Dear Esther, the 2012 remake of experimental games studio thechineseroom’s source modification of the same name, is, at times, incredibly infuriating. The slow walking pace and limited gameplay often left me wishing the game had an auto-walk button. At the worst of times, I wondered if Dear Esther had any buisness even being a game. As I came to the end of Dear Esther’s one hour playtime, I answered that thought with a resounding yes. Dear Esther succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish. It uses the unique interactivity of games to create a world and story that when looked at as a whole is incredibly compelling. Even if the journey is exceedingly frustrating.
The game opens with you, washed up on the shore of a deserted island with nothing but a flashlight and a cast of narrators to provide context to your journey. These narrators never talk to you– the narrators seem to be talking to no one. The subjects they speak of vary from passages of The Bible to histories of the island to personal narratives. The voice acting is done very well. It’s delivered with the emotional weight it needs and is never over the top, although some of the language the narrators use is a bit opaque. You can tell that they spent a very large amount of time getting the voice over just right, which is how it should be, considering that the voice acting is nearly all of the content of the game besides its gorgeous environments.
As the game progresses you’ll find hints of previous residents of the island. Abandoned houses, cave etchings, boats, and hundreds of cans of paint scattered throughout the island. The games moves you through various shores of the island, and even to the islands absolutely gorgeous cave systems. The texture work on everything, save a few etchings, is top-notch. This wouldn’t be especially impressive if it weren’t for the game’s outstanding art direction. Underground waterfalls, shipwrecks, irredescent stalagmites, cryptic etchings, and the various setpieces of Dear Esther alone are enough to make the game worth seeing.
The fantastic sound direction of Dear Esther also allow it to have the emotional impact thechineseroom was hoping for. The soundtrack is very limited. Often times I found myself walking with nothing but the sound of distant birds or other ambient noises. This desolate soundscape gives the moments where the game does have music more weight. Walking into a critical room may be accompanied by very minimal piano or string piece that ends up adding quite a bit.
Now, I need to address the most lacking part of Dear Esther. The gameplay. For the first 45 minutes of the game, I found myself incredibly bored. Dear Esther seems absolutely dead set on giving the player nothing to do but to walk. Even your ability to take out your flashlight isn’t your choice, it automatically appears when it’s needed. To an audience of people that are used to at least be able to choose their player actions this might seem extremely frustrating; I know it was to me. However, the gameplay of Dear Esther is what it needs to be. The limited gameplay leaves nothing for the player to focus on other than the words of the narrators, and the environment. It is used to control the habits of gamers. For example, when I play games, I jump everywhere. Even when I don’t need to, I jump. as a result, I tend to focus on jumping, I create little goals for myself like jumping from barrel to barrel. Because Dear Esther took away my ability to jump, I had to focus on the environments and ended up noticing things I otherwise would not have. Dear Esther takes the opposite approach that most games take. Instead of accomodating a players every desire, Dear Esther makes the player obey its rules.
Whatever frustration the gameplay might cause to the average gamer, Dear Esther makes it all worthwhile in its moving, gorgeous final act. As I ascended the final hill of the game, I found myself weaving all of the different speeches given by various narrators into a cohesive narrative. This gave me a deep sense of satisfaction that made all of the confusion and frustration worth it. Even on my second play through I found more subtleties and nuance in both the story and world of Dear Esther. If you’re in the market for a game with a thought provoking narrative that doesn’t hand-hold you through it’s story, and, this is especially important, you have the patience to take a slow stroll through lonely shores, Dear Esther is definitely worth checking out.
(Dear Esther was released February 14th, 2012 for $10.00 USD on the Steam platform)