Without battles, experience points, choices, jumps and weapons, Dear Esther is an unusual game. Its story is told by enigmatic voice messages that eventually contradict themselves, causing disorientation and confusion. It’s a strange game not only for its unique structure, but also for its distorted setting, built with a dreamlike atmosphere, which suggests that logic does not belong there at all.
The gameplay in Dear Esther could not be simpler. The player’s avatar is stuck on an island and the only possible action is to walk and observe the scenery, moving the camera – it is not even allowed to pick up objects. Thus, at the beginning of the game, the player is forced to observe their surroundings, discover where they are and search for a goal, causing them to notice a blinking red light on the horizon at the top of a tower. When traversing the island, the player activates excerpts from the narration at specific spots: a man describing the landscape to a woman named Esther, and taking the opportunity to comment on human nature and the consequences of isolation.
The elaborate language used in these voice messages serves to hide plot details among an ocean of metaphors, although the effect is not always successful: it can sound poetic at times (“When you were born, your mother told me, a hush fell over the delivery room. No one knew what to say, so you cried to fill the vacuum. I always admired you for that; that you cried to fill whatever vacuum you found. I began to manufacture vacuums just to enable you to deploy your talent”), but only pretentious at others (“I return each time leaving fresh markers that I hope, in the full glare of my hopelessness, will have blossomed into fresh insight in the interim”).
The game’s first person camera soon proves to be essential for the success of the story, preventing the player from discovering the identity of their avatar from the outset: since they can’t see the character’s appearance, even the avatar’s gender remains hidden, being an important mystery that permeates the entire game.
Some names are given to the narrator – Paul, Donnelly, Jacobson – but those personalities soon start to blend, indicating that some may constitute the same person. The narrator’s characteristics are often compared with the geography of the island (“My rocks are these bones and a careful fence to keep the precipice at bay. Shot through me caves, my forehead a mount, this aerial will transmit into me so”), leaving the player even more dazed, inevitably leading them to reflect upon what is real or what is not in that strange place.
The narrative starts to make more sense when the player understands that the narrator is not reliable; that he is drowning in remorse, desperately trying to prevent guilt from filling his lungs and choking him. The narrator is an unhappy and melancholic character who accompanies the player on the island, commenting sparingly on some prior events, withholding sensible information because it makes him suffer.
The narrator’s messages, however, are mostly randomly chosen – a strange design decision that has both positive and negative effects on the narrative. On the one hand, it ensures variety by stimulating more than one visit to the island, and allows each player to have a slightly different experience in their first playthrough. On the other, it affects cohesion and prevents more sophistication in the text. It can be difficult, for example, to establish a progression in the narrator’s mental state throughout the game if certain dialogues do not appear – and without this progression some of the story is lost. In addition, the text has to be vague in order to be able to adapt to more than one situation.
Thus, Dear Esther is an unnecessarily laborious puzzle. It fails when it is unable to deliver all the pieces needed to fully understand the story in a single playthrough, forcing the player to go again in the hopes that something makes more sense. It is one thing to encourage replaying the game with the promise of new experiences; another entirely to withhold information important to the understanding of the story. The first case is reward-based incentive; the second is blackmail-based exploration: play more than once or give up with an unfinished experience.
Despite this, the art direction deserves applause for transforming the island into a metaphor: an unreal, ethereal and very personal place. The chemical formula of ethanol drawn on the walls and mountains, and the destroyed car pieces scattered throughout the place both suggest a very specific tragedy in the narrator’s life and also reveal his obsessive personality. His relationship with Esther is filled with melancholy, being often recreated with touching visual metaphors: the letters that he never wrote for her, for example, appear folded in paper boats, navigating in the darkness of the night to eventually sink, creating a painful image that symbolizes the journey of the player’s avatar on the island.
The atmosphere of solitude is aptly claustrophobic. The island is deserted – no more than the seagulls exist there – although it contains several human constructions. The sound of the waves crashing against the steep cliffs, the strange messages painted on the stones and the destroyed structures contribute to the player’s eagerness to escape from there as quickly as possible. The player is encouraged to feels as the narrator: anguished and alone. The level design that forces you to walk in long spirals, to go back and forth and to circle the environments is brilliant by making the setting shrink and expand uncannily. And there is no easy escape: when the player tries to jump off a cliff or drown, the avatar returns to the last safe spot on the ground accompanied by a single whisper begging them not to give up.
The game’s presentation also impresses. The design of the caves, for example, creates a fascinating environment that blends the charm of fungi bioluminescence with the hostility of dozens of stalactites. The soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry is equally efficient, using piano to convey the desolation and sadness of that place.
Dear Esther’s atmosphere, marked by pain and anguish, is so well built by the environment and narration that it affects the player immediately. Its ambitious and different narrative, however, is only effective when the pieces of the puzzle finally come together. It’s a shame, then, that the developers decided to make that perfect outcome a random event.
April 23, 2019.
Review originally published in Portuguese on May 20, 2015
The Chinese Room.