Dear Esther Review
Dear Esther is not a game. I don't mean that it's one of those non-standard games that lacks combat, or that it's easy, or that you can't die in it (although all of those things are true) - I mean that Dear Esther is quite literally not a game. Still, the fact that it's made in the Source engine, sold on Steam, and is experienced from a first-person perspective allows me, a game critic, to pretend like I'm qualified to rate something like this with an out-of-ten score and to get this review listed on sites like MetaRankings or GameCritic or whatever. If the notion of a non-game sold in a package like this doesn't intrigue you at all, or if what I've described doesn't have you thinking, "go on...", then that's cool. You can happily stop reading now, promptly forget about Dear Esther, and feel better since you haven't spent any significant amount of time or money.
Are they gone? Alright, now we can talk. While the Source Engine has been around for a good seven-plus years, Dear Esther gives us some of the best visuals we've seen on this tried and true Valve-made technology, although it doesn't start firing on all cylinders until about a quarter of the way in. It's not about the special effects, really - although the blending of water and fog with the surrounding atmosphere is quite nice - but it's more about the attention to detail in art and level design. While I did find the odd muddy texture and an alarming amount of sprite-based foliage that creepily rotates in place to always put its front side towards you (like the enemy corpses in Doom, if you are old enough to remember that), these are minor things in the grand scheme. And by the time you get even partway in, you'll be sufficiently wowed by the rest of Dear Esther's impressive audiovisual canvas to forget all about some possibly negative first impressions.
I love the idea of an experimental "game" challenging what it means to be a part of this particular form of interactive entertainment, and I've played plenty of short, creepy, or just downright odd games in search of the fringes of development where most gamers would get mad when they find out there are no enemies to vanquish. Despite having some very spartan FPS-like controls, Dear Esther only offers the ability to walk, zoom in on an object, or swim upwards when underwater to find the surface. There's no running, jumping, or attacking. You can't even die, as falling from a tall height simply causes you to be transported back to safety to continue your exploration.
You're on an abandoned island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, and your character is little more than a disembodied spirit that traverses an island and experiences a story about loss, guilt, and some kind of redemption. But what makes Dear Esther so unique and strange is that many elements that you see and hear, the totality of which make up the story, are delivered to you incompletely. In any one playthrough, you'll only get some portion of the story, pieces of which are selected randomly. (This includes both sights and sounds in the game's detailed little world and in British actor Nigel Carrington's narration.) In one session, you might see an ultrasound image on a table in an abandoned house. In another, you might see an old history book in that same spot instead. There are many more examples of this game's randomization as it pertains to setpieces, audio cues, and choices of narrative snippets that you'll find, but I don't want to detail any more than what I already have. It's better that way.
I've gone through Dear Esther a few times to see what changes from one playthrough to the next, and while I love the story, going through it multiple times makes some things clearer, but other parts might get more confusing - especially since there are a few concrete facts about what happened in the narrative that can actually change from one session to the next. I've read plenty of internet theories on the events and characters, but I'm still confused as to certain identities, what precisely happened (although you'll likely get wind of the basics pretty quickly in just one playthrough), and what all of this means. The randomized nature makes me feel like there's got to be some combination of elements that's more confusing and less clear than some other combinations. That makes me feel sad for those who, by virtue of simple random number generation, will randomly draw the less-understandable permutations and come away frustrated at having spent $10 on an hour-long journey without even a solid grasp on all of the emotions that were felt - much less anything resembling a clear picture of what actually happened to cause those emotions.
If you're into the idea of experimental "games" pushing the boundaries of the medium, you might like Dear Esther, but if you're looking for a detailed story of Event A causing Event B which then naturally led to Event C, then this is not for you. Likewise, if you need even the simplest of game mechanics (like puzzles or mazes) to be able to enjoy something like this (despite Steam calling Dear Esther an "Adventure Game", which I don't agree with), then again I have to suggest you stay away. But if you don't mind a bit of mystery or a few gaps in a very ethereal story - where the hazy memories of the epilogue are more important than a picture-perfect history of the full journey - then Dear Esther is right up your alley.
This PC review is based on a copy provided by Valve Software through Steam.