Review: Dear Esther
Dear Esther was originally conceived as a mod for Half-Life 2, but with backing from the Indie Fund, has been fleshed out into a compelling and unusual game.
Siobhan Keogh | Wednesday, March 28 2012
Product type: Indie exploration game
Test Platform: PC
Developer: Thechineseroom; Publisher: Steam
An unusual, dream-like indie game that only barely passes for a game at all.
Dear Esther was originally conceived as a mod for Half-Life 2, but with backing from the Indie Fund, UK indie developer Thechineseroom has fleshed it out into a compelling and unusual game.
If you can call it a game.
Dear Esther is, in some ways, more of a choose-your-own-path book that you can walk through. There's no combat, no puzzles to solve, and not even so much as a 'jump' button - you simply walk around an island and look around you. The only way to 'die' is to drown yourself by walking or falling into water and getting stuck, but there are also places where you're required to swim through water to get to the next area. The whole game is about exploration, rather than game mechanics, and exploring the island in more depth will unveil new pieces of the story.
The basic premise of the story is that the narrator is writing letters about the island where he lives to an important person in his life, Esther. It's not clear who the narrator is at the beginning. Similarly, information about Esther is vague: where is she and what kind of relationship does she have with the (male) narrator? The story is jumbled, and told to you by an unreliable, sullen voiceover. Sometimes what he means is clear, and sometimes a lot of interpretation is required. Sometimes he gets so poetic that it's almost comedic, but other times the purple prose is an asset that makes the story hit home. The narration is very cleverly written, and chunks of story are deliberately delivered out of order, so the player has to mentally rearrange and put together the pieces.
Understandably, you might now be thinking that Dear Esther sounds like the most boring game in the world. At times, the game was a little dull - there's no way of running, or going faster than a walk, at any time. But for the most part, the beautiful environments and thoughtful narration are compelling enough to keep you going. The game was built on the Source engine, so runs on most PCs with dedicated graphics, but still looks surprisingly polished. Textures and effects looked great.
The island you wander around is not especially large, but still contains a number of secrets for you to uncover. There are beaches, hills, wrecked ships and caves, each of them carefully crafted to show that human life was once there, but is now gone. It's clear that you are the only living person left on this island.
These environments are also great at setting the mood, especially when paired with the game's fantastic music and weather effects. The music, composed by Jessica Curry, is haunting, and often creates a sense of sadness or forboding that fits with the storyline.
Exploring the environments thoroughly is to your advantage. Yes, they're beautiful, but also because reaching certain points on the map can trigger another piece of the story, even if you're not required to go there to proceed.
Dear Esther is not fun, exactly, but I can't help but wonder if that's actually advantageous in this case. If gaming is art, then maybe it requries a few games that aren't fun. Some movies aren't fun, but other things about them make them compelling to watch. Still, Dear Esther's appeal is limited to those who really want to try something different, something independent of the big selling AAA titles. That's not most gamers, and fair enough. If you love indie games and want to play something new and refreshing, though, you'll love it - and when it's priced at $10 on Steam, there's no reason not to give it a shot.
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