Dear Esther Review
Dear Esther is an odd one. Best described as a first person walk-em-up, it’s an overhauled and expanded remake of a Source mod from a few years ago.
There’s no set goal as such, no ham fisted epic intro explaining that you’re a bull-necked killing machine in a world gone wrong. You’re a lonely chap, a castaway wandering slowly and solemnly through an overcast island in the Hebrides.
Immediately you get a sense of the atmosphere the game is trying to convey. It’s not oppressive as such, just…resigned. You can’t interact with any objects or open doors, and despite appearing to be quite open, you’re funnelled through the island down a serious of disguised, fecund corridors.
Your only accompaniment is a narrator reading details to the mysterious Esther in a somewhat dispassionate, stern timbre, and some cryptic clues as to the plot sprawled around the place.
Dear Esther is a fine-looking game. The Source engine really is the engine that keeps on chugging along. Everything from the windy plains to the dripping, dank caves to the moonlit cliffs looks appropriately downcast and detailed, and makes your despondent pilgrimage through the world that much more interesting and satisfying.
As you toddle along, small bits of minimalist, appropriately tasteful music will chime in too, reinforcing the sense of hopelessness that the game has.
There’s a supernatural element to Dear Esther which thankfully, is never explained. There’s definitely something a bit Edgar Allen Poe about the narrative too, and in tandem with the visuals and soundtrack, it creates a compelling little game.
Dear Esther is, at times, an unsettling experience.
Why are you here? How did you get here? Who’s leaving these clues everywhere and blimey, is there someone looking at me over there? Dear Esther leaves it up to you to interpret, and in a medium largely content with spoon-feeding you ‘epic’ narratives and stupid set pieces, it’s a comparative masterpiece in subtlety.
There are issues. The writing – though good – is a bit overdone, and not nearly as affecting as it thinks. You’ll be done with Dear Esther in less than two hours too, and despite promising differences on subsequent playthroughs, it’s hard to imagine mustering up the enthusiasm to immediately take another slow traipse through the island again.
You’ll also occasionally wander into the odd dead end, and silently curse as you slowly wander all the way back to where the path actually is.
Dear Esther will also be accused of being pretentious by some, and fair enough, it does seem a bit pleased with itself. However, if it weren’t for people daring to think outside the box and be a bit ‘pretentious’, we’d all be listening to Stereophonics, reading Dan Brown and looking forward to nothing but constant Transformer movie lobotomies.
The fact is, Dear Esther does what it aims to do. It’s beautifully presented, hints at a sad story, and trusts you, the player to work it out for yourself.
Dear Esther is refreshing to play. It’s something that doesn’t involve relentless smiting, and it’d be nice if other games could take a cue from its presentation and storytelling, so we never have to get embarrassingly wistful about Aeris’ death ever again.