You wake up alone on a deserted island, with nothing on you except for a flashlight. A mysterious narrator suddenly begins his tragic tale, where colorful descriptions merge seamlessly into the labyrinthian paths that await you.
The pain and anguish of his tone is reflected in the rocks, the stormy weather, and in the hollowed loneliness of the night — it's a darkness punctuated only by a towering aerial off in the distance.
At first glance, Dear Esther's opening has all the right ingredients for a classic horror game — it’s even described by its developers as a “first-person ghost story”. From our experience with games within the last few decades, however, we’ve been trained to expect the worst out of such situations. Whether that experience includes zombies, monsters, or some other unfathomable creature, we tense up around these unfamiliar locations, our fingers nervously resting over the analog sticks or WASD keys: we expect our digital avatars to always be ready for fight or flight.
Yet there is no big bad monster to contend with in Dear Esther. As paranoid as you might feel, nothing is out there to fight you. Except, perhaps, yourself.
As if to purposefully enforce this degree of detachment and isolation, Dear Esther limits you to only a few basic game mechanics: you can look around with the mouse; zoom in on objects; you can walk; you can swim (but barely); you can turn on your flashlight (done automatically); and you can duck into small spaces (also done automatically). Otherwise, there is no combat or platforming to speak of.
So, what kind of game is this anyway?
Originally created as a mod to Valve’s Half-Life 2 in 2008, Dear Esther was an experimental gameplay project developed by Dan Pinchbeck, a researcher from the University of Portsmouth (UK), and the rest of his research team known as thechineseroom. After garnering some critical success in the community, a stand-alone remake of the project was proposed with the help of professional game artist Robert Briscoe — its visuals were overhauled so much, and the results are so stunning, that it’s hard to remember that this is still running off of Valve’s Source engine.
But that's not all: the game is being nominated for numerous awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, at this year’s upcoming Independent Games Festival.
Dear Esther is less of a game, and more of a story-driven experience, not unlike its big-budget cousins in Rockstar Games’ L.A. Noire or Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Instead of breaking up the story into various action sequences, however, it has more of a nuanced approach to storytelling, where musical cues and fragments of narration can change depending on where you are and what you’re looking at. For instance, upon re-playing some of the chapters, I accidentally stumbled upon new narrative voice-overs that I had never heard in my first play-through.
This isn’t a game about finding out definitive answers — think of these snippets of narration as puzzle pieces for you to play with, pieces that are meant to be flipped around and examined. Sometimes these pieces are confusing and ambiguous, sometimes they’re literal and concrete, yet they all somehow fit into the strange tale of the man, the island, and Esther herself.
I finished Dear Esther at about the hour and a half mark, at first unsure of whether I liked it or not. I mulled it over while brushing my teeth that night, still hearing Jessica Curry’s haunting soundtrack in my head. When I woke up in the morning, I was surprised that I was still bothered by the game, constantly wondering if I had missed something on my first play-through, or if there was some undiscovered landmark that could provide me with additional insight into the story.
Like any good poem, Dear Esther appears simplistic in appearance and execution: easy to devour in a short amount of time, but difficult to understand unless it’s played or read through repeatedly. It may not have the depth and action of Bethesda’s Skyrim, nor even the brain-busting quandaries of Cyan Worlds’ own first-person exploration series, Myst, but more than any other game in recent memory, Dear Esther’s world ensnares you within its grasp, and refuses to let you go.
If you’ve played and finished it, I’d loved to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Of course, please use spoiler tags when you do