“If the subject matter is obscure, the writer’s literary style is even more so, it is not the text of a stable or trustworthy reporter.” –Dear Esther
Judging games by their reviews probably isn’t a bad thing, at least it shouldn’t be. We videogame bloggers take pride in our pretentious contempt for commercial reviews, but reviews are necessary in fostering discussion and bringing attention to each game. I’ve stated this before, but I believe the reason so many reviews are simply cheaply written purchasing guides is because so many games are simply cheap products. If I had to publish a thousand words about every single game I’ve played, you can imagine how much my writing would suffer. The quality of a review tends to reflect the game it describes. You may have given this game a 9/10, but can you actually say something interesting about it?
When a game comes along that seems to inspire the reviewer to write something meaningful, then that makes me pay attention to it. I’ve found a few reviews that represent how much inspiration and discussion can be produced from Dear Esther, which I believe is one of the most important new games right now. Consider the following sentence, which subtly comments on the irony in the game (contrasting “carcasses” of dead ships with the “lush” hillsides) and also mentions the fact that the seemingly realistic graphics, especially in the caves, are at the same time “otherworldly” in their colorful and brilliant lighting.
"I loved gazing at the carcasses of ships battered against the coastline, stretches of lush, green hillsides pocked with intriguing rock formations, and a vast cavern network decorated with legions of dripstones lit by an otherworldly glow."
Even IGN manages to produce a great review of the game. This quote illustrates what makes Dear Esther so important, the fact that it blazes new territory and reveals the way to new, currently undiscovered, videogame possibilities.
"You can't help but imagine a version of this game that lets you touch and feel, picking up pebbles on the beach to throw into the sea or leafing through old books in an abandoned bothy."
Even this negative review explores exactly how and why the game doesn’t resound with the reviewer. He uses this opportunity to start a discussion on what kind of potential Dear Esther’s ideas have, and how they could be alternatively used for more engaging experiences. The fact that Dear Esther brings this discussion to the table is what I believe makes the game so important.
"So, yes, this game is dull. And, yes, it is a game. There are rules and keys and narrative triggers and all those things we come to expect of a $9.99 purchase on Steam. The problem with Dear Esther is that it never uses its resources as interactive-fiction to good effect.
Let’s break this down to its basics: What does the story gain from being interactive?
For one, you can explore this world with your own eyes. You can also explore parts that aren’t worth exploring: Pathways that lead nowhere, caves with the same assets copy-and-pasted, and dead-ends that will make you curse the game’s painfully snail-paced walking speed."
-Allistair Pinsof, Destructoid (As an irrelevant side note, I have no idea what definition of “ham-fisted” this guy is using.)
This one is possibly my favorite though. It doesn’t explain why Dear Esther is an important game or even a good game, but it explains profoundly and simply how the game is to be appreciated.
"You're presented with the little fragments of narration in Dear Esther, each giving you a little more information on the whole, a slightly clearer picture, with most contradicting something that went before. The 'game' is in bringing those pieces together to form a clear picture in your head. It's about throwing out what you don't want or need, and keeping parts that resonate with you. You'll end up with a picture of a story that's wildly divorced from both what the game presents, and what anyone else ends up with."
In the past, I've complained that reviewers lack originality, that every different review of each game simply repeats the same ideas and opinions over and over. As we can see here though, that clearly is not the case. Each one of these reviewers, even ones that gave similar scores, exhibit unique and creative substance in their writing. The fact that their subject is a unique and creative game as well, I have no doubt is related.