Dear Esther is not a tale of horror – it’s one of loss. Loss of what is to be debated amongst critics, but the ultimate focus is loss. As you are forced to slowly trek through an abandoned Hebridean island while listening to a narrator articulate messages to a love he can no longer communicate with, you start to feel the pain associated with loss. Dear Esther is not a game in the sense that you solve puzzles or partake in any activities other than walking. Instead, you slowly strut at a casual pace exploring different locales on the island. You are on a mostly linear path but have the choice of exploring each area in hopes of activating more vocal narrations. The story is articulated through these brief vocal cues and subtle visual hints strewn across the island. For a good portion of the game, you spend your time trying to discern whether this stroll across the island is purely internal or reality. That’s the main appeal of the game. You spend most of it piecing together the details and in the end you will still not know for certain whether you have your facts straight. But honestly, it’s not the overall story; it’s the relationship with the player’s emotions.
Dear Esther is a game that holds a special place in my heart. As pretentious as it may seem with its heavy ambiguities, it still manages to pluck at my apparently feeble and vulnerable heartstrings. I first discovered Dear Esther through pure luck. Georgie-boy, a mutual friend, Joel, and I had just finished playing through one hell of a co-op experience in an amazing mod called Afraid of Monsters. I started downloading various “scary” mods in search of more exhilarating horror experiences like Afraid of Monsters. Haunting was the only descriptor that drew me to this game. I liked haunting. I liked to feel the tension of lingering disturbed entities. I was not ready for what I was about to experience. I will recall my initial reactions to the 2008 mod to accurately describe what the retail release ultimately is like as the games are very similar.
The retail release offers many new updates. Firstly, the island is gorgeous. Rich with foliage and new textures, the use of the newer Source engine is a great contrast with the original mod. In fact, the difference between the two is a great example of how far the engine has come. I found a lot of my time on the island occupied with stopping and just observing, admiring distant hills and crystal-laden caves. This is exactly what Dear Esther needs. If there isn’t any gameplay, then the narrative and visuals should eclipse its non-existence. Though Source definitely still shows its age, thechineseroom knows how to use Source’s resources to its advantage. No locale feels the same, and even though it would be nice if they added several other models so that we didn’t have to look at all these paint cans of bioluminescent paint, the diversity in the landscape keeps the journey from being daunting.
The addition of new dialogue also spices up the player’s experience. People new to Dear Esther will be welcome to a vast amount of storytelling, while veteran players will be introduced to refreshing new content to their beloved game. Though some of the dialogue didn’t match with the original feeling I had towards the game, it definitely kindled another hidden flame I was unaware of. Even with these new, fully voiced lines of narrative the story never is totally clear, but the emotion Nigel Carrington delivers in each line goes back and forth from disturbing to heart wrenching. Never did I ever feel his lines were insincere, but instead I actually felt they were desperate and confused letters from a dying man. That is my own interpretation, not a spoiler.
I tried hard to understand where “haunting” came into play in this game. But it’s not a “haunting” in the House on Haunted Hill sense and more of just an alienated while experiencing external presence kind of “haunting”. This game is not discomforting by any means. I won’t lie that I was brought to tears at one point in the game. I will not elaborate why, but the weight of the dialogue can evoke such emotions. If you have ever experienced an extreme sense of loss, Dear Esther will recall these feelings.
To accent all of this is Jessica Curry’s soundtrack. Some of her tracks really are “haunting”, but most are bittersweet. Just as is with the dialogue, the soundtrack has been updated as well. It’s very welcome too. I found my body wrought with goose bumps as the music swelled with overwhelming pride as Nigel Cunningham verbalized his indigence to just letting go. The game has the perfect formula of narrative and soundtrack.
Conclusion – Is It Worth The Money?
Dear Esther is a bold attempt at something most developers would never consider. It’s strictly a narrative and nothing more. For simply $9.99, you can experience a short but quality and unique type of game yet to be capitalized on. Though some ignorant players who can’t realize the intent of this game will say it’s terrible, if you go into Dear Esther knowing you are experiencing a story and not a blood filled slaughterhouse, you will come out having experienced an emotionally engaging tale.
Dear Esther Technical Summary:
- Time Played – 4 hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- 5.1 Audio – Yes
- Bugs – Nothing of note
- DRM – Steamworks
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/Mouse
- System Specs – Core 2 Duo, GeForce 9800, 4GB RAM
- Game Acquisition Method – Purchased by reviewer
- Availability – Steam
- Demo – No