Dear Esther: review

  • Format: PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: thechineseroom & Robert Briscoe
  • Developer: thechineseroom
  • Players: 1
  • Site: http://dear-esther.com/

Playing Dear Esther is like walking through a poem. Every path is a verse, each step taken with slow thoughtfulness, until you arrive at a destination full of misunderstood meaning. There are no monsters to fight, no puzzles to solve, no platforms to jump, no dialogue options to choose – nothing. There is one course to take: walk (not run) around a somber, abandoned island through the eyes of an unknown traveller as you ponder the dramatic musings of a troubled narrator. Some will call this a pretentious waste of time and money while others hold it up as a tribute to art itself, but where you fall between those contrasting viewpoints will largely depend on your expectations, your willingness to relinquish almost any semblance of gameplay, and your tolerance for poetic nonsense. 

This lovely scene may look perfectly normal to you, but the narrator finds it immensely haunting.

Dear Esther opens with a lonely shoreline set to the rhythmic voice of man who seems to know the island better than his own mind. As you explore windswept cliffs at a measured pace, the narrator will add his own head-scratching comments to your journey. The smallest discarded paper to the grandest vista might be related to these monologues, but the dots won’t connect all by themselves, if at all. The unnerving symbols painted on dozens of surfaces may be scientific equations, a warning, or even an analogy to the fathomless story; the island’s physical existence itself is in question. Due to semi-randomized narration and visual cues, replaying this extremely short game is practically required. Like a complex poem, you’ll peel back one layer after another as you piece together new theories and still never come to a firm conclusion. This ridiculous level of obtuseness can be frustrating (particularly to the poetically-inept such as us), but the claws of brilliant imagery and fascinating storytelling sink deep and just won’t let go.

Discovery, even if mostly linear, is at the heart of Dear Esther. What once began as a Half-Life 2 mod has been upgraded to jaw-dropping degrees, drawing us into a beautifully-realized world built with subtle realism and drenched in mystery. You aren’t forced to explore the dim ravine tipped with sunlight or enter the long-forgotten house, but the things you’ll hear and see inside will add to the ever-unfolding plot. The deliberate movement speed can be a hurdle when retracing your steps, but walking through stunning caverns of shimmering hues while contemplating complex metaphors isn’t something to rush. The audio only adds to the mood: a strong, simple piano piece is the poignant soundtrack’s highlight, matched by a heartfelt (if perplexing) performance by the narrator. To spoil the memorable moments found within the island would do them a disservice, so we’ll say no more. After all, you’ve only got an hour and a half to enjoy them. 

Around every bend is another screenshot-worthy sight.

Yes, Dear Esther is a very brief game, and one that requires nothing more than holding down some directional keys and moving a mouse around to finish, yet playing it is not a passive activity. Deciphering the myriad of interweaving story threads is up to you, and everyone will come out with a different perspective. After three playthroughs, a conversation with fellow players, and a flurry of forum-browsing, we’re still discovering new hypothesises to think over. Of course, morosely beautiful as Dear Esther’s metaphor-heavy walkathon is, it’s bound to rub some people the wrong way, but such is the way with poetry – and that’s exactly what Dear Esther is. The pretty scenery is arguably worth the £6.99 alone, but for those prepared to drink in the full experience, a truly extraordinary game is at hand.

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it’s a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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