Dear Esther, I am lost for words. What is this world you have brought me to? A broken island, the broken remains of a memory, of a life. A story, ripped to shreds by the surf, scattered flagrantly by the wind, leaving only my shattered, traipsing, body to pick up the pieces. A pulsing red light beckons me onwards.
Dear Esther (created by recently established British studio The Chinese Room), yearning for a better description, is an exploration, a journey through one’s mind or soul. It is a heart-wrenching metaphor, a ghostly memory. It buckles the conventions of typical gaming so completely that it lies lost, castaway, somewhere on the boundaries of a new genre. Not really a game at all, perhaps more akin to an interactive poem or fable. A true work of modern art.
Built in the Source engine created by Valve, Dear Esther is a complete reproduction of a mod created for Half-Life 2 in 2008, featuring stunning overhauled graphics, a musical score that shakes the heartstrings to their core and a reworked script that is impeccably narrated. The player, or perhaps more accurately the traveller, ponderously roams a strikingly real, desolate Hebridean island, searching for clues to unravel the mystery that lies at its heart.
Dear Esther, with this last sip of Scotch whisky in my glass I wonder, will this murky, dense, amber liquid be how this world will view you? A confusing, heady, concoction, understood by few. Yet within those intense deep flavours, caverns of the mind, lie hidden an emotional whirlpool. You have left with me grieving, lost in guilt, devoid of faith. A drip of water splashes down from the imposing mineral columns above. My torn reflection disappears as the amber liquid ripples outwards.
It is of absolute credit to the team that despite the traveller’s complete lack of influence on their environment, a control system which amounts to nothing but directional movement and a total absence of any other characters, Dear Esther remains incredibly engaging. This is at least partly down to the work of Robert Briscoe (previously a designer for Mirror’s Edge), who has created an island so enriched with detail that the traveller cannot help but feel connected, and driven to explore. The Source engine has never looked so real. Rough countryside covered with long weary grass falls onto empty, bleak, imposing cliffs that tumble into the sea. Vast underground caverns, dripping with ragged stalactites, cascading clear waterfalls, and bioluminescent organisms sparkling in the dark. It is a beautiful, yet sombre world.
The desire to explore is the key to unlocking the riddle of Dear Esther. Strange markings, peculiar and out of place objects, litter the environment. Some may provide a small vignette into the protagonist's life, or perhaps they simply mean nothing at all. Other locations prompt an audio narration which can range wildly from topics discussing frozen yogurt leaking out of shipwrecks to the lives of shepherds in medieval times. Yet beneath it all is a very rich tapestry, an emotionally powerful story, one that requires the traveller to really think as, like the best works of art, the clues are all steeped in obscurity and ambiguous metaphor leaving the mind to conjure its own conclusions.
Dear Esther, my mind is ablaze with words and sounds. They echo across the silence, so loud they pierce memories. I try to reach you Dear Esther, but the sea takes me, dragging me back. The cliffs crowd around me, closing in, ever closer. This island is a living reminder, punishing, harrowing. Yet somewhere here in this bleak desolation lies redemption.
Freedom is perhaps the only blemish that scars Dear Esther’s face. Because the island is so richly detailed it compels the traveller to explore the surroundings, yet the control system, notably lacking any ability to jump or climb, holds you back. Small piles of rocks become insurmountable mountains, and if there are any clues hidden behind their mocking granite faces they are sorely out of reach. The island shrinks, becoming a series of lingering paths rather than a wild open land. It is, of course, a clear design decision that stops the traveller wandering completely off path, getting lost or confused and a way to ensure they do not miss vital information. At its best it is frustrating, but at its worst it unfortunately breaks the carefully composed reality and strains the emotional connection it strives so hard to create.
The musical score by Jessica Curry, commissioned exclusively for this work, is another standout. Neither ambient, nor overbearing, it rises out at crucial moments to emphasise the experience. Faint piano lines, mysterious choral chants, haunting tears on violin strings all stir together to create an emotionally affecting piece. It works so successfully that at times one may stop and stare out over the rugged landscape, contemplating the emotions that have risen with the vibrations. And, because there are no real events, there are no interruptions to rip the mind away from the sounds, leaving it instead to completely wash over you. At times the music wraps itself around the superb voice acting of Nigel Carrington, who imparts such desperation and raw emotion in his words that it brings the script alive, and the whole experience of Dear Esther lifts itself out of a simple screen experience and becomes something else entirely.
Dear Esther is very nearly a masterpiece. It could be tricky to recommend at the full release price of £6.99 on steam since the journey may only be an hour or so long, however the feelings the traveller is left with will last much longer. There are also some elements of replayability since audio narrations are slightly randomised, meaning each play through may elucidate more of the story. If one can step over the negligible pricing concerns they will realise that Dear Esther dares to break conventions, boundaries and genres and succeeds completely. The journey across the island is something that everyone should experience, whether or not they have any interest in games, because it rises above those petty issues and soars instead above it all.
Dear Esther, finally I sit atop this lurching metallic frame staring out over the vast and deep, writhing, ocean and wonder on how I shall pose judgement upon you. How can one evaluate, pluck random numbers from thin air, to compare thee to the rest? Does a man who rates rollercoasters sit and score his journey on the ponderous Orient Express simply because it rides on similar tracks? No, Dear Esther, for you I toss my critics cowl aside and let you fly away.