The lights are on
Power Member - Level 9
At this point in the medium's life, video games have become a precise business. A completely new idea is hard to come by; innovation is usually incremental, adding to what's already done. That's why it's always a breath of fresh air to see a new idea come about, yet strange to see two strikingly similar original games release within the same month. Those games are Journey and Dear Esther.
Getting a glimpse of both of these games at face value makes them seem nothing alike. After all, they both have completely different art styles and gameplay mechanics. Yet, they explore some of the same themes, have largely interpretive stories, and are both brief trips through their respective settings. I'm going to comment on what I liked, didn't like, and what I believe games as story tellers should and shouldn't do.
What not to do:
A popular nickname for a linear game is theme park. It keeps the player engaged while controlling the course. The best comparison I can come up with for Dear Esther is a museum tour. It has you stop to look at things, a narrator describes their significance, and then you move on to the next exhibit. While the story is genuinely engaging by the time the game is finished, it plops you into the world without any bearing and forces you to connect the dots before it all clicks. It is also quite boring. Your actions are limited to moving and listening to the narrator.
There are times when the game confronts you with branching paths, with one of them leading to a dead end. The dead end usually has some story information, but the problem is your character moves astonishingly slow. With that in mind, I often found myself trying to guess the way forward without caring about any extra story information. Finding my way back onto the main path would take too long.
It's worth noting that this is easily one of the most beautiful games on the Source engine. The art style is very realistic for such an outdated engine. Even the creators of the engine, Valve, have moved towards more exaggerated art styles to get as much power out of it as possible. So, I have to hand it to developer thechineseroom for making it look so good. In all, it's a very interesting story, but you have to force yourself to keep going.
What to do:
This brings me to Journey: a beautiful game with a vibrant, colorful art style. Unlike Dear Esther, which has you walking along and listening to narrative as you go, Journey has no dialogue whatsoever. The story is told through the gameplay, and by extension, through feelings, which developer thatgamecompany has down to a tee. The game is all about emotion, and I walked away feeling genuinely moved. You control a character that seems to be made of cloth, and you ride currents, slide down dunes and connect with other people online to reach a distant mountain. It seems like every motion has a perfect musical cue to go along with it, whether it's to portray loneliness, helplessness, or empowerment. It has one of the most memorable musical scores in years, and I'm anxiously awaiting the release of a soundtrack.
The game is linear, like Dear Esther, but it's difficult to get lost and your character moves very quickly. There's always something going on; while Dear Esther is dull, Journey is full of excitement and surprises. Simple platforming and easy puzzles line the way, and though they're not much of a challenge, they're fun to figure out.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, games can be art, but they still need to be fun. Journey knows this. It tells its story in an innovative way and immerses you until the end. Dear Esther, on the other hand, is like listening to snippets of audiobook while looking at pretty pictures. It's storytelling without the interaction.