On a whim over the weekend, I loaded up Dear Esther. Besides my other plan to beat all those Metal Gear games in order of release, which is moving along swimmingly, thanks for asking, I am also trying to tackle many of the acclaimed indie games from years prior. Y’know, the big small games. The ones that generally feature some sort of unique gimmick and demand you think about things more than just swallow yet another tired, scripted action scene that is supposed to wow you with its bombastic approach at storytelling. So far, in 2014, I’ve experienced Gone Home, Journey, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Thomas Was Alone. Many more to come.
Other than being set on an island, I knew very little about Dear Esther going into it, which is how I like my videogames to go these days. Alas, we live in a day and age where the Internet can ruin anything for you in half a second–that said, hope you all watched last night’s Game of Thrones episode, gotta get that purp. I do recall some heated arguments about whether or not this is a “game,” just like many rushed to do with Gone Home, mocking them both as nothing more than walking simulators, short films with little to no interaction. With that in mind, I went in expecting a pretty good story and little else–truthfully, that’s kind of what I got, and that’s all right.
In Dear Esther, the player starts off on a dimly lit shore of an uninhabited Hebridean island, surrounded by fog and mountains. Far off in the distance is a tall, metal tower, with a red light blinking every few seconds, the beacon beckoning you towards it. As you explore the island, you’ll listen to a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther, which are revealed in no set order. The narrator’s identity is not specified though it’s easy to figure out he is Esther’s husband or lover. Alas, she’s dead, and that’s not a spoiler, as it is something you learn very early on in the journey. Dear Esther, despite its namesake, is more about the narrator and the island’s former inhabitants than anybody else. To say any more of the story would ruin the experience, especially since that’s all there is here, a story; a good one, mind you, and one that can be seen performed in a number of different manners, but just that.
Controlling the player is as simple as using the [W] key to walk forward and the mouse to look around. You can click on either of the mouse buttons to zoom in a bit for a better look at things. That’s it. Those are all your actions. When you enter a dark room, a flashlight automatically comes on, and it also turns itself off when you go back into the light. After playing for about ten minutes, my finger grew tired of just pressing down the [W] key, and I knew I’d have to do this action all the way until the end credits, but thankfully Dear Esther comes prepared for controller support. I’d much rather hold up on a joystick than keeping a finger firmly pressed into a keyboard, and I suspect I’m not the only one. I do wish there was at least something else to do control-wise; perhaps actually collecting the letter scraps or being able to pick up and examine items on the island. Heck, even a jump button, to push exploration even more. I wanted a little more game in this game; yes, it’s still a game.
The writing ranges from mesmerizing to feverish to a bit overdone, but it’s all backed by a gorgeous, swooping orchestrated soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry that can make any scene, whether it’s looking out at the rough ocean waves that brought you to this seemingly metaphoric island or trapped inside a dark, fungi-lit cave, extremely powerful. There’s strings, there’s piano, and they never overtake a scene, simply raise it up. Crashing waves, rushing wind, and cawing gulls provide additional noise at times too.
Dear Esther is an audio/visual trip, a game bent on delivering those two aspects to you at full force. For some, that’s enough. For an hour and a half of simply walking, it’s just enough. I did want something else to do, another way to play in this gorgeously constructed world, to be part of the island, but no man’s an island. And so you keep walking, keep walking, keep walking, all the way to the end. The darkness that greets you is far from comforting, but there is a sense of completion nonetheless. Quitting to the desktop after too many minutes on a blank screen that screamed the end slightly ruined the effect.