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Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PlayStation 4) artwork

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PlayStation 4) review

"Some walks get trickier with age..."

Iíve never been overly fond of the term "walking simulator." When I hear it used online, itís often being spat by some YouTube-based commentator, or used as a kind of pejorative shorthand for "not a proper video game." Unlike references to driving sims or sports sims--both of which can be used with complete sincerity and an air of authority--"walking simulator" wilfully ignores any technical, artistic or emotive contributions a game may make in an attempt to dismiss an entire creative work as nothing more than an impression of one of lifeís least exhilarating pursuits: the leisurely stroll.

Despite its disparaging roots, however, the term has gradually found its way into common gaming (this time, largely non-pejorative) parlance. "Walking simulator" is now routinely used to describe a game that aims to deliver some form of narrative experience while the player, usually seeing the game's world from a first-person perspective, explores environments at a pace slower than most other games would dare attempt. Head over to Steam, in fact, and youíll find an entire library of games living quite happily beneath the walking simulator banner. The term has slowly been reclaimed, and the genre (despite its sedate nature) continues to grow apace.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PlayStation 4) image

The Chinese Roomís Dear Esther is widely regarded as the starting point for the entire walking simulator (AKA narrative exploration) genre. Originally created as free-to-play mod for Valveís Source game engine, the 2008 outing sent a shockwave (or perhaps a carefully rendered ripple) through the PC gaming community. Dear Esther, a game set on a windswept Hebridean island and telling the story of a man's struggle to come to terms with the loss of his wife, swapped Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source's gunfire, aliens and respawns for narration, barebones controls and moments of quiet reflection. The lack of any real objectives or puzzle elements led many to question whether such a game could, in fact, be called a game at all. But the mod, and its 2012 standalone remake, quickly became something of a poster child for the idea that, by removing some of the more traditional elements and focusing on story, video games could be used as a vehicle to explore the kind of themes that the medium seldom touched upon. Without Dear Esther, it could be argued, more recent titles like Firewatch, the critically acclaimed Gone Home, and even the wonderfully quirky The Stanley Parable might never have come into being, at least not as we know them.

With all this in mind, however, it saddens me to say that my first ever encounter with Dear Esther, in the form of the newly released PlayStation 4 and Xbox One "Landmark Edition," was nowhere near the kind of positive experience I had hoped it would be.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PlayStation 4) image

Dear Esther's arrival on console will no doubt come as welcome news for the handful of gamers who, like me, had for a long time heard good things about the game but never got around to playing it. For the Landmark Edition, The Chinese Room has remastered the gameís famously powerful soundtrack and added a directorsí commentary, which can be toggled at any point via the game's Options menu and allows players to activate speech bubbles dotted around Dear Esther's island in order to learn more about the game. These are nice, albeit minor, additions, but with Landmark Edition arriving some eight years after Dear Esther's original PC release, I canít help thinking that the game might have been spared the indignity of being pushed into the cold light of 2016.

Visually, Dear Esther definitely shows its age. Although some of the environments still manage to impress even today, the game suffers from a sort of fish-eye lens effect which is at best distracting and at worst nauseating. The effect is slightly less noticeable when exploring more enclosed areas, but when taking in the islandís vistas and examining the rocky landscape, even very minor nudges of the control stick distort everything but the centre of the image until the cameraís movement has ceased. No one expects Dear Esther--a game of such humble beginnings, and one that was built for a much older game engine--to stand up against more recent releases on a visual level, but one does expect it to at least not make the player feel ill.

The game controls incredibly simply: by default, the right thumb stick moves the aforementioned camera; the left, your movement. The controllerís face buttons and triggers allow you to zoom in slightly, but in truth I never found a real use for the function during my time with the game. I spent the majority of my play time simply pushing forward on the left thumb stick. The game also provides you with a flashlight, but this turns on and off automatically whenever you enter or exit an especially dark area, so all there is for the player to do is to follow the trail while a series of letters addressed to the titular Esther--a woman who we soon learn has recently died--is narrated by her grieving husband. The discovery of each new area or landmark is usually accompanied by the next letter excerpt, its contents often discussing that particular part of the island or some (usually sad) event that occurred there in generations past.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PlayStation 4) image

To say that this is the sum of Dear Esther's parts would be unfair, since it's clear that a great deal of time and effort went into creating this game world, and both its soundtrack and narration--the latter provided by BAFTA-nominated actor Nigel Carrington--are truly first-class. The problem is that, as well as the gameís pace being painfully slow (push any combination of buttons you like; thereís no "run," "jog" or even "brisk walk" to be had here), Dear Esther's plot at times feels deliberately vague. The letters the player is privy to are always beautifully narrated, but itís almost as if, by setting out to create something so different and altogether more highbrow, the developers went out of their way to craft a script that sounds more like something from an centuries-old ship's log than, as is meant to be the case, the very private letters of a desperate man in mourning. The letters' frequent references to the island's previous inhabitants and visitors, too, while giving additional weight to the plot and providing plenty for fans of the game to muse upon afterwards, left me feeling like I was always being kept at a distance. A great deal is touched upon here, but rarely explored in any real detail, and even as the end credits rolled I didnít feel as if I'd come to understand the narrator's plight especially well. The optional directors' commentary, meanwhile, despite offering up a number of interesting insights into the game's development, may prove to be a little too congratulatory for all but the game's biggest fans--Dear Esther is an undeniably thoughtful, carefully crafted experience, but it is never particularly welcoming.

In short, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition feels like a misstep. Instead of being glad that I've finally had the chance to play this much-lauded game for myself, I came away thinking that it might have been better to let the game continue to exist on the hard-drives and in the memories of those who were so blown away by it ten years ago, rather than forcing it to stand alongside games that, while owing Dear Esther a great deal, have developed the formula so much in the subsequent years. No one can ever take Dear Esther's past achievements away from it, and fans of the genre--a group I certainly count myself a part of--will always be grateful that The Chinese Room decided to try something so different when it did, but the sad fact is that better "walking simulators" now exist and are more worthy of your money.


otokonomiyaki's avatar
Freelance review by Philip Kendall (October 01, 2016)

Writer & video game junkie based in York, England. Read my game-related ramblings and ill-advised political rants on Twitter @otokonomiyaki.

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