Dear Esther Is Like Nothing Else You’ve Played
I was browsing across Steam and happened to come across a game called Dear Esther. Originally created as a mod to Half-Life 2, it was remade and released as a full game in 2012. I didn’t know a lot about it, but exploring a deserted island in the Hebrides chain, off the coast of Scotland, seems like something I would enjoy, so I gave it a try.
The only reason I am reviewing it, given that it’s a year old at this point, depending on how you count from the original mod or the remake, is that it’s probably one of the most unique game experiences out there. And I don’t think a lot of people probably know about it. So if you haven’t given it a try, and you happen to have a similar taste in games as me, you may want to check it out.
The first thing I have to mention is that Dear Esther is not really a game. It’s more like an interactive story with game elements, but even that isn’t a good description. You basically wander all over, and under, the island while the unnamed narrator randomly talks about different things in a rather melancholy tone. It reminded me a lot of what Myst or Riven would be like if all the puzzles were removed. The island has a rich history of death and decay, with more than one wrecked ship littering its shores, which fits perfectly with the bleak landscape. I guess it would be fair to call the place hauntingly beautiful.
You begin the game standing on a stone causeway that extends down into the water, with a lighthouse sitting behind you. If you go down into the water, it’s all black and you can’t see anything. If you stay too long you drown, but are revived by the narrator saying "Come Back" and end up close to where you entered the water. This probably gives you the first clue that all on the island may not be what it appears.
There is ample evidence that other people have been there before, though you seem to be the only current resident. Messages and chemical formulas are painted on the walls of the few dilapidated buildings you happen to come across, penned in phosphorescent paint. Sometimes the empty paint cans are lying nearby. The messages aren’t really helpful though as they often quote a Bible verse or say something that makes little sense, though you will eventually begin to tie it all into the plot of the story, even the chemical formulas. Or I should say, you might be able to tie it all together. It’s possible I think that the game might mean different things for different people, though I think I eventually understood what was going on.
There are very few keyboard controls. You can move forward or backward or strafe, and the mouse lets you look around. You can also zoom in to see something like a faded photo more clearly by pressing the left mouse button. And there is also a Swim Up button, which defaults to Q, though there are only two points in the game where you actually need to use it. It’s helpful though if you walk down an abandoned dock and slip into the water. It will prevent you from dying, though you can’t really die, so I guess it really isn’t too helpful.
You have no inventory. You can’t interact with the environment. There are no puzzles to solve or books to read (other than if one has a page open that you can peek at) and although the island allows you to explore different areas as much as you want, you are pretty much penned into a linear path that is not too difficult to discover. You can’t even control your walking speed, which is painfully slow on some of the longer paths you have to travel. How I longed to be able to sprint, just once. You don’t actually walk. It’s more like hovering over the ground, like your feet are just a few centimeters above the terrain. I once played a shooter called IGI which was built on a flight simulation engine and the movement here felt like that, a little bit too smooth to be mistaken for actual walking.
So it sounds like the gameplay is pretty terrible? Yes and no. There is not much to do, but let me tell you, Dear Esther is dripping with atmosphere. It would not have surprised me if it poured out of my monitor down onto my desk. And I am not just talking about the scenery, which is gorgeous and deserves special mention. There is a pretty big cave level, and as I was going through it I kept thinking, "Dang, if only Skyrim looked this amazing!" It pretty much blows anything I’ve seen in terms of computer game graphics out of the water. But I am also talking about the way the plot is presented in drips and drabs as the narrator talks seemingly to himself and we slowly begin to realize that something is very wrong here.
There are other characters in the game, though you never actually meet them. Well, you might run into two of them at different points, kind of, but I will leave that surprise, and that interpretation, up to you. There is Esther of course, who may have been married to the storyteller at one time. I’m pretty sure she is dead when the adventure begins, but I’m still not sure for how long. But there are others we learn about too. There is a failed novelist (whom I’m increasingly able to relate to it seems) whose book about the island is stolen by the narrator before the game begins, though it hadn’t been checked out of the library since 1974 we are told, the storyteller’s attempt to justify the crime. From that book we hear tales of a shepherd who tried to better his station in life by building a home on the island, but who met a tragic end and froze to death. His body had to be dumped into a cave to thaw out and rot by passing fishermen. Then there is another guy named Paul who may have been a drunk driver in Esther’s story or may have been a friend of both her and the main character. It’s difficult to tell because at some point the narrator injures himself, so we are told, and his leg begins to get infected. This leads him to start kind of rambling a bit and the stories, which were never really that well defined, get even more mixed up.
The narrator begins talking at different points along the path you walk, and there are some critical things he always says at the same point each time. However, he can also say different things at non-critical locations, so that if you go through the game more than once, you might learn different parts of the story. When I went though the first time he talked about a crematorium which led me to make a sound judgment about the fate of one of the characters, but when my wife played through, she did not get that. Instead, she learned why the chemical formulas on the walls were so important, something that I missed entirely because it was never spoke of in my play-through.
To go along with the insane graphical beauty, the game’s music was composed by Jessica Curry, a freelance music composer who did the soundtrack for the original game. For the remake she was given a bigger budget and lots of orchestral backing. The music is as beautiful as the graphics. The new soundtrack is available for sale (the original one is a free download) and I would highly recommend a purchase. It’s the perfect backdrop if you happen to host a Call of Cthuhlu pen and paper game at your house, which I do. So that was a nice find.
I’m still not a hundred percent sure what happened in the game. Was the island real? Did the narrator make it all up? Was he actually all the characters living in different time periods and leaving clues for his future selves to discover? Was he in purgatory? Was he drugged out in a hospital bed, injured from the same accident that probably killed Esther? Was the island really his wrecked body that we were somehow exploring? I honestly don’t really know. But I do know that Dear Esther affected me in a way that few games ever have. That it kind of depressed me a bit I guess is a bad thing, but if you want a stunningly melancholy experience where you can kind of just relax and let things happen, then give poor Esther a try.