it affects the mainstream perception of the medium as a whole! Hooray! No dull wandering around and listening to a narrator for me, bring on the gratuitous violence, which we have now decided is equally as valuable!
Dear Ester’s pretty, at least, though this is 2016 and the game is originally from 2012 on PC so it’s not that pretty. The narration’s also pretty good, in the same sort of noncommittal way that film snobs associate with early student work that’s trying a little too hard; you can’t say it’s bad because it doesn’t really say much of anything. You trudge around kind of slowly, but it’s not like there’s any rush to get anywhere, so whatever. There’s director’s commentary in this edition too, and I feel like if you imagine to yourself what director’s commentary for this kind of game is like, you could probably nail it in one or two tries. I’ll admit that having the composer on the commentary was kind of cool, but generally it’s difficult to get into the director’s commentary for a game that you’re not especially enjoying.
So yeah, that’s that. Ten bucks to walk around and listen to a narrator do his thing. Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is the landmark edition because it was a “landmark” in gaming history, apparently. It certainly was! I can’t say I was much of a fan, honestly. Did you guys see that Dragon Quest VII is available on 3DS now? That ten bucks would probably be a nice start on that purchase. Just saying.