The making of Dear Esteban and the challenge of hating a video game

Indie developer Ursa loved convoluted first-person narrative Dear Esther indie. But they were still inspired to submit their odd-ball parody Dear Esteban to Fuck This Jam, a game jam that challenges designers to create titles within a genre they despise.

The team, which is made up of Typing Karaoke duo Travis Chen and Nolan Fabricius, created the title over the course of one week for the November games jam which asked designers to confront "something you either don't fully understand or that you dislike enough to want to change it."

"I actually love Dear Esther," Chen recently told Polygon. "Pretty much everything about it. It's the kind of game that at first, it's almost laughably confusing but before you know it, you're totally absorbed by the beauty of the world and the underlying narrative."

'It's almost laughably confusing but before you know it, you're totally absorbed by the beauty of the world.'

According to Chen, the inspiration behind Dear Esteban was less to do with the game itself and more to do with the ongoing discussions it caused. Since its official release in 2011, Dear Esther has been the source of numerous player discussions and interpretations due to its ambiguous narrative.

"I think the main thing we're saying 'Fuck This' to is the endless flame wars that the game sparks. What is a game, what is art, what's the meaning to life, the universe and everything? The answer is 42 obviously," joked Chen.

In the original title, developed by studio thechineseroom, the player progresses through an uninhabited island while triggering voice-overs narrating letter fragments to a woman named Esther. The narrative features a number of recurring themes that touch on kidney stones, Paul the Apostle, neurons and the narrator's leg. The resulting storyline remains open to interpretation, with many players arguing over whether it has artistic merit or is simply a work of pretension.

Dear Esteban follows in line by offering the player a similarly uninhabited island. Only this time the player triggers over-the-top voice-overs made up of half-baked prose, and explores an island where orcas roam the skies.

"It's really hard for me to truly hate a genre," Chen said. "I might say, 'I hate sports games' but I love Virtua Tennis, NBA Street, Bara Bari Ball, GIRP and on and on. All genres have opportunities for amazing experiences and even the worst have their diamonds in the rough. I suppose it's easier to work in a genre that has more misses than hits because it's easier to understand what doesn't work. Understanding what doesn't work in game design is as important as understanding what does."

Dear-esterere

Ursa regularly participates in game jams as a way of flexing their development muscles, says Chen. The result is a platform to design an experimental game without being constricted by the worries of commercial viability.

"We pretty much try to participate in the majority of game jams," he says. "They are such a great opportunity to stretch your game dev chops and design without limitations. Jam games don't have to meet a budget, be profitable or appeal to a target demographic. They can also be total crap and that's okay. Working without these limitations allows for infinite exploration and often results in finding hidden gems of mechanics, gameplay and tech that bleeds over into larger projects"

Despite appearing to be graphically superior to Ursa's 2D musical typing game Typing Karaoke, Chen says the development time for Dear Esteban was actually shorter.

'Both games presented very different learning experiences.'

"I know it looks like a grandiose game with its fancy three dimensions, falling leaves and sun flares but Unity makes this fanciness incredibly easy," says Chen. "All of Dear Esteban's foliage, rocks, buildings and the likes are available for anybody to use. We simply put everything together in a strange and arguably compelling way. Typing Karaoke had some complexities like dealing with lyric content and streaming music APIs making it more technically challenging. Both games presented very different learning experiences, another exciting side effect of working on game jams.

"Also, nobody has picked up on the deep hidden connection between all the narrative in Dear Esteban. Let's get a flame war going for what the game...really means."

Dear Esteban can be played in-browser here. Downloadable copies for PC and Mac are also available.

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