Dear Esther’s original 2012 PC release helped set off a new genre of exploration games commonly dubbed “walking simulators.” As the term suggests, the primary gameplay consists of walking from one place to another. Whether or not that constitutes a game, other “walking simulators” have since appeared, such as Gone Home and Firewatch, which have built upon Dear Esther’s formula by adding interaction and agency. Unfortunately, Dear Esther doesn’t hold up as well today as the re-release, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, shows.
In Dear Esther, you play as a mysterious character walking around an island. Since the game uses a first-person perspective, you never get a chance to see who your character is or what he looks like. The circumstances surrounding your presence on the island are unclear. However, as you walk around, a man’s voice over plays at certain points, giving insight into the story through brief anecdotes.
The monologues are deep and open to interpretation but are mostly vague. The writing is of a higher literary nature but ends up sounding a bit pretentious when spoken out loud. Players may have trouble understanding the story because of how the complex tale is told. In a strange form of storytelling, the details revealed to the player are randomized per playthrough, meaning that one player’s perception of the fiction may differ completely from another’s, for better or for worse. This game is so dependent on its story that this move only further muddles the already confusing narrative. There is some merit to the emotions and feelings the narrator can stir up and the revelations at the end may sprout discussion, but this is a slightly above average short story at best. Overall, you’ll need to be in a certain mindset to appreciate Dear Esther’s tale, especially if the randomized details don’t work out in your favor.
In most games, any issues with story can be easily remedied with good gameplay. Though in the case of this “walking simulator,” your actions are limited. You can walk, look around, and zoom in on anything. However, that’s about all you can do. You can’t run, which makes traveling a slog. It doesn’t help that your walking speed is sluggish. You also can’t jump, so if you fall down a rock, you won’t be climbing back the way you came. This was such an issue that this reviewer actually got stuck in a small patch of land surrounded by ankle-height rocks, in what was presumably a glitch. In any other game, the main character would likely be able to jump or at least climb the rock. Here, the only option is to restart the chapter (or at worst, the game) to get out of this situation.
Walking aside, the biggest issue with the gameplay is that there is a lack of interaction. You can’t touch, pick up, examine, or use objects. It doesn’t really matter since there are neither puzzles nor challenges to speak of. However, even the illusion of agency could make a game like this more than an experience. Between this and the slow walking speed, there is little reason to explore. There is occasionally writing on the wall and objects to zoom in on, but they merely enhance your understanding of the plot. Due to how slow you walk, it’s difficult to justify exploring past the otherwise linear path, mostly because it will take an inordinate amount of time just to get there and back again. Of the four primary areas, the cave is the most interesting due to its maze-like nature. Nonetheless, it’s frustrating to have to trudge back each time you hit a dead end or get lost in its numerous tunnels.
At least the visuals look good, with photorealistic environments and stunning views of what’s to come. The ever-glowing red beacon presents a constant goal, and going through the European island to get there is like taking an extended nature hike. While the areas look nice, it’s mostly dull to walk through. Once you get used to seeing the grass, rocks, water, and cliff sides, you’ve seen it all. Ironically, zooming into these objects reveals a graphical quality that leaves something to be desired. Again, the cave is the most interesting area, with glowing rocks and lights presenting some of the game’s most unique views.
Adding to the praise of Dear Esther’s artistic direction, the music is ambient and fits well for the kind of atmosphere this game tries to convey. Consisting of a wonderful mix of violin, piano, and vocals that play in time to the area and narration, the music immerses the player into the island. The sound of the narrator is soothing and fits the audiobook style of story. Despite the story itself, he delivers the narration effectively and emotionally.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition may have jump started the unique “walking simulator” style of gameplay, but it has since been outclassed by newer games that allow the player more interaction. The game shines most through its aesthetics with impressive environments and an atmospheric score. Its lack of agency and action may bore players, especially if the confusing story doesn’t reach them. The experience is short, clocking in at roughly an hour or two. Its randomized narrative details may inspire fans of the story to replay the game to learn new plot points, and a bonus developer’s commentary provides insight into the game’s development. Conversely, Dear Esther’s dull, passive, and slow meander through the island may deter players from enjoying it the first time.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!