First posted on 24 May 2012. Last updated on 30 January 2014.
Dear "Dear Esther",
I loved you, but your love for contradiction was greater. The poignant, twisted malcontent of your heart washed ashore and promptly lost me in a sea of pretentious profundity. Although you are beautiful, from your haunting cliffs and shimmering shorelines to your glittering caverns and moon-kissed beaches, love is not all about beauty.
- - Yours truly
These ambivalent ramblings, although my own, give a taste of what is in store for any gamer adventurous enough to play Dear Esther.
Originally designed and released by University of Portsmouth researcher Dan Pinchbeck in 2008 as a free mod for Half-Life 2, Dear Esther was actually developed as part of a funded academic research project to explore experimental storytelling and gameplay. After receiving critical acclaim for the game, Pinchbeck decided to collaborate with professional artist Robert Briscoe to remake Dear Esther for commercial release under Pinchbeck's studio thechineseroom.
Dear Esther is not a game in the traditional sense but a first-person story full of contradictions and mysteries. The player begins on an abandoned and unidentified island in the Hebrides (an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland) and must navigate a twisted shoreline, climbing toward an ever-present radio tower in the distance. This journey is interrupted from time to time by the haunting, passionate, and sometimes incoherent monologues of a narrator who may or may not be the same as the player. Many of these narrative bits begin with the words "Dear Esther" and are addressed to this unknown woman in the form of a letter. By listening to these weighty and at times contradictory bouts of impeccably delivered speech, the player must try to piece together a tale of love, loss, self-doubt, and redemption.
The player uses the keyboard to move forward, backward, right, or left. The player can also swim and must do so at times. While the player has control in how fast to proceed across the island, the path through the game is largely linear, with just a few side paths for exploration that yield only new sights or snippets of narration. There is plenty to see on the island along the way—not just scenery, but abandoned buildings, flotsam and jetsam from beached ships, and a host of other unusual objects and landmarks. Unfortunately, there is no meaningful way to interact with the game world other than panning or zooming in with the camera. There is no "look" function to describe what the player sees, no "use" button to further examine objects that the player finds, and no inventory. Furthermore, there are no puzzles to solve in the traditional sense—the only puzzle is in determining which way to go and in attempting to unravel the story.
Dear Esther is breathtakingly scenic. The island's sandy beaches, sparkling coves, limestone caverns, bubbling watercourses, rustic buildings, wooden fences, and eerie diagrams made of luminescent paint are rendered in the most exquisite detail. It is actually somewhat jarring that the island is so crisp and clear while the story itself is shadowed by so thick a haze. The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful as well. Piano and strings emphasize important moments, but often, only the wind on the cliffs and the waves crashing against the shore speak through the utter stillness. The narrative monologues delivered by Nigel Carrington are Dear Esther's most appealing feature but also its greatest hindrance. Because they are spoken so clearly with a direct, forceful urgency, they sound meaningful and profound. Yet, on further reflection, it is difficult to judge whether or not these snippets are merely psychotic babblings, admittedly cloaked in book learning and the Queen's English (for example, "Now my [kidney] stones have grown into an island and made their escape."). Still, the voiceovers are part of the mystery and contradiction that make Dear Esther what it is.
Dear Esther's interactivity, although limited, is crucial for a few reasons. First, by traversing the island at the player's own pace, the player can better identify with the game's weighty themes and experience the way in which the island itself is central to the story. Second, each time this short game is replayed (it can be completed in less than 2 hours), the narration changes slightly. This random element allows an astute listener to come to different conclusions regarding the narrator's past, present, and future. Indeed, because the story may begin to make more sense after a couple of passes through the island, playing the game multiple times is recommended. This innovative storytelling technique is what makes Dear Esther uniquely suited to being a computer game and not a movie.
Dear Esther is meant to be an intellectual, emotional, and possibly even religious experience. Whether it succeeds depends in large part on the player's receptivity to its goals and storytelling mode. Gamers who prefer a clearly defined objective are likely to be disappointed. Like a work of modern art, the meaning which the player will take away from Dear Esther will likely be whatever meaning the player attributes to it. Some will be moved by its majesty, and others will mock it as meaningless—the island is wide enough for both perspectives.