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Dear Esther – Preview

I’ve repeatedly said that the greatest advantage that PC’s have over consoles is that PC gamers get to make mods for our games, and play mods made by other fans.  This often leads to us having to suffering through amateurish crap, but there are also some terrific mods out there that are better than many full-fledged games. In fact, occasionally a mod team will create a product so good that they will be noticed by a professional developer and their mod will get turned into a full game.  An excellent example of this is the Half Life 2 mod Dear Esther.

 Dear Esther stands clear of the typical HL2 mod in several ways.  First, it has nothing to do with the story of Gordon Freeman.  It’s a single-player campaign with no multi-player options.  It also doesn’t have any weapons or combat. There’s no health meter or HUD of any sort, and many of the features of HL2 have been removed; you can’t run, your flashlight automatically triggers when you enter darkness, and you have no armor.  It’s almost impossible to die too, unless you jump off a cliff.

Despite the lack of standard FPS gaming features, Dear Esther is extremely engrossing.  This is because it’s about exploration and non-linear narrative.  Dear Esther is for your mind and heart, not your trigger finger.  Players find themselves on a desolate island in the shoes of a nameless narrator. Exploring different parts of the island will trigger voice-overs that either detail past events of the island, or recollections about the narrator’s life. He lost his wife in a car accident, or maybe not; the story is very mysterious and deliberately vague about many issues.  Players will have to interpret it for themselves. 

There’s no clear objective and players are free to wander about the island, hearing more and more of this story.  While there isn’t a right or wrong way to go about your adventure, a glowing radio antenna is clearly visible on the island, so players will naturally be drawn towards it as the unofficial goal of the game.  As players approach the antenna, the narrative begins to reach a climax, although Dear Esther still remains vague about what has happened.

It was originally a university project intended to explore story-telling through games, but it eventually gained the attention of Valve and the developers were given a full commercial license.  This new version of Dear Esther is being remade by Robert Briscoe (The level designer for Mirror’s Edge) who is working with the original designer, Dan Pinchbeck.  The environments are being completely overhauled, and hopefully the new commercial product will be much longer that the original, which only takes about half an hour to play through, (Although curious players will surely take longer to hunt down all of the clues). 

Pricing and release date aren’t set, but you can download the original version of Dear Esther on its website.  It’s free, but you’ll need a copy of Half Life 2 in order to play it.  If that’s not enough to tide you over, you can also try out some other mods made by the same design team behind the original Dear Esther, The Chinese Room which include Korsakovia, and the upcoming, Everyone’s Gone To Rapture.  We’ll have a full review of the c0rmercial version of Dear Esther when it comes out.



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