Indie Review: Dear Esther
First released in June 2008 as a free Source Engine mod, Dear Esther has since been entirely remade for commercial release on Steam and released earlier this month. Is it worth the time and money?
- Worth The Time?Yes, purely to see what it's about
- Things LovedThe stunning visuals and awesome design, the originality, the fantastic atmosphere and musical tones, the deeply interesting concept, the dialogue
- Things HatedIt's quite short, you move very slowly, it can be a bit hard to follow what's happening the first time around, no environmental interactivity
- RecommendationThis title is undoubtedly worth trying out for everyone just to experience something you haven't before in gaming. As an experiment it definitely won't be enjoyable for everyone, but there's plenty to admire here.
- Name: Dear Esther
- Genre: Adventure, Experimental, Visual Novel
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: N/A
- Platforms: PC, Mac OS X
- Developer: thechineseroom, Robert Briscoe
- Publisher: Robert Briscoe
- Price: $9.99 (R77.35)
- Reviewed On: PC
Dear Esther is a very difficult game to review, and the complex reason for that is that it’s actually hard to consider this a game. Now, don’t freak out just yet, as you’ll understand that part when I go on to talk about how it’s played, so for now let’s focus on what it is. Dear Esther is not so much a game as it is like a visual novel, or some kind of experimental narrative experience. That immediately gives it brownie points for originality, but with any title we have to come back to the fundamental point of gaming. And that is the question: is it entertaining? Well, a game of this experimental and unique nature simply can’t be for everyone, but there’s definitely plenty to admire here. And at the end of the day, it’s these kinds of games that we love to see in the Indie genre, because of the spark of innovation that only it can provide. And with Dear Esther, you’ll be experiencing something you’ve never seen before in gaming.
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It will quite literally take a few seconds to explain both how this game is played and what you’ll be experiencing. It’s difficult to even talk about anything to do with gameplay, because really there is none. The only input required from you, the player, is to move around the land in first-person. As you progress through the world, of which there are four brief chapters that will take you about an hour or so to complete, you will engage with the plot through voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther. While the narrator isn’t specified, it’s kind of implied that he is Esther’s husband and that she’s dead, killed in some car accident. These monologues activate as you reach certain points, and the interesting part is that each of them are either completely random or specifically linked to the area you’re exploring. This lack of plot coherency was purposefully done so as to allow players to interpret the story based on what they gather. Truthfully, the dialogue is great, and it really draws you in. In fact it’s the best part about the game, but the one problem with it is that it can be hard to follow what’s happening the first time around if you’re not paying close attention to the dialogue instead of the world.
The overall issue, however, is that this game can’t really be explained in words. Me telling you what this game is about probably makes it sound like utter garbage. But it really isn’t. It’s actually pretty compelling, and really interesting as a concept. Furthermore, it’s something you can only know you’ll enjoy if you experience it for yourself. However, I will admit that two real problems with the gameplay, so to speak, is that firstly you move through the world at a very slow pace, and there’s no run or jump button. While this does admittedly help make the plot revelations almost hauntingly intriguing, it doesn’t do well to stimulate players. Secondly, what’s worse is that there is no environmental interactivity whatsoever. As you explore the land, you’ll come across all sorts of curious things and little items, but you can’t engage with anything which not only dulls things a bit, but also makes you wonder what the point of exploring is. Therein lies the real truth of Dear Esther. It’s an experience that is purely visual and immersive. It relies entirely on its visual design, atmosphere, dialogue and haunting music. Does it work? Well, if you’re intrigued then it might be bloody difficult to get away from this game until it’s over.
For an Indie game Dear Esther has awesome graphics and atmosphere. It’s dark, haunted, mysterious and almost perfectly realises its ghost-like themes. On top of that, the variety and intricacy of its visual design is amazing, and it’s difficult to draw your eyes away from what the world shows you. The music is also fantastic, if you can break away from the gripping narrative and listen to it that is, and the game really keeps you deeply interested in what’s going to happen next. You’re slowly chasing after the next little plot revelation, and it succeeds in making you damn curious. But it’s possible that you could find yourself lost, bored or both, and if that happens you either went the wrong way or this isn’t for you. However, the truth is that Dear Esther is actually brilliant as a pure audio and visual experience, and that’s ultimately what the creators were aiming for. It is an entirely unconventional game after all.
Due to the experimental and entirely unconventional nature of this game, I can’t really recommend it or dismiss it outright. The best I can do is advise you to take a look and decide if this is something that interests you, because at the end of the day you’re only going to know if you will like something like this if you play it for yourself. The game’s four chapters will only take you just over an hour or so to complete, so it’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth the asking price. Personally, I believe this is a very interesting game, and it’s worth it to experience something you most definitely haven’t before. Even though it’s daunting to try and rate this critically, I believe it’s an excellent attempt at creating a pure visual and audio gaming experience that is completely driven by narrative. It definitely works.
In conclusion, Dear Esther is most definitely not a game everyone can enjoy, but there’s certainly a lot to admire about it. The only reasonable advice I can give is to try it out if you’re interested, because you may just find yourself completely absorbed and practically forced to see it through to the end.