Here’s something I never intended to do with this blog – a review! I debated on this quite a bit; straying again from the Kickstarter theme may be a bad idea. But, in the end, this blog is more for my sake than yours. I’ve no agenda here; I just like to talk about things, and if you want to read it, then I get to feel important while doing so, and everyone wins. So here we go.
A lot of people have complained that Dear Esther isn’t a game because you don’t really do anything. I hope that Anna will convince those people that adding standard gameplay elements into the formula doesn’t automatically make the game better. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think that a review should capture the whole experience of the game. So here’s how my experience started:
Oh, hi 1995, I didn’t see you there. I think there’s some misunderstanding here, because I purchased this game through Steam, a digital distribution platform, and there’s really no need for this. But okay, fine, here you go.
Look, I figured you’d be happy that I purchased your game, but there’s no need to personally e-mail me. Maybe if your game is any good, I’ll want to make an account with your for your forums or something, but how about we just get to the game first?
Oh, and what’s that other window you seem to be running on my computer?
Oh. Is Anna giving me the silent treatment because I haven’t created an account yet? Fucking hell, fine.
As it turned out, I already had an account. I guess I played some other Kalypso game before. I don’t recall, but I assume it was just as annoying, and that’s why I wiped it from my memory.
Oh, holy shit, I get to play the game now? Thanks, Kalypso! Dreampainters, here’s my first piece of advice for you: get a new publisher. Anyway, on to the actual game:
I was first greeted by a white screen and a few lines of text, while the loudest stream in history rang in my ears. The world fades in beautifully from the whiteness, and I am freed to roam around outside of a house. The sound doesn’t lower or change at all in the pause/menu screen, which is a little unfortunate. Being a sound designer, I could do a whole post on the audio alone, but there are more important things to discuss about Anna.
I enjoy the atmosphere for a bit, examining everything I come across, and picking it up when I can. But after I’ve checked everything, I’m not really sure how to proceed, other than to try and get some doors open. One set of mini-doors is tied together, and I need to cut the tie. So I decide to look in my inventory, and realize that I just so happened to start the game with a knife. I’m obviously not enough of an adventure game player to know that you should check your inventory before you’ve even picked anything up. So I cut the tie holding the doors together, and open them.
And this is an unfortunate sign of things to come: I have to right-click and drag the doors open. I know that other games have done this, but it feels extra out of place with everything else about Anna feeling so unique. I understand the logic of using the mouse to drag things, but this is a first-person game, and that also moves the camera. Sorry, Anna, but I don’t open doors with my face, and I don’t see why I should start now.
So I open the door, set a branch on fire, and get a broken shard of mirror. I’m guessing this is progress, but I really have no idea. I wander around for a little while longer before finally consulting the in-game help. I’m told I need to clear up a muddy pond. Apparently, I should have guessed this. And how do you clear up the muddy pond? By moving the boulders blocking the stream. How do you do that. By using a stick on them, of course!
And this is how the rest of Anna goes. Adventure game logic. But of course I’m supposed to grab some sawdust and toss it into the water in the next room. Of course I’m supposed to “use” the painting on the wall. Of course I’m supposed to put a pine cone above an engraving of an eye and set it on fire.
That last one I did without the in-game help, but only because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. They shouldn’t even be called puzzles – that implies that there’s some method to them. You won’t have those “Ah ha!” moments of figuring something out, but plenty of “What?! That’s what I was supposed to do?!” moments. I’m convinced that there were no external playtests of Anna before its release. That’s how nonsensical features get into games: the developers are so used to them that they seem intuitive. But hand the game to any sane person, and it becomes pretty clear that they’re not. The in-game help even stopped being helpful after a while. It just kept saying something like “I don’t know”. I ended up just leaving a walkthrough open on my other screen so that I could actually enjoy the game.
Which brings me to an important point. If it seems like I’m just shitting on the game, I’m not. Anna has a lot going for it. The visuals and sound tie together wonderfully to create a haunting atmosphere, and the events that happen in the game are genuinely creepy. The game succeeds admirably in its goal of being a different kind of horror game. It seems weird calling it “horror”, but whatever you want to call it, it’s eerie. The problem is that you’re blocked at every turn from experiencing these events by utterly nonsensical “puzzles”. Anna would have done much better to simply create an environment in which all of these events can occur without forcing you through a linear series of those events and stopping every two minutes, waiting for you to figure out which two items to combine before moving on. There are a lot of things to love about Anna. Unfortunately, gameplay isn’t one of them.
What Anna does differently, it does wonderfully. What it does like other games, it suffers from greatly. Anna would do well to learn something from Dear Esther: stop worrying so much about shoehorning in tired old game mechanics, and just focus on the experience you want your players to have. That experience shouldn’t be wandering around aimlessly clicking on things because there’s no obvious way to proceed. You should be testing your players’ imagination, not their patience.
Oh, and I wasn’t kidding about that new publisher thing.