Review | Dear Esther : Landmark Edition

As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.

While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.

I began the game assuming that I would be solving the mystery of what exactly happened to Esther, and who she was to the narrator. But I was only partly correct. The narrator reveals the broadest stroke of Esther’s story early on, sometimes in the first quarter of the game. Everything beyond that core fact is up for interpretation, as the voice-overs which provide the narrative are often symbolic or circumlocutory. Their tone can be called “poetic” or “pretentious”, depending on your taste in writing. The eloquent, educated narrator becomes increasingly abstract and confused as the narrative progresses. Adding to this, chemical structures, electrical diagrams and fragments of bible passages recur and combine along the protagonist’s path. Combined, these experiences lead to a lot of questions.

Who is the narrator? Are the four characters named by the narrator four separate people, or are some people given multiple names? Are some characters figments of the narrator’s imagination? Are the narrator and the protagonist even the same person?

Dear Esther doesn’t provide answers. In fact, it lacks a canon narrative by design. Dear Esther was one of four mods created for academic research on storytelling in games. It tested whether a game which relied solely on interpreting a narrative without a definite answer, lacking any other mechanics or goals, could still be engaging and enjoyable. Initially, I didn’t know about its history or aims, so when my first playthrough ended I wasn’t sure if I’d finished or just missed something important. I didn’t understand why a game centered on “finding out what happened” would lack a defined “what happened” to discover.

But once I read more about the game and its purpose, I understood where I had gone wrong. So I dived straight back in for a second playthrough. Unlike in most campaigns, the narrative of Dear Esther is not revealed in any one playthrough, but gradually across multiple visits. Some story voice-overs always trigger in the same place, while other locations are linked to sets of possible voice-overs. Different voice-overs can relate to each other, can share phrases with other voice-overs and then diverge, or can even contradict each other. This time I followed the linear path, without veering off-script or walking into the ocean, and I was far more engaged. By the end of my second playthrough my original lukewarm opinion had grown into impressed curiosity. I wanted to see all the pieces so that I could put them together.

The next day, I came back for playthrough 3. A 97% completion marker on my achievements list was testing me – I had to find the one pre-set voice-over point I was missing, in case it held useful information. While doing this, I realised that walking around the same areas repeatedly to try and make the world make sense was exactly what I believed the narrator was doing. I don’t know if the development team expected players to have that reaction, but I found that parallel between the player and the narrator interesting.

On playthrough 3, I found that last voice-over point, “completing” the game. (However, hearing every part of the script at least once can require 6-8 plays). During this third playthrough, I was slow and cautious, staying still while listening to each voice-over to be 100% sure it had registered. I was further immersed again. In moments, I was unnerved from changes in the music and atmosphere, despite already knowing that there wasn’t anyone else on the island. Well done to the composer there!

(After this I realised that I was getting slightly over-involved and left the game alone to write up my thoughts on it. )

Summarising this game, or explaining who might enjoy it, is difficult because of how polarising it can be. Positive and negative reviews of Dear Esther are so separate that they can feel like the reviewers played different games. Someone who loves it might call the experience “a groundbreaking and emotionally affecting narrative, a unique work of artistic gaming”. Someone who hates the experience might call it “a repetitive walk along a path listening to a man rambling semi-coherently about people who may not exist.”

Both of these descriptions have a point, because I think that what you experience from Dear Esther depends on what expectations you bring into it. This game, more than most others, requires players to invest their attention. It epitomises the phrase “you get out what you put in”. Only after I understood the aims behind Dear Esther, and understood where my original assumptions about the game were wrong, could I appreciate what it actually offers.

I don’t see Dear Esther as the revolutionary pinnacle of storytelling that some reviews have declared. But it is a great example of what indie creativity and risk-taking, meticulous care, and open-source software can achieve. To me it has a similar place in gaming history as Wolfenstein 3D: it’s the release which established that a new idea could work, achieved some success in its own right, and then became a springboard for its protégés to launch to greater heights. (Although this analogy does makes Gone Home the equivalent of Doom here, which isn’t a link I expected to draw…)

So, do I recommend it to everyone? Unfortunately not. Dear Esther is definitely not for everyone, and even fans of other ENGs may find its slow, non-interactive nature off-putting.

My attempts to wander off from the “expected” path to see what changed were borne from playing games like The Stanley Parable, which deconstruct the ideas and rules of ENGs. But Dear Esther helped build the foundations that later games deconstruct.

As such, there are no ways to experiment with or rebel against the narrative. There are no meta-commentaries on game development, nor areas where players progress by breaking the surface script. There is just the earnest story, there to be taken seriously and explored as intended rather than subjected to sequence-breaking. A rarely-heard part of the script describes the island itself in the same way ; To explore here is to become passive, to internalise the journey and not to attempt to break the confines. That may be terrible life advice, but it is an appropriate mindset for experiencing Dear Esther.

Dear Esther is a game best played on a rainy night, in a room lit only by a TV and a candle. Its world is quiet and abandoned. Its melancholy narrative unfurls in fragments, drawing you into the mystery if you can be patient with its ambiguity. If you’re still reading by this point, then you will probably find Dear Esther interesting and thought-provoking. It requires attention and care, and an understanding of its goals. But it rewards invested players with an intellectual puzzle that grows more detailed and fulfilling as they create their own interpretation of the island and of what might have happened.

If you are looking for a novel gaming experience, or if you’re curious about ENGs or “artistic games”, then try Dear Esther out. On a technical note, I would recommend playing the Landmark Edition re-release instead of either older version. The overhauled graphics and music are a massive part of the island’s atmosphere, while the improved level design fixes pathways and signposting that players originally found unclear, making the island easier to navigate. As a result, the Landmark Edition seems like the definitive expression of the development teams’ aims.

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