Dear Esther first turned heads back in 2012 when it was named one of the original walking simulators - a game genre which many argued over its worth as a game. Birthed from a Half-Life 2 mod it was remade for a commercial release thanks to its loving community. Now, four years later it has been released for the current generation of consoles for new players to experience. This Landmark Edition also offers insightful commentary from the developers for any pre-existing fan to learn about the thought and attention that went into making this artistic creation.
When it was released Dear Esther was pretty unique amongst all the other games which were full of features and layers of mechanics. Noted for its thought provoking story and environmental narrative it was wildly debated if it actually was a game. Players take the role from a first-person point of view, yet who we are playing we are still not quite sure. Whoever you are you wander an empty British island across four chapters down dreary paths and dripping caves while at certain points a narrator will relay his non-linear commentary as he writes letters to Esther. Players must make their way through and listen to his story and look over the assets to piece together what has happened to Esther.
We won't reveal much about the story as this would ruin the whole game and hauntingly beautiful experience. You certainly won't be playing for its fun gameplay or increasing difficulty however you will easily get lost within its world. The only function you have is to walk around and each button will zoom to get a closer look at any interesting assets you might want to look at. This style of gameplay earned the title of walking simulator as this is pretty much all you do. That isn't a bad thing however! As you wander the island and view its secrets and hear the well acted commentary you will feel compelled to keep walking. Just like the Citadel in Half-Life 2 throughout the majority of your time on this island you will see a radio tower flashing in the distance. When you uncover more of the island’s ground you will find yourself drawing nearer and nearer to it which almost feels comforting as the story unfolds as you reach its base.
The atmosphere this game creates is what really brings it to life. Considering Dear Esther guides its players through each chapter it never feels like you're having your hand held or obvious visual cues are telling you where to go. Everything is designed to look very natural and never breaks from the feel of being secluded on this island. You will find yourself naturally walking towards lookouts and breathtaking areas will leave a memorable mark on your experience. The only downside to this remastered edition is considering it’s meant for more powerful consoles than originally designed the textures still look pixelated in places, especially when trying to get a closer look. When trying to read markings on walls and see what smaller hidden imagery is hiding away it was difficult to read.
The use of walking speed is interesting. A lot of players are used to rushing around in games to get from one point to the next. Yet here we are, controlling a character with one speed and no interaction. The most reward you’ll get is triggering the next narrative commentary. You can understand this choice was to keep to the theme of the game because how likely would you find yourself running all over an island? It isn't exactly an open world game however there are parts in which you can stray to look at other areas. Some feel like you should be able to explore and walk over them and it gets frustrating when you just stumble into the rocks in front of you. It’s especially irritating when you reach some area to find no new narration and have to painfully and slowly walk back. Just don't forget which way you’ve been or you’ll feel like a snail who has passed the same tree three times.
What really makes the immersive atmosphere is the sound design. First of all the diegetic sounds used to build up the gloomy setting and great British windy weather was astounding. We recommend playing with headphones because it really builds up the world for how much detail was put into its creation. The music also helped build up emotion with amazing scores and orchestral pieces. What helps is the fact it isn't playing throughout the whole game. There are often lulls of no music and only the sound of the blistering wind or dripping cave so when it does kick back in it hits even harder. It even made the game feel scary at times.
The story is the most important element to this experience and it's just shrouded in mystery. A key design to this game is the fact each player will have a different experience as each playthrough randomly generates some of the asset placements and there are a range of different voice cues from the narrator. This is a nice feeling as different conversations continue after the game has ended while players discuss what they took away from it. We left still wondering a lot and was thinking about its emotional mark a few days after completing it. The game will leave you with a range of thoughts from tragedy, loss, death and freedom. Like any piece of artwork it's down to what you personally take away from it. There is no set wrong or correct answer and even the director's commentary confirms this.
The director's commentary consists of playing the game again and collecting little speech marks which trigger voice clips from Rob Briscoe, Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck to learn about their thoughts across design, art and composing. If you’re into the behind-the-scenes development diaries then you’ll love this. For a game that leaves you with a lot of questions then hearing what the developers have to say is a very interesting insight. You’ll learn a lot and possibly notice aspects you hadn’t before which gives a much nicer connection to the game. Hearing what they have to say doesn’t ruin the story either or give you the correct insight and it doesn't take away anything that you might have experienced.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is a beautiful piece of work and worth a replay if you haven't played the original or if you have then pick it up again for the director’s commentary, but only if that's your thing. The slow walking speed may frustrate some however take the time to appreciate it for what it is. You may still not know what is going on by the end but take away from it what you’ve personally learnt. The storytelling, environment, pacing and the amazing voice acting will have you pushing your way through and have you finished in one sitting like a good book. It’s slow narrative pace and rich mystery still gives players a unique twist to their gaming experience.