Many titles over the past few years have been both lauded and criticized for being “all story,” and even by the standards of those game’s advocates, Dear Esther almost defies classification. Instead, Dear Esther is a short story you navigate with a keyboard, and though it sometimes infuriates with its cryptic narration and design quirks, Dear Esther is a remarkable narrative experience that digs its way into your consciousness.
What awaits on your first-person journey across the secluded island?
Set on a windswept island, Dear Esther has no tasks or objectives for you to fulfill. Apart from a well-spoken English voice reading letters to the titular Esther aloud and a craggy footpath, developer thechineseroom lets you explore at your own pace, occasionally triggering the narration that forms the driving force behind your desire to explore the barren world. Player interaction is virtually nonexistent; all that is required of you is to walk and look around. Even crouching and turning on your flashlight is out of your control.
There’s a strong sense of aimlessness throughout the first act of the tale. The developers do an exceptional job of making you feel like you’re in control of the order in which you come across the seemingly random snippets of letters being read to you. However, you soon realize Dear Esther is willfully being cryptic and nebulous while the developers cleverly lead you down a specific path. The narrative threads are often used to goad you along, and if you ever try to call the developer’s bluff that you’re on an open island, you’ll run up against the clichéd invisible wall of geometry which breaks any illusions of non-linearity. If try to go off the beaten path, you reach a dead end with only a piece of narration for your trouble.
In terms of actual story, Dear Esther leaves it up to players to draw their own conclusions. The writing serves more to intrigue and confuse than to actually explain anything about you or the reason why the island that you’re exploring is linked to the messages being read.. The voice acting delivered by the narrator is exceptional, contributing the vague strands of story with an unusual turn of phrase that drills into the back of your mind and lodges itself there for hours afterwards. His words imbue everything with an unhappy tone, and with each fragment of a letter, your interest in the story and character will grow.
For as much context and meaning as you can put together from the deliberately incoherent story delivery, Dear Esther is based around visual storytelling. It’s what you assemble yourself through the examination of cues in the environment that help you unravel the mysteries of the island and the unnamed voice in your ear.
In this regard, Dear Esther is an incredible exercise in drawing your attention to the fine details of its world. In order to string together some kind of understanding during the first couple of chapters, you’ll have to look in every corner and peruse each piece of debris that you’ll find during your explorations. Again, the level geometry can make discerning the writing-on-the-wall a pain, especially when you approach the end of the game. Even so, there’s a tangible feeling that you are working things out for yourself, wrapping you up in the tale as you progress.
This feeling is dampened somewhat when the game chooses to funnel you down a strict linear path as the narrative ramps up, getting slightly more explicit about details in the process. Instead, that feeling is replaced by some of the most haunting images you’ll ever see in a video game this year. However low-res some of the textures can be, the overall visual design is remarkable in its ability to create a sense of wonder. The broad strokes of Dear Esther look stunning, with intricate designs and gorgeous lighting bringing some of the later locales to life, all of which are complemented by perfectly-suited musical score.
You decide where the road takes you.
By the end of the hour or so that it will take you to finish Dear Esther, your reactions will differ depending on how willing you are to except a singularly narrative-driven game that deals in loss and unhappiness. It’s impossible to describe anything about the game as enjoyable; in fact, you’ll mostly feel ill-at-ease and uncomfortable during the time you'll spend in its world.
Even though most gamers will dismiss it for being another indie game that attempts to be experimental rather than fun, Dear Esther is memorable experience that one can’t help but appreciate for how well it pulls off its ambitious concept as a true visual novel. $10 may be a steep price for what is essentially a short story, but it will buy something completely original and as far from what we know as a “game" that the medium has approached thus far.
Release Date: February 14, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Mac