Dear Esther – Review

Title   Dear Esther
Developer  The Chinese Room
Publisher  Steam
Platform  Windows PC, Mac OS X, Linux (through Ubuntu)
Genre  Art
Release Date  February 14, 2012

Dear Esther began life in 2008 as a mod for Half-Life 2, serving as an exploration into how effectively a game could function when storytelling is the sole focus and, almost three years later, this exploration continued when it was granted independent release and the world was able to experience its powerful story.

With little regard to the traditional elements of game design, its focus on storytelling leaves the player with a freedom to explore, but little else.

You are an unnamed character on a deserted island near the west coast of Scotland, alone except for the sound of a narrator’s voice reading aloud letters addressed to a woman named Esther. While your purpose for being on the island isn’t ever made clear, the game’s design and setting quickly pushes you along the progressing  path, drawing  you deeper into the island.

Without the chance to spend your time with the traditional routines of investigating objects and talking with other characters – since there aren’t any –  there’s nothing to hinder the progress of the story besides how fast you choose to move through the island.

As you do so, movement is slow as there is no running or jumping,  only the ability  to walk. You move as fast as the game wants you to, but there is good reason for it being this way as Dear Esther is both beautifully atmospheric and seemingly full of life, which its creators don’t want you to miss.

Your journey is divided into four chapters, each one taking place somewhere different on the island. While the game is short and can easily be completed within an hour, you witness many strikingly attractive things during your stay, such as the mysterious caves full of scientific diagrams painted on its walls, or the thousands of crowded stalactites above, illuminated by the glowing fungi when you are deep inside the island.

But it is of course within Dear Esther’s story that the greatest attraction lies. As you move deeper into the island towards a radio tower atop the island’s peak, you’ll hear more of the mysterious letters addressed to Esther. Stories of previous island dwellers, about a deformed shepherd in the 18th century who died alone, and of a writer who attempted to chart the island but later died from syphilis. You’ll also hear about the woman called Esther who was killed in a car crash, yet the meaning of these letters and the purpose of their stories is decided only by your own interpretation.

Each time you play through Dear Esther you’ll encounter different letters as new parts of the stories are revealed, semi-randomly, and chosen by the game. This allows the meaning to be permanently uncertain, provoking your own assumptions and understanding into constant revision.

Its brevity makes it accessible, and the uncertainty of the random storytelling invites you to return again and again. It is never candidly scary but there is a strong focus on death, which is a deep and challenging subject. A challenge which ultimately feels easily overcome, as the emotional weight created  by the atmosphere and environment of the island make Dear Esther a powerfully-effective lesson on how to tell a certain kind of story.

  • The island’s scenery provides a thoroughly beautiful and convincing atmosphere
  • The uncertainty of meaning in the story allows your own thoughts to complete the game and invites you to keep returning for more
  • On occasion, the narrator begins reciting a letter triggered by a scene or event you are yet to reach, which sometimes makes you feel out of sync with the game

It began as an exploration into how effectively a story could be told with all of the traditional gameplay elements stripped away, yet it became a beautifully-attractive game which, despite its short running time, offers an incredible amount of depth to a story that has no definite meaning beyond your own interpretation.

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  1. Chris Chris says:

    A good portion of the gaming community has raved about this, and as a huge Half Life 2 fan, I remember it’s early release as a mod.

    I do still need to pick it up, as I have yet to play it.

    Good review Jack!

  2. Edward Edward says:

    Honestly, I’m not touching this unless I have Ric’s Dear Sandwich mod installed.

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