Dear Esther is beautifully rendered, hauntingly atmospheric and splendidly narrated. It also has a couple of very big problems.
The Old Argument
But the question of whether or not Dear Esther is a proper game isn't one that's ever bothered me. Gaming is still a relatively young medium, open to change and experimentation. For me, dismissing a game solely on the basis that it doesn't fit into the traditional definition as being one is an attitude that can only stifle innovation and discourage other developers from trying new ideas. Indeed, games such as The Stanley Parable have demonstrated the advantages of such a minimalist approach. The more interesting question for me is: did Dear Esther succeed in what it set out to do? In this review, I'll attempt to pin down my thoughts on where I thought the game excelled, and where it faltered.
Dear Esther is one of the original "walking simulator" titles (having very little gameplay beyond walking and looking around) set on a bleak Hebridian island and played from a first-person perspective. The island is nothing short of breathtaking, and is perhaps the highlight of the entire experience. I've visited these islands in real life, and Dear Esther succeeds magnificently in capturing their cold yet beautiful atmosphere. The cliffs feel as ancient and wind-scoured as their real-life counterparts and the faint rustling heard from the forlorn plant-life seems to reflect the equally forlorn themes that underline the game's story. The visual and sound design are both spot-on in establishing the sights and sounds of the Western Isles, which in turn is helped by the superb soundtrack. It was during the story's foray into the caves beneath the island that Dear Esther truly pulls out all the stops - there were some parts in this section that left me literally stunned at what I was seeing (and hearing) in front of me, to the point where I had to stand still for a couple of minutes just to soak it all in. That's a rare achievement for any video game.
You play as a nameless, voiceless, faceless protagonist shipwrecked on a harsh Scottish island, who sets out towards the radio tower on the horizon. It's not immediately made clear what you intend to do once you get there, but by keeping the tower in sight while wandering through the outdoor sections, the player never feels lost or in doubt as to which way to go. As a way of guiding the player through the levels and preventing accidental backtracking, the radio mast works well when serving this purpose, in a similar manner that the mountain does in Journey. Interaction is limited to walking around the island and sometimes poking your head into decrepit buildings, only to find them empty and long-abandoned. There are no puzzles to solve, people to speak to or choices to be made. Instead, the lion's share of the game is spent listening to a well-spoken narrator reading a series of letters written to the eponymous Esther. The narrator himself is another highlight of the game; adopting a solemn and subdued tone to start with, before rising to lurid and passionate speeches as you approach the game's climax.
It's hard for me to deny then, that the visuals, sound and voice acting are all nothing short of stellar. Unfortunately, Dear Esther also suffers from a handful of major problems that ultimately left me muted and underwhelmed by the game.
Because of the limited interactivity and lack of gameplay, the narration pretty much forms the crux of the entire experience. Sadly, I found the quality of the writing in Dear Esther to be wanting.
If ever there was a walking definition of purple prose, this game would be it. Although the dialogue contains occasion flashes of brilliance, the core parts of the narrative are so cluttered with flowery twaddle that I found myself often being yanked out of the story thanks to the absurdly ludicrous delivery. I admit to not being particularly discerning when it comes to analyzing good writing, but I can usually get invested in a well-told story even if I don't fully understand it. But Dear Esther is so utterly pretentious and full of itself that I found myself getting frustrated rather than intrigued by the story. Here are a couple of quotes from the early game that I found particularly egregious:
"Dear Esther. I sometimes feel as if I’ve given birth to this island. Somewhere, between the longitude and latitude a split opened up and it beached remotely here. No matter how hard I correlate, it remains a singularity, an alpha point in my life that refuses all hypothesis."
- Opening monologue
"An imagined answerphone message. The tires are flat, the wheel spins loosely, and the brake fluid has run like ink over this map, staining the landmarks and rendering the coastline mute, compromised. Where you saw galaxies, I only saw bruises, cut into the cliff by my lack of sobriety."
- Level 2: The Buoy
Perhaps my experience with human speech is limited, but this sounds like it was written by a teenager in English class trying to sound far cleverer than he actually is (on this I can speak from experience, because it often sounds like reading one of my own high school essays). This is the only story I've experienced that somehow manages to be both frustratingly vague and tiresomely heavy-handed at the same time. I suspect this is down to the premise of the story being relatively simple and straightforward - a tale of loss, grief and despair that almost any person can relate to. Yet the writing actually manages to diminish any impact the game may have had by making itself so distracting and obtuse.
Then we come to the second major problem I have: the player. The fact that Dear Esther may not be a 'real' game isn't what bothers me. What does bother me is that the player is completely amputated from the story itself. We're not here to partake in a moving tale of human loss, instead we're merely treated as a vehicle for the narrator to force flowery nonsense down our throats without getting to influence or even really experience any of it. It might be more accurate to say that we're almost a hindrance to the game for our mere presence. This makes me wonder why Dear Esther is even a game in the first place, especially since it wrestles control from you during the ending (the only time something of note actually happens) and keeps your influence on the world as limited as possible. The only apparent benefit from it being in game form is the opportunity to hold down the W key for an hour, so it's essentially like watching a film on a DVD player with a broken pause button. On top of that, the walking speed is painfully slow:
"People need to be more patient and take their time with soaking in the atmosphere"
This is what admirers of the game often tell me when I say this. Fair enough, I like immersing myself in a slow-burner - if anything I prefer a story that takes its time to flesh out the central elements. But more often than not you'll wander down rather lengthy corridors, find nothing of interest, not even a bit of narration, and then have to slowly plod all the way back again. It's at these points that all the carefully planned pacing in the game comes to a crashing halt. Then there are other times when you have to traverse fairly featureless expanses of wasteland all the while sliding along at the average speed of a Peugeot driver on the Edinburgh bypass. This is not good pacing, this is just time wasting. Contrary to what the game seems to intend, this actually discouraged me from exploring the setting, as it seemed likely that doing so would only result in me wasting several more minutes of my time without any payoff, further reinforcing the feeling that the game was pushing against me as a player.
Some people might say that I've simply missed the point of the game, and that I'm too thick or impatient to fully appreciate Dear Esther's story. In all honestly, there's a good chance that you're absolutely correct in saying that, given my poor taste for good writing. However, Dear Esther simply didn't engage me on any level, save for its breathtaking visuals. I never felt invested in any of the character shells we're given a vague description of, and its eagerness to be intellectual and thought-provoking just came across as pretentious and condescending.
The Walking Simulator genre isn't one without merit - The Stanley Parable is an excellent example of how the genre can be used to good effect. In that game, the actions of the player are what ultimately drive the narrative, resulting in an amusing and organic experience that is probably one of the best demonstrations of how choice in games can be used to craft a form of storytelling unique perhaps only to this medium (somewhat ironic considering that lack of choice is also one of The Stanley Parable's major themes). Not every game needs explicit player choices of course, but any game which places such a heavy focus on story needs to involve the player to some degree, and justify its place in the medium. Even a series such as Thief integrates its story well by making the actions of the player consistent with the main character, therefore placing both in the same mindset and helping immerse the player in the game's setting.
There's a real challenge for developers who want to tell a tale, but without the player being able to dilute its impact by performing actions that spoil its pacing or delivery. Instead of solving this problem with a different storytelling approach, The Chinese Room have resorted to effectively removing the player altogether to prevent them from interfering with the narrative. Their follow-up game, A Machine for Pigs, managed to make some leeway in improving on this by having the player take a more active role in the core events of the narrative. However, their more recent project Everybody's Gone to the Rapture seems to have once again regressed back to Dear Esther's more constrictive style without adding any new ideas of its own*.
At the end of the day, Dear Esther has a lot going for it - it has a compelling setting, fantastic visuals and a haunting soundtrack. For me though, despite its compulsion for walking, it won't go down in history as a step-forward for gaming as a whole.
*Note: I have not yet played Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, this comment is based on reading a number of reviews and watching some playthrough videos of the game. This seems fair judgement given what I've seen of the game.