Dear Esther (PC) review
"Dear Esther is barely a videogame by any conventional sense of the term and approaching it like one will lead to nothing but frustration. But if you're lucky, it clicks, not as a game but as a powerful and moving emotional experience."
What to make of Dear Esther? It's barely a videogame by any conventional sense of the term. Approaching it like one will lead to nothing but frustration. And there is much with which to be frustrated, at least in the early going. The game - and yes, prior statement notwithstanding, we're still going to call it that - is slow out of the gate, plodding, restrictive and scattershot for the better part of an hour. And then - maybe, if you're lucky - it clicks, not as a game but as a powerful and moving emotional experience.
I can't say with any certainty that I "got" Dear Esther. It flits so quickly and easily from the literal to the metaphorical and back again that I can't bring myself to even try to nail it down with any conviction. I think I know what it’s saying (and right or wrong, I have zero intention of revealing my thoughts), but this is something you should prepare yourself for: answers won't come easily. You'll need to be patient, follow the story, look around, pay attention to the narration and the visual clues, reach some conclusions, make some assumptions and then let your gut fill in the blanks.
Following along is a relatively simple task, as Dear Esther is almost perfectly linear. You'll run into a few branching paths as you journey across a deserted, pseudo-magical Hebridean island, but they'll all lead you back to the main trunk in short order, and exploration anywhere off the beaten path is further discouraged--to the point of impossibility--by the extremely limited movement options. You cannot run, jump or interact with anything, so a closed door is closed forever and even the lowest fence might as well be the Great Wall of China. Aside from the occasional leap off a cliffside or stroll into the ocean (both of which will kill you, except not), you will go exactly where the game wants you to and nowhere it does not.
It's a sightseeing tour, really, and while that's a bit dull at first (especially when framed by the early disappointment about being unable to actually do anything), once you're into the meat of the thing there are amazing sights to see. The Source engine isn't getting any younger but some of the locales in Dear Esther are nothing short of stunning, the sort of thing you can marvel at as a technical accomplishment, a contextual curiosity and just for the sheer beauty of it. "Magnificent" is almost an understatement.
The same can be said for the brooding, melancholy soundtrack that fades in and out over the detailed ambient audio as you progress through the game. That's worth the price of admission entirely on its own. Just as important and perhaps more so, the narration that drives the game is every bit as strong - sharp, clear and, for those living on my side of the pond, British enough to give the story a touch of the exotic. It reminds me very much, in fact, of Richard Burton's 1978 telling of the War of the Worlds, particularly as the climax approaches; it's committed, serious and very effective.
Yet as good as it is, Dear Esther isn't actually "fun." It packs a hefty emotional impact - I was fully drawn in by the halfway point and may have even teared up just a bit at the end, without even being entirely sure why - but at no point can I say I was having fun. Despite the apparently randomized nature of the narrative (each trigger point plays one of multiple possible audio clips) I also feel no particular compulsion to play it again; as good as the writing and narration are, hearing the same story told in different ways doesn't strike me as an overly compelling proposition, at least in the short term. Maybe someday, when the edge has dulled, I'll try it again.
It's also fairly short, about two hours on the outside and significantly less if you hustle, a brevity that some people have treated as a complaint but that I'm more inclined to see as a positive attribute. Dear Esther is a slow burn and almost entirely non-interactive, and it would be easy for a game of this nature to overstay its welcome, a fate it fortunately manages to avoid.
In many ways, a review is nothing more than a judgment of whether or not a game achieves its goals. By that measure, I think Dear Esther succeeds. It frames a gripping story in new and unusual ways, and in a more meta sense it provides a brief, early glimpse at some of the things that might be possible for the medium of videogames, beyond mere games. It's not for everyone - something this determinedly niche is hardly for anyone - and as a game, it offers almost nothing. But as a vicarious fever dream that inspires thought and stirs emotion, it's a unique and wonderful thing.
Freelance review by Andy Chalk (February 14, 2012)
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