If I was grading Dear Esther as a digital art project and compared it to the philosophy of how less is more than it would easily rank a perfect score. However I have to think of Dear Esther as a video game and on that front it falls short. This game started out as a mod for Half-Life 2 and was upgraded to a full release on Steam. Dear Esther is something I would consider as being beyond a game and more of an interactive experience. When broken down to its bare description, Dear Esther is a game that has you walking from point A to point B and listening to a random and purposely incoherent story told through a voice over. While hardly a game it is very experimental and actually quite an interesting take on video games. It is easy to admire ambitious video game developers who want to try something new and Dear Esther is most definitely something that has never been done before. It is a game that relies solely on fantastic visuals and player isolation. The game seems to rely heavily on an emotional attachment to the vague story and while I was drawn in by its brilliance I can’t grantee everyone will feel the same.
Dear Esther follows the player as they walk from a beach, through a series of caves, and finally onto a cliff face across an island as he sporadically narrates a story about a woman that he may or may not even know and a tragic even that happened in their life. It’s simple but effective and leaves the player guessing all the way through the game. Unfortunately from a gaming perspective it doesn’t offer a lot to remain entertaining and will only pull in anyone interested in a different or more artistic approach to video games. There just isn’t any real depth to Dear Esther and while it can be a powerful experience to some, most may just be confused about the direction and concept of the game. The whole time I was “playing” Dear Esther I was expecting something completely unexpected to happen that would just blow me away but it just never came. There was one great moment in the game where things seemed to be going somewhere but alas it was just a red herring and was over just as fast as it happened and the game continued to be about walking.
Dear Esther has almost zero controls. You play with a mouse and keyboard and all you can do is walk. There is no jumping or interacting with anything as you move through the game world. It is The Lord of the Rings without all of the action, plot, and character. The game follows a fairly straight path and as you walk narrations are triggered and can be cycles through randomly so that when you play the story may be told a little differently each time. As you walk you also cross mementos placed across the island that give a little insight to what happened to these characters but the voice over never really comments on these and there is no interaction. This is meant to make the story seem ambiguous and is almost entirely left up to the player’s imagination.
The best part about Dear Esther is the visuals and the environments that you travel through. From beginning to end this game is nothing short of purely picturesque landscapes that are captivating to any one gazing at the screen. Really the best reason to play this game is just admire the work put into the atmosphere and environments which managed to walk a fine line of eerie and captivating all at the same time. One thing I will say about Dear Esther is that it has some of the most amazing waterfalls I have ever seen. As you travel through the world the visuals becoming increasingly beautiful and while there may not be much gameplay to Dear Esther it is definitely not short on atmosphere or mood. Walking through the cave scenes took me a lot longer than it should have as I couldn’t stop myself from just pausing and looking around every room to take in all of the sites that the game has to offer. In the graphics department, Dear Esther may be running on an older engine but still manages to be one of the most amazing looking games I have seen in the last few years.
While it may be overly simple, Dear Esther isn’t the normal type of fun you would have with a video game. Plainly put, its super boring in the sense that all you are doing is walking at an extremely slow pace and sometimes I just wish a few of the trails weren’t as long as they were. However, while Dear Esther doesn’t exactly fall under the category of fun it is extremely appealing from a story perspective but never manages to answer any questions and only leaves you with more. What sets this game apart from most others is the enchanting story telling mechanics and spectacular visual representation. Dear Esther manages to feel more like a tour of a brilliantly designed landscape and the mind of a broken man. Something that is beneficial to the games pace is its short length. I finished the whole game in just over an hour so it manages to not overstay its welcome.
Unfortunately with reviewing this game I have to think of it in terms of should someone spend their hard earned money on this game and that hurts Dear Esther in a regrettable way. It tells a very interesting story in a mysterious and ambitious way and stands out as a risky decision on the developers but manages to be at least a little entertaining for how shallow the gameplay is. At a ten dollar price range I feel like I may have over paid a little and would have felt more comfortable with a price half that. If I was grading this game purely on aspiration and presentation it stands out amongst its peers, but Dear Esther is unquestionably not for everyone but may find a warm place in the hearts of people who love a mind twisting story and can find an emotional relation. If you are looking for anything other than a relaxing way to spend an hour of your time you may want to look somewhere else.