Dear Esther Review

By Colin Tan on February 20, 2012

Dear Esther is a bit of an enigma. Originally a Half-Life 2 mod, its journey towards what it is now has been just as intriguing as the journey it tries to portray: that is, a somber pilgrimage through the human condition. Then again, that's up to player interpretation, and it's one of the more mystifying elements to a game that isn't really a game.

Developed by Dr. Dan Pinchbeck of TheChineseRoom in collaboration with Rob Briscoe, Dear Esther is an indie game that brings a lot of questions to the table, some of which really don't have any concrete answers. It's important to realize that what it attempts to do is so against the grain that it's going to be a hard sell for anyone that thinks it's a mystery adventure game, and that's because that's just not what Dear Esther is. Dear Esther, you bring to mind Marcel Duchamp's Fountain in that you are quite dada "“ and that's honestly a word I never thought I'd use in a sentence "“ you aren't a game, but you are at the same time in the sense that you toy with the very basic concept of what makes a game. If it so pleases the cynical, Dear Esther at its most primal is best described as an interactive journal, but that does no justice for the powerful narrative it offers.

It's a ghost story, one without conventional ghosts, but ghosts of the mind. Stranded on an island with nothing but a flashlight and bits and bobs of hints that suggest a trace of humanity, players will find themselves in a game that lacks any form of conventional gameplay save for moving with the WASD keys and looking around with the mouse. You're on an island with no means of return and the only way forward is, well, wherever forward is.

Dear Esther (2)

Exploration is one of the selling points of the game, one that backs the ghostly veil of a narrative. Just who is Jakobson? Who is Donelly? Who is Esther of all people? Players will encounter fragments of letters addressed to her, monologues that refer to a certain Jakobson and Donelly with a great deal of significance. But what are their roles in this experience? Are they even real? Could all of this just be a figment of your imagination? This is the sort of astral experience you'll find in Dear Esther, if you let it. Strangely enough, suicide was one of the more frequent thoughts that came to mind and I found myself hurling the player character off cliff edges, into sink holes, or simply letting the ocean's current drag him down into the dark abyss.

And that's one of the biggest challenges that Dear Esther faces as a game. So much of its narrative is meant to be realized in the hands, or minds if you will, of the player, yet as a game it falls short on delivering that immersion. Despite being a game about exploration and realizations, the path set before you is pretty straight forward. There may be a branch or two, with something you wouldn't discover otherwise if you stick to the main road, but that's all there is to it in terms of its open design. It's also very, very short. About 70 minutes of walking worth of short. Thankfully, there are randomized pieces which do encourage another replay or two. Ironically, the game ends by taking control away from you as a player, despite being an experience that is solely dependent on the player. Making the experience all the less immersive and raising the question: why?

Dear Esther lacks in any mechanical innovations by traditional standards. One can argue that the very lack of any mechanical gameplay elements is innovation in and of itself and something that really helps push the narrative "“ and I'd be very inclined to agree "“ and in accepting this, Dear Esther will definitely be something worth experiencing, but looking at it critically it's a tough cookie to sell to anyone that wasn't already following the game's development. Simply put, Dear Esther succeeds in questioning what is considered conventional gameplay, that just doesn't necessarily equate to an immersive, or fun, experience in the grand scheme of things.In what Dear Esther lacks in game, it more than makes up for in terms of narrative and presentation. The game is amongst some of the most beautifully rendered worlds I've seen in a long time. Not because it looks real, but because it looks hyper-real. The art direction that Dear Esther takes not only helps create a sense of awe and reverence, but it wholly complements the somber story it's trying to tell. From the jaw-dropping cliff-top views to the claustrophobic, wonderment that is the island's caves and underground waterways, Dear Esther impresses with its beauty at every turn. Who would've thought that seeing the rotting remnants of a beached ship's chassis could impress in my mind the thought of mortality. It's like wondering into the skeletal remains of a fragile being.

Alongside Dear Esther's beautiful visuals is its equally provocative sound design. From the reactive classical soundtrack to the ambient and environmental sounds that populate the island, Dear Esther is a treat to listen to. If you ever find yourselves in the Caves, try sinking to the bottom of one of its many water pits, look up and make your way back to the surface. It's quite a surreal experience, and one that is only made that powerful thanks to the amazing art and sound design. Not to mention, Nigel Carrington does an exceptionally good job in delivering a powerful narrative through his voice overs.

Dear Esther (3)

Despite how beautiful the game looks, it does have its shortcomings. A good chunk of the island looks very similar in terms of values "“ most notably the beaches. Depth perception becomes difficult and can cause nausea for the more sensitive eyes. It isn't helped by the fact that the player character floats rather than walks.

Final Thoughts

Dear Esther is certainly worth looking into, especially for those curious about its more experimental concepts. No doubt it succeeds in delivering a powerful narrative through its intricate visual and sound design, but as it stands, Dear Esther isn't really a game "“ probably deliberately so "“ and sadly that's something that will turn many people away, especially for a price tag of $9.99. Would it have been a narrative better told through a different medium? Probably. Regardless, there is a perplexing story here to be told and if you let it, it'll be an experience you won't easily forget.

A very perplexing narrative.
Beautiful visuals and provocative sound design.
Bold and dada in that it challenges traditional conventions of game design.
Falls short in terms of player immersion.
A tough cookie to sell for $9.99.
Takes away what little control players had by the end of it.
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