Tag Archives: Dear Esther

If Salvador Dalí ever made a videogame, it’d be Off-Peak


There’s nothing to be ashamed about here, but I love the so-called “walking simulators,” a sub-genre dubbed during the Gone Home debates of 2013 over whether such-and-such was worthy of being called a videogame. I get that these more methodical, gun-less experiences are not every gamer’s cup of button-pushing tea. I can understand that, but for me, plopping me down in some new and untouched world and asking me to simply walk around it, slowly, and see how it ticks is one of the greatest joys videogames can give me. Heck, for most of my many early hours in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, I just walked from town to town via the king’s road, scouring houses and bookshelves and talking to citizens, avoiding fights at all cost. I didn’t actually want to be a wizard or warrior, simply a man or woman (or cat being) with plenty of curiosity and the means to travel the world.

That said, not all walking simulators are equal, as I found Dear Esther beautiful but boring. Seems like I need either a lot of things to examine in close detail as in Gone Home or something zany to happen every three footsteps like in Jazzpunk to keep me actively engaged. Off-Peak from Archie Pelago cellist Cosmo D is more of the former than the latter of that previous statement, but the stuff you are examining is so bizarre and jarring that you can’t help but walk around in a daze–eyes wide, mouth agape, brain nearly breaking. It instantly reminded me of the first time, as a wee boy, I got my hands on a book of paintings by Salvador Dalí, the Spanish artist and Surrealist movement leader best known for his depictions of melting clocks. I was young, a dedicated reader to all things cute, cuddly, and in the comics section of the Sunday newspaper, and then suddenly I was slept away into a foreign land, where the common quickly became uncommon.

Off-Peak is a short first-person adventure game, centered around a train station. You, whoever you are, must gather up pieces of a torn train ticket and move on with your life; as you search this giant area and its subsequent nooks, crannies, and hidden passageways, you’ll run into a number of colorful characters, as well as witness equally as colorful art, whether in statue, painting, or graffiti form. What’s really nice is that this world is yours to explore at your own speed, in any direction–the ticket pieces can be collected in any order. Quickly, you’ll discover that things in Off-Peak are a bit…off (peak), a world where the fate of musicians and artists is unclear, but their tools are highly praised and desired. Meanwhile, the sprawling train station provides a handful of food and entertainment spots for every kind of commuter to help pass the time between rides. Naturally, someone is reaping the benefits of such a money-making hub, and you’ll end up crossing paths with this element before the end.

I did not understand the story, nor the dressings around it, but it all remained fascinating nonetheless. The board game room, the ramen noodle shop, the Chinese garden filled with strange shapes and statues…I couldn’t help but drink it all in. Even the part where you climb a set of stairs for seemingly forever with nothing much to see, only a smooth electronica jazz soundtrack to pepper your footsteps. Considering the game was made by a musician, music plays a vital part to both the narrative and exploration, and I found nothing to dislike.

Undoubtedly, Off-Peak is not for everyone. It is a collage of sights and sounds, with nothing traditional to it, unless you believe walking around a space to be a standard classic of the industry. Um, which I do. The game’s conclusion didn’t satisfy me from a story perspective, but again, that wasn’t what I was digging for here from step one. However, if any of what I’ve written about has got you all tingly on the inside, then do yourself a favor, grab a copy of the game over at itch.io, and lose yourself in another realm for an hour or so. Wall art will never be the same afterwards.

The beauty is not in the walking in Dear Esther

dear esther paul 0123

On a whim over the weekend, I loaded up Dear Esther. Besides my other plan to beat all those Metal Gear games in order of release, which is moving along swimmingly, thanks for asking, I am also trying to tackle many of the acclaimed indie games from years prior. Y’know, the big small games. The ones that generally feature some sort of unique gimmick and demand you think about things more than just swallow yet another tired, scripted action scene that is supposed to wow you with its bombastic approach at storytelling. So far, in 2014, I’ve experienced Gone Home, Journey, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Thomas Was Alone. Many more to come.

Other than being set on an island, I knew very little about Dear Esther going into it, which is how I like my videogames to go these days. Alas, we live in a day and age where the Internet can ruin anything for you in half a second–that said, hope you all watched last night’s Game of Thrones episode, gotta get that purp. I do recall some heated arguments about whether or not this is a “game,” just like many rushed to do with Gone Home, mocking them both as nothing more than walking simulators, short films with little to no interaction. With that in mind, I went in expecting a pretty good story and little else–truthfully, that’s kind of what I got, and that’s all right.

In Dear Esther, the player starts off on a dimly lit shore of an uninhabited Hebridean island, surrounded by fog and mountains. Far off in the distance is a tall, metal tower, with a red light blinking every few seconds, the beacon beckoning you towards it. As you explore the island, you’ll listen to a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther, which are revealed in no set order. The narrator’s identity is not specified though it’s easy to figure out he is Esther’s husband or lover. Alas, she’s dead, and that’s not a spoiler, as it is something you learn very early on in the journey. Dear Esther, despite its namesake, is more about the narrator and the island’s former inhabitants than anybody else. To say any more of the story would ruin the experience, especially since that’s all there is here, a story; a good one, mind you, and one that can be seen performed in a number of different manners, but just that.

Controlling the player is as simple as using the [W] key to walk forward and the mouse to look around. You can click on either of the mouse buttons to zoom in a bit for a better look at things. That’s it. Those are all your actions. When you enter a dark room, a flashlight automatically comes on, and it also turns itself off when you go back into the light. After playing for about ten minutes, my finger grew tired of just pressing down the [W] key, and I knew I’d have to do this action all the way until the end credits, but thankfully Dear Esther comes prepared for controller support. I’d much rather hold up on a joystick than keeping a finger firmly pressed into a keyboard, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I do wish there was at least something else to do control-wise; perhaps actually collecting the letter scraps or being able to pick up and examine items on the island. Heck, even a jump button, to push exploration even more. I wanted a little more game in this game; yes, it’s still a game.

The writing ranges from mesmerizing to feverish to a bit overdone, but it’s all backed by a gorgeous, swooping orchestrated soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry that can make any scene, whether it’s looking out at the rough ocean waves that brought you to this seemingly metaphoric island or trapped inside a dark, fungi-lit cave, extremely powerful. There’s strings, there’s piano, and they never overtake a scene, simply raise it up. Crashing waves, rushing wind, and cawing gulls provide additional noise at times too.

Dear Esther is an audio/visual trip, a game bent on delivering those two aspects to you at full force. For some, that’s enough. For an hour and a half of simply walking, it’s just enough. I did want something else to do, another way to play in this gorgeously constructed world, to be part of the island, but no man’s an island. And so you keep walking, keep walking, keep walking, all the way to the end. The darkness that greets you is far from comforting, but there is a sense of completion nonetheless. Quitting to the desktop after too many minutes on a blank screen that screamed the end slightly ruined the effect.