Before being a game, Dear Esther, at its heart, is a tragic and haunting narration. ‘Gameplay’ in the conventional sense of the word is minimal, and apart from relatively linear exploration, most standard game mechanics are not present. This deviation is both a breath of fresh air, and is crucial in helping it succeed at what it tries to achieve. The game tells a specific story, over which the players have no control – they are just observers, watching as the tale unfolds.
The original Dear Esther was a Half-Life 2 mod produced by thechineseroom in 2008. Between 2009 and 2011, it was remade as a standalone game, which released on Steam on Valentine’s Day (February 14th), 2012.
Dear Esther is an interactive story – poignant and personal, narrated by a man alone on an island with his memories and regrets.
Like many other games utilizing the Source engine, the player in Dear Esther is silent. Narrative is the prime driving factor behind this experience, and the first-person interactivity of the game is just a means to a different form of storytelling.
The quality of writing is fantastic, and chances are that portions of the deep and poetic narration will take one back to high-school literature classes (personally, I remember these with much fondness).
Throughout the game, at predetermined locations, excerpts from letters to Esther can be heard. Some of these excerpts vary from game to game (and in these cases, have two or three variants), thus successive playthroughs have the chance of presenting slightly different viewpoints. As the player progresses along his journey, the author’s letters offer insight into his reasons for being on the island, his perspective on the world around him, and his relationship with Esther. A large portion of the game is spent in silent reflection on past and present events, and the pace of the story is such that the player has adequate time to ruminate.
Visually, Dear Esther paints one of the most impressive locations you will see based in the Source engine.
There is great attention to detail, and an amazing job has been done capturing the barren ruggedness of the Hebrides, with untamed plant life breaking the monotony the original mod suffered from. The touch of human hands can be seen scattered across the island, and the desolate, empty feeling is portrayed convincingly. Colour variation is used effectively, drawing the eye to points of interest and setting the mood in different locations. Lighting helps to guide the player in certain sections of the game and indicates the presence of alternate routes. ‘Warm’ areas help give the player a sense of security and protection from the bitter reality the island symbolises.
The voice acting is excellent, with weight behind each line and thought. This, along with the realistic ambient sound and moving soundtrack, goes a long way towards making one feel like they are really on the island, reliving his journey.
To further immersion, controls are simple and the interface is minimalistic – there is no HUD or notification of any sort, no guide, hints or tips apart from the subtle prompting of the narrator. The restriction of movement (there is neither jumping nor direct interaction) does not feel awkward or excessively limiting.
Progress through the game and across the island is almost completely linear and there are well defined boundaries to where the player can and cannot go. Design of each area ensures that the player passes through a majority of the unseen checkpoints which prompt pieces of narration.
There are still benefits to exploration and deviation from the obvious, set path – cryptic messages, biblical references, seemingly inconspicuous items that hold a deeper significance, and due to the semi-random nature of the game, a chance to observe some interesting new sights every time you decide to make the journey.
I found myself retracing my steps on numerous occasions to see if I had missed out on anything – this was both enjoyable and infuriating. The conflict between following the obvious path and awkwardly shuffling up and down cliffs trying to find hidden titbits of information did often draw away from the game. Making these more frequent and evenly spread would have helped offset the feeling that there is a lot of unused potential – often there is no reward for taking a circuitous path or exploring, and there are situations in which exploration of interesting features is just not possible.
Whatever you refer to it as, Dear Esther at its core, is an experience – to truly enjoy it you have to accept it as just that and allow it to guide you where it will. The game leaves no illusions as to what it is, and though I will not dissuade anyone from trying it, it most definitely will not be everyone’s cup of tea.