I didn’t like Dear Esther very much. I thought the audio/visual experience was great, but after spending one hour on that virtual nature hike (gorgeous!), I felt a little cheated out of my money. This is not a good feeling, as Jon Blow, one of my indie idols, partially funded the game and presumably likes it. It also got glowing reviews for the most part, except from Destructoid. It’s never great to feel like you don’t “get” something.
After a bit of thinking, as I like to do about these things, I think I’ve nailed down what exactly I didn’t like about it: Pacing. It wasn’t the fact that the game isn’t very interactive; I loved “To the Moon,” which is barely a game. It wasn’t the fact that it was incoherent and vague; I love David Lynch movies and experimental music like Sonic Youth and Yume Bitsu. It wasn’t the British voice; I love Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant. It was the pacing. It was the fact that not much really happens in that one hour – there weren’t many “beats.” If your game doesn’t have much game play, you can still have story beats, like “To the Moon.” If your story isn’t very coherent, you can still have “beats” despite that. One of my favorite movie scenes is the diner scene from “Mulholland Drive”, which has little to do with the rest of the movie (and the rest of the movie has little to do with the rest of the movie), but it’s a moment of intensity that is an undeniable “beat.” Dear Esther has a few such moments, but only a handful in the whole one hour experience.
Now, this was probably intentional. Steven Pinchback has said in many interviews that part of what he wanted to do with Dear Esther was to give players space to feel and think. I can understand where he’s coming from. Most games these days are about keeping you constantly bombarded with stimulus that it gets overwhelming and numbing at times. But, for me, going too far in the other direction can lead to a boring experience.
I don’t believe in making value judgments when it comes to creative endeavors, so I’m not saying what kind of pacing is good or bad. Plenty of people really enjoyed Dear Esther, and that’s great. My tastes just lie elsewhere on the axis of pacing. Thanks for reading!