Company to misery
Dear Esther, developed by thechineseroom, is not considered by all to be a game. It is. Dear Esther is a game that grabbed me, a game that surprised me. Even with the shortcomings of the game play, it is a significant piece of work that will stun you with the presentation, and stir you with its story.
I have never been one to really care about stories in games, films and novels just seem to grab me in a more profound way. However, there are exceptions to said rule, and Dear Esther has earned its place on that list. The tale spun in Dear Esther is almost completely what you make of it. There are no twists, there is no mind bending moment, there is only the simple story told through a journey across an island, and through spoken word. The narrative in Dear Esther could be considered minimalistic in that sense and I believe that is why it achieves what it sets out to do. As the narrator recounts the history of the island, and informs the player of his current situation, subtle visual cues on the island aide him in his storytelling. The writing is beautiful, and paced very well, as for the story itself, all I will say is that I was very invested in it, and proper closure was provided. Dear Esther provides a perfectly melancholy tale that will provide ideal company for a doleful soul.
As skillfully as the story in Dear Esther is told, I fear it would not have gotten as much out of me if not for the lovely visuals. In no way does Dear Esther seek to wow you with its presentation, that’s a good thing though. The mixture of muted colors and astounding vistas immerse you in the world, as well as the commentary immerses you in narrative. You trek across a frigid, blustery island, over hills covered in wet moss, and through caves adorned with beaming algae and looming stalactite. There are no animals, nor humans on this island, only the flora to escort you on your journey. Aforementioned visual cues will subtly guide you on the path the game wishes for you take. The sense of immersion is exceedingly impactful in Dear Esther; it’s a huge part of what make the game so successful in its goal. It’s also worth noting that the woeful, imposing soundtrack only works to benefit the atmosphere on the barren, grassy isle. Unfortunately, with the fantastic storytelling and visual work, comes the expectation of game play that will live up to those standards. Unfortunately it is in the realm of game play that Dear Esther falters.
With a look that inspires such captivation, Dear Esther leaves the player without a way to effect the environment. There is not really any need to impact the environment though, and that proves to be another problem. Dear Esther requires you to do nothing but walk, and while I wish that was not the case, it is possible that the lack of investment in mechanics leaves me more able to commit attention to the story. Nevertheless, there is not much meat beneath the surface of this work. The narration moves at its own pace, a flashlight is drawn automatically in dimly lit areas, and you are only able to walk at an unhurried stride. You may zoom, there is a fail state with an instant respawn, and you may take alternate routes through the island, but many lead to a dead end. That’s about it for the mechanics.
A shame, even with the sweeping sounds that fill you with sorrow, a downhearted tale that will consume you, and a graphical quality that demand your attention, Dear Esther is not able to reach its potential with the drawbacks of its game play. Although it may not be perfect, Dear Esther is important, and something worth experiencing for yourself.