October 31st Movie Reviews

I didn’t want to say ‘Halloween movies’ since none of them were even remotely halloween themed aside from being some sort of attempt at scary, but it’s a halloween tradition here to plunk on the couch and watch ‘scary’ movies after dark, and we made it through three of them last night.  Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Last Shift
Rookie cop spends the night alone at an old police station guarding some evidence that still needs to be transported to the new one.

See, the description for this movie was all “She meets the KING OF HELL” and I was like “this is going to be a laugh riot of a movie”, but it ended up being the best one we watched.  It does absolutely nothing new or unique; it’s all standard haunted house tricks.  The protagonist is so god damn stupid that you spend the entire movie yelling at her not to do things (but, y’know, horror movie.)  But the movie itself sets up a good amount of tension and uses sound and visuals well to set the tone.  The King Of Hell thing is not nearly as cheesy as the stupid description might have you believe.

We Are Still Here
An older couple lose their college-age son to a car accident and buy a new house to start a new life as they pick up the pieces.  Once they move in, they start to suspect the ghost of their son is still with them.

Not bad but it suffered a bit because it came after watching the much better first movie, so it paled in comparison.  Another pretty standard haunted house story, but with a few twists to keep it interesting.  I found it a little confusing though, too.  The ghosts really needed to make up their god damn mind about who’s side they were on.

Storage 24
A plane crash nearby traps several people inside a storage facility, and soon they discover the plane was carrying some deadly alien cargo that is now stalking them.

Okay, THIS is the movie I wanted to write bitch about because I spent the whole movie sending snarky texts to my friend, and it’s absolutely not because we watched some better movies first.  Needed MUCH LESS relationship drama and MUCH MORE aliens eating people.  Could you possibly write less sympathetic protagonists?  I was rooting for the alien really early on and it just kept disappointing me.

Here’s an ending spoiler, which you can avoid if you care (you shouldn’t care.  Don’t watch this movie.):
The whiniest fucker takes on a Gary-Stu style survival skills and ends up escaping the alien on, like, three different occasions for no god damn acceptable reason (camera cut!  Oh no he must be dead boo hoo ooohhhh look he lived how could this be!  Fuck off) and then slays the alien with his bare hands and escapes with all of the females.

At this point I sent a message to my friend saying “This movie will get two stars instead of one if the alien resurrects and pops out and kills them all right fucking now and that’s how the movie ends.”  Instead of that, though, he makes some flippant remarks to show how cool he is, and then they pan out to show alien ships landing all around the city.  Which is ALMOST, but not quite, what I asked for.  Okay sure the aliens are probably going to kill everyone but you didn’t show one blowing up this whiny fucker as it buzzed past, so now we can only assume he will run out there and melee all of them to death like the whiny badass he obviously is.  *BZZZT* you fail, collect 0 stars.

So, to summarize:
Last Shift was great and I recommend it, even if the protagonist is as smart as a bag of bricks.
We Are Still Here was passable and worth a look.
Storage 24 is a horror movie for an entirely different reason and thank god Netflix subscriptions essentially mean I watched it for ‘free’.  Bitching about it was highly entertaining, at least!

Advertisements

It Follows

And as part two of our “It’s not October yet but it feels like October so bring on the scary movies” a-thon, we watched It Follows.

I found this one pretty interesting.  It’s almost like a take on an old-school zombie movie, with the monster following slowly and relentlessly behind, easy to run away from but never ceasing.  Unlike zombies, though, you can shake it off onto another person by… uh… having sex with someone.  Which is interesting because that’s certainly something that horror protagonists tend to have issues with!  It’s the worst kind of sexually transmitted disease.  Well… maybe not, since most STDs are still with you after you pass them along.  But they also don’t usually eat you, so… hmm.

I really enjoyed this one.  Tons of tension, nothing too over the top, and a lot of really creepy atmospheric hints for you to spot in the backgrounds.  It’s a simple formula and it really works.

Things that detracted from it included: my husband arguing that the monster should be really easy to deal with because all you have to do is create a mathematical formula to calculate how fast it’s walking and then move every 200 days as it starts to catch up to you /facepalm, arguments over whether sexual promiscuity and infidelity is acceptable if it gets rid of ghosts, and that god damn shell e-book reader thing that contrasted with the ’80s electronics and left us arguing for an hour over what time period the movie was taking place in, until I finally googled the damn thing and discovered that literally everyone else was arguing about it because it was deliberately left ambiguous and confusing.  *shake fist*

Honestly the ebook reader was the worst part.  The rest of it was just thoughtful discussion!  Fuck the ebook reader >:( get out of my movie.  Maybe if there were more modern tidbits scattered around it would have been okay but almost everything else was old (and royalty free, I noticed!) so it was just glaringly out of place and distracted from the tension.

Other than the ebook reader though, thumbs up!

The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Eidolon

I should really play Eidolon more before I try to review it but I bought the Hexcells pack in the Steam sale and every time I start playing that it magically becomes 2AM… so I should probably bang out some semblance of a review before I get distracted and forget everything about it.

An eidolon is an apparition, a ghost, a remnant of something that used to exist but now does not.  The game Eidolon has you exploring a “post-human Western Washington”, uncovering all the ghosts of what used to be Seattle.

The game has a sort of “walking simulator” feel to it, where you wander around (mostly aimlessly) trying to uncover the threads of the stories to figure out everything that happened.  This part of the game is actually pretty interesting, I felt.  You have a journal where you collect all your little scraps and you can choose which thread of the story to pursue next, or just see what crops up.

I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way:  The graphics are not good.  You are not playing this game for graphics.  It’s actually a bit unfortunate because I’m usually in it for gameplay so I’m pretty tolerant of low graphics (especially in games that cost 5 bucks or so)… but these graphics often left me wondering if I was having some sort of rendering problem that was preventing textures from loading.

This is a wall, I think?  A green wall?

I think this is supposed to be a crumbled wall, but why is it green?  Moss?  Let’s say moss.

That wasn’t even so bad until I wandered back and forth around a “rock” only to discover it was supposed to be a car.  I think.

This is a car, right?

This is a car, right?  Or a rock with a windshield?

Yeah… low poly trees are one thing but that car, man.  But the graphics are not without their own sort of “paper cut-out” kind of charm, either.

But anyway.  Gameplay!  As I said, you wander aimlessly trying to uncover the stories of the past, which largely include the individual stories of people who existed around the time the city was destroyed.  How was the city destroyed?  What happened to the people?  Well, that’s the game!

The game does not hold your hand at all.  You’re quite literally dropped into a forest with no explanation whatsoever.  Your journal says something about being too far from the beacon so you’ll die if you get injured or starve, but it doesn’t do much to explain to you what any of that means.  Where’s the beacon?  Are you visiting the planet from a space ship?  Time travel?  A different part of Earth?  Do you need to find that beacon?? Things do get explained to you (and there are lots of really weird and interesting things to dig up) but you have to work for them.  It’s refreshing, really.  It’s nice to just sort of pop into a world and get your bearings the old fashioned way instead of having a tutorial spoon-fed to you for the first 20 minutes.  My biggest complaint in the beginning was that it was a bit TOO aimless… the world is huge and there you are wandering in circles in a forest with no idea what to do or where to go.  I finally tripped over a story chunk and it gave me some direction, but I felt like the game should have started me with something to follow at first since the map is pretty much literally the size of western Washington.  Then I discovered there’s apparently a bird showing you the way to the first bits of story, and also I am an idiot.

What you’re looking for are little blinky cubes scattered around the world.  White cubes represent new tools, and green ones represent story chunks to add to your journal.  Once you’ve got a story chunk there’s a selection of related terms listed below it, and clicking one will give you a light to follow in the general direction of the next story chunk related to that story thread.  Or, you can follow birds.  Apparently.  The blinkies can be really easy to miss, as I discovered while I was attempting to warm up to make an attempt to swim across a channel to one in the distance, only to turn around and discover one right beside me /facepalm.  I did notice that sometimes they’re easier to spot at night, because they pulse.  But then it’s night and also really dark…

There's a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.

There’s a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.  Also it is coastal Washington so it’s raining ALL THE FUCKING TIME in this game.  Realism!

One of the first things I discovered was a fishing pole, which I promptly used to catch some fish, which I cooked on a fire.  Which leads us to the next part of the gameplay: survival.  Eidolon joins the ranks of the open world “don’t die” simulators, where you must feed and warm yourself or suffer the consequences.  These are some of my favourite types of games, and the addition of a super creepy post-apocalyptic world with stories to uncover just makes it better.  But I find the survival gameplay in Eidolon is somewhat lacking.  Food is everywhere, and you’re really in no danger of starving at any point (at least so far as I’ve gotten in the game.)  The only thing that has killed me so far is attempting to swim across a freezing ocean just to see how far I could make it.  (The answer was: really far).  Fortunately (?) dying has absolutely no consequences whatsoever in this game, so after dying in the ocean I merely popped up somewhere else at 100% and carried on my merry way.  I climbed a mountain (possibly Mt. Rainier??) and fell off a cliff and broke a leg (I assume.  It just said ‘wounded’) which later became infected and made me sick.  Being sick meant I would vomit periodically, which would drop my hunger levels, but I couldn’t eat to stop starving because I would immediately vomit and waste the food.  Because I was wounded and exhausted I moved very slowly, which was really pretty annoying because it’s not like you’re particularly zippy in the first place and those blinkies are really far apart, man.  I couldn’t seem to heal my infection, which meant I couldn’t stop vomiting, and I couldn’t heal my leg to move faster again.  I finally came to the conclusion that it would be best to just fucking die and start fresh (and move at a normal speed again), but dying turned out to be really god damn hard to do.  I needed to find another cold body of water to freeze to death in again because I was just too stubborn to starve to death, apparently.

So let’s see.  This game has really interesting stories to hunt down and creepy/fascinating sights to see, but you’re constantly hounded by a largely pointless survival system that will force you to abandon your story hunting to pick mushrooms (and discard them if you’ve had them for too long.  And may I just say I GREATLY DISAGREE that blackberries become “old” after one day, and furthermore that “old” blackberries are no longer safe to eat.  *shake fist*  Now, had you said mouldy I could perhaps see your point.), and periodically you will be arbitrarily slowed down with some sort of infection or wound that will prevent you from reaching your goal of finding more stories or interesting sights to see.  At which point the best solution is probably to just kill yourself and start fresh because there is no penalty for doing so.  This does not sound like a well implemented survival system… it sounds like a nuisance system that was included because they felt the game would get too much of a bad rep for “lack of gameplay” if all you did was collect story bits.  But on the other hand, it’s nice that it’s not such a strict survival simulator that you’re constantly losing any progress you made toward finding story bits because you starved to death or were eaten by wolves like in Long Dark (grr, fucking wolves).  May I suggest a toggle for “story only” vs “survival” mode?

Eidolon is certainly not without its flaws, but the world is interesting to explore and presents a unique setting that I’m glad to see they did some intriguing things with.  The map is apparently accurate enough that you can recognize landscape features, and there are lots of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic story surprises waiting to be discovered.  I recommend checking it out if you’ve been interested enough to reach the end of this review…

Metropia

Metropia popped up on my recommendation list because it was dystopian and sci-fi (…kinda).  We watched it and the whole time I was thinking “Oh man this is so bizarre and unique, this will be a great blog entry.”  And then we finished it and… I didn’t really know what to say.  I could barely remember what the movie was about, let alone say anything about it.  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, and it’s not that it wasn’t unique so there’s definitely some things to talk about… it’s almost like trying to grab on to something incredibly slippery and then it squooshes out of your grasp and out of your line of vision and you can’t remember what you were doing anymore.  I suppose that is appropriate for this movie, though perhaps not intentional.

Metropia is a European movie (Swedish, apparently), set in a future Europe where there is no more oil and vehicles are kaput, so everyone must use the underground rail networks to get around.  The main character finds going into the underground incredibly unsettling, especially since he’s starting to hear voices in his head when he goes there.  Over the course of the movie he discovers that the voices in his head are not imagined, and he sets out to uncover the truth.

That synopsis sounds kind of interesting, but I had to go read the plot on Wikipedia to summarize things because all I can really remember is him jacking off in the shower because of advertising, his wife’s creepy huge eyes, spending entirely too much time establishing his depressing life, his wife almost cheating on him with a huge asshole that was totally not worth her time, and something about a conspiracy involving dandruff shampoo that controls you.

The bit about the shampoo is kind of the whole plot of the movie, and yet it’s the part I remember the least.  I wasn’t even drunk!  Even after reading some synopses to refresh my memory, I’m not exactly sure what the world running out of oil had to do with any of it.  It seemed like it should be a huge part of the plot with how much the blurbs emphasized it, but it was more of a “now everyone uses these tunnels” and that was that. I’m not sure that the plot required them to be in tunnels, though.  And how many people are in this city?  Do they have a single person monitoring each and every one of them?  That seems expensive and impractical.

But anyway, it’s unique and probably worth a look if you like unique things.  The animation is certainly something else.  Wikipedia tells me all of the animation is based off of photographs of random people they recruited off the street.  The result is a highly bizarre and somewhat unsettling “uncanny valley” effect where you’re like “I’m not sure that I like this animation… but I also cannot claim that it is BAD animation…” which probably helps the atmosphere of the movie.  If this were a live action movie I suspect it would be wholly forgettable, really.

In short, I think I liked it?

The Swapper

And now for an impulse indie purchase: The Swapper.  I knew nothing of this game when I bought it.  That is why Steam exists – to make us drop a couple of coffees worth of money on random games.  I saw someone recommend it as “An atmospheric Sci-Fi Puzzle game with claymation graphics” and I was like “Sold!”

It’s a really good game and I absolutely recommend it.  The premise is that you are exploring a space station that seems to have come under some duress.  The puzzle part of the game comes when you discover a device that lets you clone yourself, and choose to swap to the new clone body or not (hence: The Swapper).  All the clones follow the same keyboard commands, so you can be “controlling” up to 5 of yourself at once, strategically placing them to walk where you want them to walk in order to depress switches, or get you to a new platform or whatever.

The atmosphere is excellent.  It’s got that perfect mix of creepy abandoned space station, claustrophobia, and a sense of wonder and reveal to keep it from being too oppressive.  The graphics are pretty neat too and give it a little something extra that deserves a mention.  Some love was definitely poured into the design of the game.

You uncover bits of the story by accessing computer terminals and listening to creepy recordings (keep subtitles on – some of them are pretty hard to hear).  As a bonus, you wander past alien artifacts which were brought on board, and start to learn a bit about those as well. I haven’t gotten very far in the story and I’m quite interested in what will be revealed.

Sadly, I’m not sure how much of it I will be able to reveal.  See, I kinda suck at twitchy platformy games, and I quickly ran into some twitchy puzzles involving swapping to bodies at just the right moment as they fall through space.  You can prevent yourself from dying by creating a clone close to the ground and swapping to it before you splat, or even climb high shafts by continually creating clones and swapping to them, leaving your old body to plummet to the ground as you gain a few more inches toward your goal (no morality problems here!  Nope!).  I was able to do these things, but… it was stressful.  And this is near the beginning of the game, so I can only IMAGINE the horrible and frustrating puzzles I’ll need to use it on later in the game.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to complete it :(.  Fortunately dying only sends you back to the last save point, which is usually a beam of light right inside the door of the room.  Unfortunately, I suuuccckkkk at this.

But you.  You do not suck at twitchy platformy games the way I do.  You should buy this game.  It’s got some unique ideas, the graphics are an experiment gone correctly, and there is a lot of love poured into it.  It deserves a look.

The Last of Us

I’ve been trying to decide how to review The Last of Us.  It’s difficult to talk about without talking about the story, but I don’t want to talk about the story because I feel that you should see it for yourself.

TL;DR you should buy it.  At full price, even!  The Last of Us is absolutely worth it.  It’s somewhat short… it has about 6 to 6.5 hours of story in it, but the time you spend exploring and picking up collectibles with backstory will pad that out a bit without making it feel like it’s been padded.  It took my husband 12 – 13 hours to finish it, I think.  It was a marathon over two days so maybe more.  NORMALLY I would say that is too short for 60 dollars, but the thing is it’s really good.

In case you’ve been under a rock and have not heard of it, The Last of Us is yet another post apocalyptic “zombie-like” apocalypse game.  In this one, a fungus (based on a real one!  Cordyceps.  Which, incidentally, helps to thin out populations of ants when they become too numerous.  HMMMMmmmm) starts infecting people’s brains, which causes them to lose control of their actions and… start attacking everything (as opposed to climbing up a blade of grass and freezing to death like the real Cordyceps does, but y’know).  Infection spread through bites, yadda yadda, fungal spores mixed in for flavour… the military tries to take control and welcome to the zombie apocalypse.  When my husband was playing through it I wasn’t paying full attention, and I thought it was a pretty generic setting.  I was wrong.  So if at first glance it seems generic to you, take a deeper look.  There are definitely some cliches at play, but the writing and worldbuilding more than compensate for them.  The writing.  I cannot say enough about the writing.  Yes, the base plot has nothing terribly original going on in it, but the characters and the world they’re in.  Everything is lovingly crafted with high levels of detail.  I wouldn’t call it “scary”, but if you like atmospheric post-apocalyptic games, you must get this game.  Right now.

They did a masterful job with the characters – you relate to them immediately and they feel genuine, and at no point did I feel that they were shoehorning character traits in my face to emphasize them.  The character’s motivations are natural and understandable, even if you don’t agree with them, which makes every character strong and believable.  Ellie is one of the best crafted teenage characters I think I have ever seen in a game.  She’s vulnerable and terrified, desperate for someone with some permanence to latch onto, but at the same time teenage defiance keeps flashing out as she struggles to find some independence.  The voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the characters to life, too.  It’s one thing to have incredible writing but a wooden performance will sink it just as quickly.  I am so happy with the voice actors in this game – thanks for doing a good job, guys.  And the graphics don’t hurt, either – cutscenes are incredible, but I did notice a bit of stiffness in the animations when the characters were speaking while moving around the world.  One day we will be unable to distinguish CGI from live action, but it is not this day.  That’s an incredibly petty thing to nitpick on, but I just don’t have anything else to bitch about, dammit.

Speaking of bitching… I hate bringing it up because I feel like a feminist when I do, but the female characters in this game are also fantastic and believable.  I really appreciate it when games go out of their way to flesh out female characters (and also clothe them…) so I feel I must give them another gold star for that.  I don’t usually put a lot of stock into the “Bechdel test” (in order to pass, the media must show two females speaking to each other about something other than a man), but I do find it interesting sometimes to see if whatever I am entertaining myself with at the time does pass it.  Not only do Ellie and Tess talk to each other, but Ellie and Marlene talk, and Marlene and Tess talk, and I don’t think any of them talk about men (unless discussing how to slay male zombies counts, I guess), so it passes multiple times.  Tess is just awesome and badass and I kind of want them to do a “prequel” DLC where we can watch her set up her smuggling ring or something.  Because I want more time with her :(

The only bad thing about this game is that it’s a playstation exclusive.  Not because I don’t like playstation, but more because it limits the audience.  Everyone should be able to play this game.  Everyone should be able to buy this game and encourage the creation of incredible games like this.  It should be on PC so that it can be on Steam and be in the summer sale that is about to start and then millions of people will buy it (and then never play it because that’s how Steam works) and then they can go create more awesome games with that revenue.  Also it should be on PC because fuck shooting things with a controller, grr.

I don’t think I’m even going to say anything more.  I don’t even care if you don’t have a PS3, go buy this game :P

 

Found Footage (Comparison)

I keep tripping over these things for some reason so I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a compare/contrast on some of the “found footage” style movies we’ve watched recently.

You’re probably aware of this, but “found footage” refers to a movie which is shot as though it was discovered on someone’s hand-held camera and then adapted for a wider audience.  It’s largely reviled as “shaky cam” because, as anyone who watches youtube videos knows, the average person with a hand-held camera absolutely sucks at keeping things in frame.  It’s a double edged sword because if you make it too shaky, people get nauseous or can’t tell what’s going on and it’s stupid.  If you make it too steady it’s pretty obvious it’s actually a movie camera mounted on special equipment, handled by professionals, which ruins the whole atmosphere of “oh shit they found this footage and the people in it are missing and no one knows what will happen!” which is kind of the point of it.  It’s usually resigned to cheap horror movies because of the premise and the ability to use the shakiness to obscure the scariest bits to good effect (assuming they use it to good effect, and not just “annoying as shit” effect, that is).

I was going to start with the worst movie first, but then I realized I couldn’t decide which one was the worst.  Conundrum.  Read more of this post

Dear Esther

I had heard a bit about Dear Esther and was intrigued, but not enough to actually pay money for it until it came on sale for 2.50.  At that price I decided it was worth a shot.  It’s not exactly what you would call a “game”.  You do not play Dear Esther.  You experience it.  It’s marketed as a sort of interactive storytelling experience, but in reality not very much of it is interactive.  Literally the only thing you can do is walk and move the camera around.  You can zoom in on things to take a closer look, but really it doesn’t do anything or trigger anything.  The story comes in chunks as you walk from place to place and trigger them.

For a game that’s lauded for its writing, I was expecting to “play” a really good short story.  That’s all the game HAS so the writing must be pretty damn good, right??

Ehhh… to be honest, I found the writing to be the weakest part of the whole thing.  First of all, I get annoyed very easily with “fluffy” writing.  The game’s dialog chunks are bloated with unnecessary simile and metaphor that sound like they’re trying way too hard to be impressive.  If you’re trying too hard to impress me that means you’re not spending enough time on fleshing out your writing.

Secondly, it didn’t make a lot of sense.  I went and looked up some spoilers afterward to try to figure out what the fuck happened, and I discovered the game actually picks random story chunks, meaning each playthrough can result in a slightly different story.  Supposedly the ambiguity is supposed to let the player draw their own conclusions, which is something that worked reasonably well in the game “Home”, although most of the time I find that technique just means lazy writing that relies on the player/reader to fill in the gaps so you don’t have to actually plan to fill them yourself while writing it.  The human brain is SO good at making connections that it can make connections where absolutely none were originally intended, which means the author can come along later and be all “See, look how deep this story is!” when really they were just pulling it out of their ass and didn’t have any real initial plan. (See: “LOST”).  I’m not necessarily opposed to that sort of storytelling – christ, I really love the way House of Leaves comes together and that book explains absolutely fucking nothing to the reader, to the degree that the vast majority of the internet argue about all the most trivial parts of it (and annoy me by skipping all the parts that delve into deeper layers and actually fucking matter… of course you didn’t like it if you skipped those!  …anyway, that’s a different review, although a number of parallels can probably be drawn in the way things are constructed).  I’ve only played Dear Esther once, so it’s difficult to say, but I could have just gotten unlucky and gotten some random chunks that didn’t really mesh well together.  Suffice to say, my story made no goddamn sense and no amount of gap filling really helped.  I did pick up on a few of the themes I read about afterward, but there were so many ends flapping in the breeze that it felt like only a few of them actually connected.

What’s probably the most damning is that when I go and look for discussion about the writing, I find a lot of confusion and wild speculation, and no clear consensus as to what the fuck is going on.  (I actually found a wiki for the game, and all the “explain the story” sections were left blank. HMM.)  The vast majority of descriptions for anything other than island fixtures are preceeded by disclaimers like “seems to suggest that” and “there is a possibility that…”.  Nothing is clearly laid out, and everything is ambiguous to the degree of being explained in multiple ways. There are even arguments as to who the “protagonist” actually is in this game.  Are you the narrator?  Are you Esther?  Are you some random person wandering around on an island learning about them but personally have no connections to them?  No one fucking knows for sure.  What that says to me is that the writing does not have any clear direction… so you can make of the story what you will, but the ambiguity is literally all you’re going to get.  There is no plan here, no direction (or at least not one they managed to connect clearly for the player… which could be a symptom of moving from mod to expanded game), and therefore no real story except what you make of it.  For a “game” focused solely on storytelling, it’s incredibly disappointing.  I was looking forward to a creepy stroll through a beautiful but possibly sinister island, slowly uncovering the dark secrets of the past, eventually leading to the horrible truth that was simply too much to bear.  What I got was some random ramblings about events that didn’t really make much sense together, but maybe there were hints that the bigger story was about to unfold, and then it… uh… ended.  Without a sensible build-up the ending felt shallow and unsatisfying.  I sat there and said “…it’s over?  What the fuck just happened?” which led to some googling because I assumed I had missed some side paths and integral plot points somewhere.  Instead it led to writing this review(slash rant).

What the game excelled at was atmosphere.  The island is fucking gorgeous to walk around on.  If it weren’t for the amazing island, this game would not exist, because I don’t think the writing is what propped it up and moved it from “Source mod” to “for sale on Steam”.  I’m not even going to put screenshots in this review… you really need to walk around on the island to see how amazing it is.  There is no part of it that’s boring to look at.  Even in the dry grass fields at the start, you have wind whipping around you and dust blowing past and you feel like “holy shit I’m on an island and I’m looking at the ocean and I can practically smell the salt water.”  When you start getting into caves and can see the light reflecting off of damp surfaces and slightly luminescent fungi… it’s awesome.

And it’s made even more awesome by the soundtrack.  I was expecting the whole experience to be really creepy… and it is to some extent, with a few whispered words in your ear… but for the most part it’s a very melancholy atmosphere.  The soundtrack is fantastic and very fitting.  I’d go so far as to recommend dropping the extra buck on the soundtrack version, if you happen to like orchestral style scores.

The atmosphere makes this game.  Or “game”.  The unfortunate part of a storytelling game like this is that it only takes an hour to play through (80 minutes, in my case), and you could easily just fire up a Let’s Play video and literally see the entire game without missing out.  In the case of Dear Esther, the writing actually isn’t the draw… the experience of walking around on the island, listening to the score and examining creepy glowing diagrams is what you’re after.  For 2.50 on sale, it’s well worth the experience.  For 9.99?  … I don’t think I would go for it.  The writing just isn’t good enough to be worth the price of a good book.