At their core, video games are essentially entertainment - designed to be fun. They accomplish these two objectives through all sorts of ways, within the various genres of the gaming world. Most of the games we play are, ostensibly, mere entertainment – created to be fun, enthralling and, perhaps, little else beyond that. But recently, many have contemplated and whether or not video games truly are art. But this debate goes beyond gaming itself: for instance, can we classify the Roundhay Garden Scene as art? While we’re at that, can we classify the Mona Lisa as entertainment? Is all entertainment actually art, or is all art somehow entertainment? It’s a multifaceted argument that might be going on for a very long while. I, personally, am of the conviction that, video games are art. Of course, there are some games that simultaneously represent both entertainment and art (Portal 1, Half-Life 2). There are also some games that lead more towards the art side, but they still maintain the basic framework of a video game. If they didn’t, we’d have a tough time calling them video games.
But in comes something that might shake up the way we look at video games. That something is Dear Esther. Originally designed as a free HL2 mod in 2008, Dear Esther was a terrific, if flawed experiment regarding interactive, non-linear storytelling conveyed through a video game. Almost 4 years later, the same team, plus one master level designer, have returned to remake and reimagine Dear Esther, almost from the ground up, as a independent Source game. That which was primitive is now beautiful, and a whole new audience could be exposed to this interesting creation. But is it more than just an experiment, or, perhaps, is it more than just a video game? Well, read on to find out!
Dear Esther is a tale of love and loss, of life and death, and of sorrow. The “plot”, assuming one can call it that, is unbelievably profound and mature, with themes such as solitude, unhappiness, illness, and the aforementioned love and death, all tackled in an interesting way. All of this is conveyed through two “conduits”: the narrator, and the environment. As such, the plot is interactive and non-linear, as the unreliable narrator will almost never say the same thing over the course of several playthroughs (and we can never be too sure if he’s that sane to begin with), and the environment generally sends ambiguous messages. As such, the overall story of Dear Esther is almost completely open to interpretation, perhaps more so than any other narrative in video game history. Every new playthrough can and will bring new insight into the game’s plotline, and every discussion with a fellow player can almost completely change your perception on the game’s story.
On to Dear Esther’s actual plot. Well, for starters, the interesting thing about Dear Esther is that it doesn’t really have an intro. It simply… begins, on a small concrete dock on the southern side of the mysterious Hebridean island that serves as the setting for both the original and the remake. The words “Dear Esther”, spoken by the narrator, and the subsequent randomized opening monologue represent the catalyst for your first trek onto the island. Why are you there? What are you looking for? Who are you, really? What is the significance of the “aerial”, the mysterious radio tower that can constantly be seen on the north side of the island? Who is Esther? All of these questions, and many more, are among the ones you may very well find an answer for at the conclusion of the game. And if you don’t? Further playthroughs will only help you solve the plot’s mysteries. As previously mentioned, the story (and the dialogue) is exceptionally well-written, with the non-linear narrative setting an example for all game developers to follow in the future.
But on the gameplay front? Well… there kind of isn’t any gameplay. There’s only 4 real keybinds: WASD (movement) and Mouse 1 (zooming, is also bound to “E”), and the only thing you really do is… walking around. No sprinting, no crouching, no jumping, no enemies, no weapons, and no puzzles. It’s just you, and the island. It’s nowhere near as dull as it sounds, as exploring the cliffs, beaches and caves of the island is a lovely experience, thanks to the lush graphics and exceptional audio design. There’s 4 chapters, and an average first-time playthrough will take you no more than 2 hours, the same length as an average movie. Again, further playthroughs are encouraged due to the randomized dialogue and the non-linear plot, but beyond that, there is no replay value.
Of course, we couldn’t review Dear Esther without touching on the incredible graphics. It’s not just the best-looking Source game/mod ever – Dear Esther might just be one of the best-looking games ever created. While there were some issues with the 2D foliage (it’s ALWAYS facing you, no matter where you go… and my interpretation of the plot is free of supernatural elements, thank you very much), the art style is exceptional, and the game looks breathtaking. Whether you’re navigating grassy hills on the south side at dusk, creeping through the dark caves underneath the island, or wandering the beaches on the north side at night, every single environment is absolutely stunning in almost every way possible. The attention to detail is unbelievable, and the optimization is terrific - this thing runs at full blast, maxed out, on my aging 2009 rig! To be honest, I’m not sure if Valve’s next release will even come close to Esther in the graphical horsepower department. Either Robert Briscoe knows Valve’s own engine better than they do, or he’s a wizard.
But it’s the sound design that truly sets Dear Esther’s presentation apart from all others. The ambient soundtrack easily count as one of the greatest I’ve ever heard – every sound fits into the world perfectly, complementing the visuals and ensuring that player immersion is absolutely complete. There’s a couple of scenes where the ambience had come to such a peaceful balance, that a more abrupt change in sound actually startled me. The voice acting, done by Nigel Carrington, is really well-done. Nigel plays the unreliable narrator, and his rich voice hits all the emotions and feelings right, bringing real weight to the writing. Since much of the dialogue has been lifted from the original release intact, certain areas now include brand new voice acting, where Nigel instead sounds like he’s… well, 5 years older. This can be hilariously abrupt (and immersion-breaking) when the last time you heard Nigel was barely 30 seconds ago, and all of a sudden, he sounds like he just got back from a time travel trip.
Of course, the exceptional musical soundtrack really gives the game its own personality and feel. While most of the time, you’ll be roaming the island with nothing more than the ambient soundscape to keep you company, at times Jessica Curry’s score kicks in, with some absolutely wonderful orchestral pieces that vary in tone and sound, depending on the area you will find yourself in. Overall, an absolutely beautiful soundtrack that hits all the high notes, and complements each and every emotion, mood, or feeling the game will attempt to convey.
In conclusion, you might ask – what is Dear Esther? Well, it’s $9.99 – even less in Europe and the UK. It’s 1GB. It’s a touching, moving story about love, isolation, and desperation. But you might also be wondering what it isn’t. It isn’t good. It isn’t great. No – it’s near-perfect. It’s one of the greatest love stories and tragedies ever told, through any medium. I understand that many will not appreciate it now – but my hope is not for it to sell a million copies now. My hope is that, in the far future, scholars will look at Dear Esther with just as much interest as they’d look at the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Wilde. That some day, works like it will be accepted, and held in high regard and high esteem. Maybe it will happen. Who knows?
Sure, you won’t find extras, or bonus missions, or coop arenas, or multiplayer deathmatches. You won’t find gameplay mechanics, you won’t find enemies, and you won’t find any objectives. You will, however, find an amazing experience that will move you. Dear Esther gives us the legend of the hermit, who abandoned his home on the British mainland to live in solitude on the Island. Perhaps just as the hermit abandoned his friends, his habits, and his life in order to reach something greater – so does Dear Esther abandon all the conventions of modern gaming, in order to become something more than a mere video game. Something that we don’t currently have a name for. But perhaps those future scholars will come up with one for us.
$10 is roughly the same price you’d pay for a movie ticket, or a fine book (and those don’t have much replay value or gameplay either). It also happens to be the same number as the score I’d give it, if I actually did scoring. If you think $10 is a price you are willing to pay for an experience that you will not forget for a very long time, then go buy Dear Esther. If not, then at least keep an eye on it during the next Steam sale, when it will most likely be a bit cheaper. And with these words, I bid you adieu, as I now embark on my third journey to the mysterious aerial. There are still mysteries I must find answers for, and there are still things I have not discovered. If you would like to join me… well, you know what to do.
Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day.