Review

Dear Esther Review (PC)

As a darling of the indie scene since Dr Dan Pinchbeck’s original project to explore alternative methods of videogame storytelling back in 2008, it’s surprising that four years have passed before Dear Esther has managed a proper release. In the interim, Mirror’s Edge designer Rob Briscoe has stepped in to add a layer of polish to the deserted Hebridean island that plays home to a mysterious, layered narrative, and the result is an experience that will provoke discussion for years to come; most of it probably centred around whether or not Dear Esther even qualifies as a videogame.

Your role is that of a nameless and faceless male stuck on that seemingly deserted island, piecing together different plotlines that are revealed solely through exploration and snippets of voice work triggered in various locations. The audio clips that serve as your primary motivation are pulled randomly from a small database of different passages, but there is no common mainline through the plot. Your experience will differ a little from mine then, but that’s not to say that Dear Esther is geared towards multiple playthroughs either - indeed there is a case to be argued that seeking out the different content may well devalue the experience as a whole.


It should be noted at this stage that this Dear Esther is not a traditional interactive experience in any sense. There are no other characters on the island, and the mechanics are limited entirely to walking through wide (but tightly-controlled) paths of content, taking in your surroundings and drinking in the atmosphere. There is no jumping, no shooting, no player-controlled crouching, no running, no ‘use’ key or anything similar; you just walk, and look, with your only ability being that of zooming in on your environment to get a slightly closer view.

Much of Dear Esther trades on mystery and interpretation then, and as such it’ll likely be a divisive experience. The voiceovers weave back and forth between the tale of an explorer encountering the island and its magnificent landscape for the first time, through to visitors that sought refuge there in the proceeding years, and right up to the mystery of Esther herself - a tale that involves a tragedy in modern, mainland UK as much as it does the island. What you see and hear is completely open to your own thoughts and ideas, and it’s never clear as to exactly what’s real, what’s ethereal or mysterious, and how much of the obfuscation is played out in reality or solely within the protagonists head.

But that isn’t to say that the core conceit of Dear Esther is confusing at all. This is a game that wants you to feel waves of sadness, isolation and solitude; and the graphical setting and snippets of narration are brilliantly executed to do just that.


The island itself is absolutely magnificently rendered, with a level of detail and artistic vision that rivals the latest and greatest releases from any major studio you could name. Indeed I’d argue that it goes above and beyond anything that’s out there today, with an atmosphere that absolutely drips with immersive quality. The hills and rocky outcrops are lovingly adorned with flora that looks naturally set into its environment, whilst the waves crash against the seashore with audio that allows you to practically taste the salty air. The lighting though, is where Esther really shines.

Quite how the developer managed to get an aging Source Engine to look this good is beyond my understanding, but the natural colour of the sky and supremely realistic shades of greenery, rocky greys and sandy browns are a sight to behold at even modest settings. Things get even better once you venture underground in the third chapter, as you encounter a set of caves adorned with luminous phosphoric light and tumbling waterfalls that flow into chalky streams and radiant blue-hued pools. It looks and sounds, in short, absolutely stunning, but in a way that only serves to enhance the emotion that Esther wants you to feel.

The narration too, is of a quality that serves the project supremely well, with the main actor providing a range of depth that suitably conveys the spirit of the characters that are being explored. Subtitles are switched on by default, but the best way to get the most out of Esther is to switch them off immediately, dim the lights and throw on a set of headphones. Distractions should be shut out entirely, and as the whole thing only takes an hour and a half to get through, there’s no need to stop for anything.


Therein lies the problem however. As an interesting free mod, Dear Esther could exist as a value proposition that was permanently in profit. As a paid experience however, even the relatively modest asking price of £6.99 on Steam might be enough to put a few people off. There’s the experience offered with that short running time, and that’s your lot. There’s no filler, commentary or additional materials added to the package, and - bearing in mind it’s probably best left to a single playthrough and no more - there is certainly a question of value that will rear its head.

And then there’s the debate as to whether it’s a game or not.

Frankly, for my money, I couldn’t care less. There was more emotional resonance captured in that lonely wander through hills and caves than the majority of releases I’ve played in this or any other year, and it was pitched to a nigh-on perfect length to never outstay its welcome. Do we need shooting, puzzles or interaction to classify something as a videogame? Maybe, but whatever Dear Esther is, don’t get bogged down by the semantics. You’ll be missing out on one of the most haunting and well-executed titles of this or any other generation if you do.

Best Game Moment: Entering the caves.

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