Critical Play: Walking Simulators

I chose Dear Esther for this critical play. Developed by The Chinese Room, the gameplay centers around a mysterious island and the story of a woman named Esther.

Target audience: Likely to be players who enjoy immersive narrations in games with that are not fast-paced. The game does not have any traditional gameplay elements like puzzles/combat and instead relies on its atmosphere and narrative to engage players.

Formal elements
Outcome: There is no winning or losing, just exploring
Rules: It follows general rules of physics
Procedures: One must explore to follow the narrative of the game
Resources: Directions given by the narrative
Boundaries: The island; however, there are some un-walkable areas in the island.

Dear Esther is intended to be enjoyed more for its atmosphere and story than for typical gameplay. I would categorize this as a “Discovery” game, and I personally found that the game met the goal, as I found the atmosphere and storytelling to be quite engaging.

One of my successes was discovering the island’s hidden cave laden with cryptic symbols and clues that helped to shed light on the story of Esther. I enjoyed exploring the cave and piecing together the clues, and I felt a sense of satisfaction when I finally uncovered the mystery of Esther’s past. An epic fail in the game was getting lost on the island several times. The island is fairly large and dense, and there are no clear markers or objectives to guide players. As a result, I found myself wandering aimlessly at times, trying to figure out where to go next. This did not ruin my overall enjoyment of the game, but it did add a sense of frustration and aimlessness to some of my play sessions.

To improve Dear Esther, a potential change could be to include multiple branches/endings. This would have given me more agency. To increase the game’s replay value I would consider adding items that can be unlocked. These might be mysteries or hidden items that can only be discovered after finishing particular tasks or traveling to specific locations on the island. It would encourage me to retry the game in order to find all of the secrets.

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