In an industry where gameplay is so often the main selling point for a franchise, Dear Esther challenges the very basis for most modern video games. Some would argue that Dear Esther barely qualifies as a game at all, only a slightly more interactive way to watch a movie or perhaps listen to a good story. Although the game only provides controls for basic movement, it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish by giving players a great psychological journey that they won’t soon forget. Don’t worry; this review is entirely spoiler free.
Developer: thechineseroom, Robert Briscoe | Platform: PC, Mac | Release: February 14th, 2012 | Genre: Adventure
Dear Esther follows the story of a man coping with very severe loss, still distraught after whatever it is that has happened to him. His memories are brought to life through thoughts and feelings that are expressed in a set of letters that he has written since the time of the tragic event. As the protagonist wanders a mysterious island, his arrival at certain landmarks prompts a narrative to begin playing, segments from letters that he wrote to a woman named Esther. This heartfelt yet tragic tale was originally told back in 2008 in the form of an indie mod constructed using Valve’s Source Engine. This new and remastered version was made possible by a former DICE employee, environmental artist Robert Briscoe.
As soon as the game booted up I could tell I was in for a visual treat. The environments and overall atmosphere are stunning and I often found myself simply standing around, spinning in circles while trying to look at every piece of detailed scenery. The protagonist’s journey is broken down into 4 distinct areas of the island, giving you a chance to revisit each one once you stumble across them for the first time. My favorite setting of the four is by far the caves, which gives the player a chance to explore a seemingly endless array of beautiful hanging stalactites. Exploring the depths of these caves I found myself in awe and wonder each and every time I discovered a new cavern. The water and lighting effects left me mystified, and there was no shortage of waterfalls and shallow pools to show off the fantastic visual experience. Please don’t hesitate to click on the images to view them in full resolution. Check out the trailer to see a brief glimpse of some of the environments.
Beyond the great visuals, some players might find the game to be just plain boring, dragging on until the next narrative begins to play. It is true, the game has a set speed at which your character can walk and look around, and it doesn’t change for the entirety of the story. That being said, players who listen closely and pay attention to the narratives will be well rewarded in the end. The game is fairly short, even considering its seemingly slow pace, and it takes little more than a few hours to complete. A good playthrough will have the player thinking and analyzing everything that was just said in one letter while slowly making their way towards the next. The letters written to Esther are read by a British actor named Nigel Carrington, a man with a voice that you won’t get tired of very easily. He gives an excellent vocal performance and really captures both the seriousness and sadness that is present throughout the story.
Dear Esther is by no means a difficult game, and in fact a majority of the journey is simply following the path that has been laid before you. After I had completed the game I had a much clearer idea of what the developers wanted to accomplish in terms of their creative direction. If you’re not sure what to think about the ending then I would suggest looking up what others think about it on various forums; there might just be something you missed along the way. This game is all about exploring a beautifully detailed environment and piecing together a fantastic narrative. For players fond of great stories and who don’t mind being shown what to do, Dear Esther provides a great experience that is stimulating in both a visual and psychological way.