Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

Dear Esther Review

Released: Feb 14th | Developer: thechineseroom & Robert Briscoe (written by Dan Pinchbeck)

Dear Esther is a self-described “experimental adventure video game” originally released as a Source engine mod back in 2008, and revamped in 2012 by thechineseroom in cooperation with the ever generous Indie Fund organization. The Indie Fund has been involved in quite a few prolific hits over the last few years – World of Goo, Braid and Audiosurf, to name a few – so my expectations were very high for this particular title.

Just as a note to the unwary: do not purchase Dear Esther and expect a traditional video game experience. Goals are ambiguous, gaming standbys (experience points, puzzles, enemies) are tossed to the wind, and there is no tutorial level to send you off on your way. What we have here is a fine example of pure visual storytelling; a true rarity in an age of attention deficit gaming.

At its heart, Dear Esther revolves around a few simple game mechanics. The player takes the role of an unseen and unnamed protagonist, who inexplicably finds himself stranded on a mysterious deserted isle. As the protagonist explores the strange environments strewn across the island he triggers a series of voice-overs; framed as letter fragments intended for a woman named Esther.

These voice-overs are anything but enlightening, however. Each monologue reveals a small tidbit of information about a character, event or location, but does not provide proper context or a definitive time-line. The player is left to cobble the pieces together himself, with the only additional help coming from visual cues scattered about the island’s many strange locales.

Luckily for us would-be investigators, the island itself is an absolute pleasure to explore. Beautifully rendered landscapes mix with dilapidated structures – such as a beached freighter, a lighthouse and an abandoned shack – to create a strangely fascinating setting. Recurring wall markings and absorbing set-pieces are scattered along the player’s path, adding environmental storytelling elements that complement the implicit spoken narrative.

Although there are no direct cues for the player to follow across the island, the environment itself does an excellent job of acting as your guide. You never feel like you’re being pulled around on a leash, but rough pathways and rocky slopes subtly shepherd you towards your penultimate destination. This navigational system allows the player a certain sense of agency in his exploration, while at the same time maintaining control over both pacing and pathing.

Perhaps my favourite element of Dear Esther is how much of the game you spend on the verge of human contact. Lit candles and cave drawings are scattered across the island, but you never see the beings who placed them there. Shadows dance in your peripheries as dusk descends, but disappear before you are able to put them into focus. You often feel as if someone is looking over your shoulder, only to turn around to find nothing… just your own paranoia dogging you throughout the night.

And at the end of the day, that is what Dear Esther is all about. Creating an atmosphere or isolation, paranoia and intrigue, while delivering an ambiguous but compelling narrative. Although some might find the uncertainty of the game’s plot somewhat unsettling, it is absolutely necessary to maintain the game’s mystique.

After all, if they gave you all the answers what reason would you have to keep exploring?

Graphics: 9/10
Audio: 9/10
Gameplay: 5 / 10 Narrative 8.5/10
Intangibles:
+4 (For Great Writing)
+3 (Spooky Ghost Bonus)

Total Score: 38.5 / 50 (77%)

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By Michael
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer