As I continue to my task to play the games that have been untouched for the last couple of years, I was unsure what to play next. Then I saw a tweet from Playstation Access’ Rob Pearson who played Dear Esther and realised that it should be the next title to tick off. As a fan of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, I remember downloading Dear Esther a while ago as I already knew I was in for a treat, so what it worth the wait?
Dear Esther was originally released in 2008 as a mod for Half Life 2, but later became its own experimental first-person exploration game. Over the years that followed, the game became completely independent and in 2012 it received its PC release. It hit consoles in 2016 and it’s been sat in my library since then!
Dear Esther is a first-person hike around an island surrounded by stormy seas. There are derelict buildings, overgrown paths and caves to explore. As you wander, a man speaks. He talks to Esther. He tells her about the island, his discoveries, his theory that he may not be alive on the island and the car crash that evidently took Esther from him. As you explore the island, he reads these letters which intensify as time passes and this mans emotional state is laid bare as he wanders and climbs his way to the summit.
The game raises some questions. Is the island even real? Is this place purgatory? Is there someone else on the island? But as I wandered and listened to what was being said, I realised these questions did not really matter and would probably not be answered as that is not the purpose of the experience. My thoughts were that this man was so distraught at the sudden loss of Esther because of this car accident, he was obsessed with reliving the experience to try and make sense of it all. This path has led him to this island which he has painted on and turned into a sad shrine with reminders of the crash and the woman he has lost.
The visual impact of the game is beautiful and there is a fair amount of detail which certainly make you feel like you are exploring an abandoned island. The buildings truly look deserted and unloved after years of being pummeled by the elements with no one to care for them. Nature has taken over the rocky paths as everything is covered with plants and moss. There are cans of paint which have been used to leave chemical compounds and cryptic messages about light, life and death across the rocky walls. These leave you to ponder whether this man has done this or if there is someone else on the island as he suspects. The caves are dark but lit up by the fauna and stalactites that cover them. The pools of water, hidden mini waterfalls and small pathways create a sense of concern as you wonder if you’ll ever emerge to see daylight again. I won’t spoil the story or the ending for you if you haven’t played, but all I will say is follow the candles.
It isn’t just the visual side of things that make this game an interesting experience. The fragmented voice overs triggered at certain points will give you segments of the letters to Esther. Sadly, I must have missed a couple as the trophy telling me I had heard them all hasn’t pinged. I felt that the acting of this particular piece was well done and you can hear the moments where the emotion is overwhelming and the man struggles to grasp what has happened. It was a great performance which certainly tugged at the heartstrings. But what really impressed me was the beautiful and haunting soundtrack from Jessica Curry. The music provokes a lot of emotion and worked so well with the sounds of the sea, scarce wildlife, caves and other aspects of the island. I can understand why many fans of the game have been to hear the score live as I can imagine it would be wonderful to hear live while someone plays through the game.
Dear Esther is around two hours long and for that time, I felt as though I was listening to a grieving man who was so torn apart by the car accident that took Esther away from him that he left everything behind to come to this island to disappear. For me, it was a sad tale which I am glad I have taken the time to experience and maybe I’ll go back to try and find those missing pieces and take a bit more time looking around for the smaller details I may have not picked up. The Chinese Room create beautiful games in my opinion. Not just visually stunning games but thought provoking stories with wonderful soundtracks which compliment the mood of the piece. If you haven’t played one of their games before, give them a go as I doubt you’ll be disappointed.