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Review - Dear Esther (Steam, 2011)

If you can get past the non-interactivity, this is a beautiful, worthwhile experience

Dear Esther, the former Source mod that was given a face lift and retail release in 2011, has seen its share of controversy and discussion.  Specifically, it has been at the forefront of every conversation that contains the phrase “but is it a game?” Let me say up front that I will not be addressing this question.  Because to me, “what should I call it?” is far less interesting than “what did I get out of it?”

And what I got was unique and valuable.  An engaging narrative, absolutely stunning visuals and music, and impressive atmosphere all come together to make Dear Esther a worthwhile experience.  It has its problems - some of the writing is too opaque and florid, and the lack of interactivity is occasionally frustrating.  But what it does, it does very well, and there’s simply nothing else like it out there.

I think a good way to start talking about Dear Esther is to describe my first few minutes with it, since the game tells us a lot about itself in that time.  When it starts, you immediately hear a somber piano piece and the voice of an englishman, apparently reading or dictating a letter to someone named Esther.  As the narrator speaks of the gulls being absent from the island and about someone named Donnelly, you get your first glimpse of the Hebridean island environment where the game takes place.  Your first view is of the rocky shoreline, the black water and the clouds that make the place feel more isolated than it already is.

The sound design in this game is absolutely fantastic.  The music is pretty and sad and supports the tone well.  But it is only present at certain times.  I’ve heard some complain about this, but I thought it worked really well.  Listening to the wind or the lapping waves at other times increased the already high level of immersion, and when the music came in to emphasize something, I really felt the importance of it.  The voiceovers also sound good, but something in the acting side of it is a little off for me.  For some of the fairly intense things the narrator is talking about, his voice seems a little too calm and passive.  Then again, there is significant mystery as to what he is actually talking about, so maybe that was intentional.

Once the brief voiceover is finished, you gain control.  Your natural inclination is to look away from the shore and at the island, where you see a dilapidated stone building attached to a lighthouse.  It’s clear that’s where you are supposed to go, so naturally I turned back around and walked straight into the ocean.  I won’t spoil what happened there, because what the game does when you nearly die is creative and frightening, and worth experiencing fresh. Getting out of the water, I again went against the game’s direction and instead of using the boat ramp to get up, I decided to clamber up the rocks (which is what I would do in real life). Only I couldn’t.  The rocks weren’t large (an average adult could step right over them), but I couldn’t get past them because there was no jump button.

This, to me, is where the game shows its most significant flaw.  I have no problem with games that downplay interactive elements to focus more on story or atmosphere.  But Dear Esther's seemingly hardline commitment to non-interactivity hurts it in several places.  A button for a short little jump (not a huge leap, but the kind of little hop that a middle aged man with ailments might manage) should not have added significant development time, and would have greatly added to the immersion they clearly value so much.  And it would not negatively impact the experience in any way.  In fact, it would be useful in very few places - a handful of knee-high fences or boulders.  But not being able to clear those small obstacles really took me out of the world that was otherwise so engrossing.

Once I finally got back where I started I made it up to the building.  It was dark and littered with all sorts of debris and junk.  Papers, clothes, books, cookware, etc.  It looked as though many people had lived and worked in that space, but perhaps not for a long time.  Here is where the game shows one of its more significant accomplishments - the ability to deliver a sense of real exploration and discovery is what is actually a very linear game.  I love exploration as a game mechanic, and there is nothing more thrilling to me in games than stumbling upon something left by someone else long ago, and wondering what it is, who they were, and why, why, why.  This is a huge part of why Shadow of the Colossus grabbed me the way it did.

I’ve since watched Youtube playthroughs of people going through that first building, and was shocked at how quickly they surveyed it and moved on.  I spent a lot of time in there, because there was a lot to see.  A flashlight comes on automatically in the dark, and you have the ability to zoom in to see things better.  There is so much to explore in that first building, small though it may be.  Papers, photos, the titles of books.  I wanted to figure them all out, to try to get a sense of who it was that occupied this space.  Was it me, the first-person protagonist?  Are these my books, or those of a long-dead crew from decades ago? Developers thechineseroom crafted such a believable world, and imbued it with such rich atmosphere, that they were able to turn a small three-room stone building into a place with as much fodder for exploration as all of Hyrule or any other game world.

However, the frustration of non-interaction crops up here again.  It makes more sense than the lack of a jumping mechanic, but you can’t help but wish that you could manipulate the environment.  You want to pick up a book, push the bookshelf aside, look under the mattress, and it’s frustrating to not be able to do anything.  In particular, having a flashlight come on automatically is a bit annoying, because I felt like I should be able to use that later, when it’s nighttime or when I’m in dark caves.  Most of the time, not having gameplay is perfectly fine, but on occasion the game itself reminds you of it, and those moments are weak points for the game.

When you finally leave that first building, you see your first branching path - one trail that leads along the coast and another that heads up the hill.  There are several of these forks in the game, which helps to create that sense of exploration.  Typically, there are subtle visual clues that let you know which is the “right” path and which will lead to a dead end or a switchback.  The “wrong” paths are always worth taking, though, as they can lead to some spectacular views and sometimes an extra bit of narration and context.  When these extra paths are out-and-backs, rather than loops, it can get pretty annoying, though.  Because the walking speed of the protagonist is incredibly slow, and going back through the exact same place is not as enjoyable the second time around.

So, that’s the first 10-15 minutes of Dear Esther, and now I’ll move on the the game as a whole.  The one thing I haven’t said much about, and what is arguably the most important aspect of the game, is the story.  It’s difficult to talk about, both because it’s easy to stumble into spoiler territory, and also because the story is purposefully vague and interpretive. There is a man on an island (which may or may not be you), who is ill and perhaps dying. He is relaying his experience on the island to someone.  And that’s maybe all we know for sure. There are tons of little touches throughout the island that will help you in your interpretation of the story.  You can find photos in little candlelight shrines of a woman and a wrecked car. You can find autopsy reports scattered outside of a shipwreck. From the beginning, you see scrawls of chemical diagrams fingerpainted on rock walls. Later, you will also see mechanical diagrams and biblical quotes.  It’s never clear if you wrote/drew these things, or if you are seeing someone else’s handiwork, but they are intriguing.

These things get more intense towards the climax of the game, as it appears the person who drew them becomes madder, and while the ending clears a few things up, we are most certainly left with more questions than answers.  For me, this worked really well.  The developers left everything open to interpretation, but gave you enough to work with so that you could form your own conclusions.  I’ve seen a number of analyses of the story, and while some are perhaps more in-depth than my own, none seem any more “correct” and I appreciate the balance the developers struck here.  Overall, I thought the story, and the way it was presented, was fascinating and engrossing, and not one I’ll forget in a hurry.

I mentioned the visuals a little before, but they deserve a serious look.  This is really one of the most beautiful game worlds I have ever walked around in.  There are three distinct environments - outside during the day, the caves, and outside at night (pictured above in that order) - and all are gorgeous.  Everything is so real and authentic, while still having an air of the unreal or dreaminess to it.  The caves in particular are stunning and unlike anything I’ve seen in a game.  For a game where the entire experience is walking around looking at stuff, they have to nail the visuals, and the developers definitely brought their A game.  If you’ve ever thought that visuals alone couldn’t carry a game, I recommend spending a little bit of time on this island.

I tend not to get into the “is it worth it/should you buy it” questions here, and I won’t now.  The game is short (around two hours), and you don’t actually get to do anything.  There are no enemies, no puzzles and no interactions with the world or anything in it.  You just walk and look and think.  For me, a game that shows me something beautiful, tells me an interesting story, makes me think, makes me feel, and gives me something I won’t soon forget is a valuable and worthwhile experience.  That may not be true for everyone.  But I would recommend that people at least give Dear Esther a chance.  Perhaps it won’t do anything for you, but you’ll be better off for trying something unique.