Dear Esther – Review
Platform | Release Date
PC | February 14, 2011
Developed by thechineseroom
Published by thechineseroom
Dear Esther is a ghost story, told using first-person gaming technologies. Rather than traditional game-play the focus here is on exploration, uncovering the mystery of the island, of who you are and why you are here. Fragments of story are randomly uncovered when exploring the various locations of the island, making every each journey a unique experience. Dear Esther features a stunning, specially commissioned soundtrack from Jessica Curry.
Forget the normal rules of play; if nothing seems real here, it’s because it may just be all a delusion. What is the significance of the aerial – What happened on the motorway – is the island real or imagined – who is Esther and why has she chosen to summon you here? The answers are out there, on the lost beach and the tunnels under the island. Or then again, they may just not be, after all…
By now you have probably read enough articles commenting on Dear Esther’s place as a piece of art and its questionable nature as a videogame in the traditional sense. With that in mind, I’m going to move very swiftly into why you should play Dear Esther: not because its some sort of redefinition of our hobby but because it is a genuinely affecting interactive experience.
Set on a Hebridean island, barren of all life, the game sees you tour the location while being told a story of loss, grief and of the lives that are now ending. The primary means of story delivery is the narrator, a voice which I assume belongs to your first person viewpoint. With perfect tone and a genuine sense of humanity, this voice actor ably infects your mind, and the island in front of you, with the emotion of the character.
It’s not a one way thing though. The island itself is as much a tool of the narrative as the narrator is a device to bring the island to life. Beautifully rendered, with some truly stunning scenes that far outstrip the original mod, the isle is authentically Hebridean, bringing the cold isolation of Scotland’s far West coast. A few vacant buildings and the cave structures hidden below its surface suggest warmth, although much of it lost to the island’s described past. The coldness, however, is the lead sensation throughout the brief story. It’s a compliment to the writing and the structure of your carefully directed walk that a sense of positivity rises out of isolation.
The positivity doesn’t necessarily wane as the story progresses, but you do start to understand the loss our narrator has felt. At times he is angry, at times remorseful, but in the end the game climaxes with a pretty incredible feeling of redemption, both for the island and the narrator himself. Visual cues set around the various parts of the land mass, hints of its dark history, and the narration blend before you hit the big finish. It brought me close to tears. I mean that sincerely and without any desire to sound dramatic. Dear Esther made me feel some pretty strong emotions.
Is Dear Esther a work of art? Is it even a game? I don’t really care. What I do care about is the fact that I have enjoyed an extremely well told interactive story, one that is impeccably presented and one which captures the essence of a real-world place like I have never seen any other game manage.