Review: Dear Esther
Dear Esther is an interactive story walking-around game...thing. Major spoilers ahead, you have been warned.
I first encountered Dear Esther in 2009, on level designer Robert Briscoe's blog. He was doing things with displacements in the Source engine that I didn't know were possible. My interest in DE is mostly technical in nature. Right up to the moment I started playing Dear Esther, I had no idea what it was about.
- Developer: thechineseroom + Robert Briscoe
- Played: April 2012
- Players: 1
- Website: dear-esther.com
- Price: $10
- Platform: PC
Devoid of combat, interaction with the world, or any specific goals, Dear Esther is a bit of an oddity. You cannot run or jump, nor can you touch anything. Your participation in the experience is limited to walking, looking, and listening. You explore the island in a roughly linear fashion (though each area presents a few different paths to follow, none markedly different from each other). You listen as the narrator dictates a letter to a dead woman. You leave the game knowing a little more about what's going on than when you started, but also with more questions.
The visuals (both aesthetic and quality) are easily one of Dear Esther's strongest points. While players may argue over DE's status as a 'game,' few criticisms can be leveled at its presentation. The terrain in particular would be remarkable in any context; in the Source engine, it comes as a major surprise. In general, the art is stunning, even if you can't quite run it at maximum fidelity.
In a word, excellent.
Dear Esther's musical score is decent enough in quality, but I found it more distracting than anything else, particularly when contrasted with the excellent sound design. I firmly believe that you could remove the music from DE entirely and a new player would not notice its absence.
The plot is a bit jumbled (by design), verging at times on the incomprehensible. Most of the story is conveyed by periodic voiceover work, which while excellent in quality, often brings up more questions than it answers. The exact narrative you receive will vary randomly by playthrough, adding to the mystery. You can decide for yourself whether this mode of storytelling is 'good.' Personally, I didn't find myself particularly intrigued by it, but I did find myself compelled to talk to someone else about the experience. So that should count for something.
The identities of the player and the narrator are never clearly conveyed, and the characters mentioned by name in the narrative are vaguely defined. At the end, I was no longer sure whether I was the narrator, an unfortunate third party, a ghost, or some combination of the above.
An interesting attempt at interactive storytelling. Worth $10 if you're into that sort of thing.