Critical Play: Walking Simulators – Dear Esther

I played Dear Esther, one of pioneers of first-person walking simulator games. Dear Esther was created by The Chinese Room and redeveloped by Robert Briscoe. It is available on several different platforms including Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation, Xbox and IOS. I purchased and played the IOS version from Apple Store. I would say that the target audience is people who want to explore an emotional narrative through games. I feel like Dear Esther’s main objective is exploration and promotes the fun types of narrative, discovery, and fantasy.

The only way the player can interact with the game is through walking. This game mechanic allows players to walk around an abandoned island on their free will. As the player reaches different parts of the island, pieces of narratives that seem to be letters to someone called “Esther” are revealed. Since the player can wander in free will, they discover the narratives in no pre-determined order. As more and more narratives are revealed, the player slowly piece together the big picture and form a theory about what happened. The walking is accompanied with carefully matched sound effects — the player can hear the sound of splashing water if they walk in water, and the sound of scuffling through sand and grass when they walk on the beach or hill trails. This makes the walking experience more immersive.

An interesting mechanic that I am not certain works is how when they player walks too deep into water, they get submerged and the field of vision becomes murky and dark. I personally felt that this was quite scary — humans have an innate fear of dark unknown places. Moreover, it was difficult to orient myself correctly so that I can walk out of the water to continue the game. Since getting submerged into water doesn’t seem to contribute to the narrative, perhaps there might have been a less interruptive way to stop the player from going out of the range of the game.

In addition, I got motion sickness after playing the game on my phone for a while. This is a common issue with technology that simulates movement in only some senses such as view, while the other senses such as touch do not match. I wonder if this game is more appropriate as an actual VR game, but then the physical space needed would be rather large.

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