I’m writing to you today for I wonder at the thoughts you would think, and the words you would utter, if you could see what I have seen. Hear what I have heard. Experience what I have experienced. Would your thoughts and opinions mirror mine as Narcisuss’s visage was reflected back to him from the water of a pool?
Or will my thoughts be as a cherry blossom falling to the ground? Seen but lost among the countless number of facsimiles. Remembered for a second, but forgotten and swept away for all eternity.
Dear Esther is an interesting experiment. It is a game devoid of action, violence, sex, and interaction of any kind. You are on a deserted island with a disembodied voice for company as you explore. No more and no less. Or so it would seem.
As I wandered over the island, the voice read excerpts from a letter to a woman named Esther. Over time, I began to wonder about Esther, the voice, and two men named Donnelly and Jakobson. All are mentioned frequently throughout the game yet there is much that requires explanation.
The game uses Valve’s Source engine, which continues to hold up well despite its age. The island might be devoid of life but the views are lovely if somewhat grim. As I made my way to a lighthouse I observed rolling hills of grass, walked along a beach, spotted derelict ships beached upon the shore, and saw other sights. There is a section of the game where I found myself in a cave that took my breath away. Stalactites, stalagmites, glowing objects, gems, waterfalls; this area has easily become one of my most memorable locations for a video game.
During my exploration I would trigger random readings from a letter read to me by the nameless voice that presumably belongs to Esther’s husband. The voice, along with the music and setting, creates a great atmosphere for the game. I found the island somewhat eerie and the letter and musical selection despondent most of the time. These two components are critical to Dear Esther and flesh it out so much.
Jessica Curry did a great job with the game’s music, which really helps to bring it to life. From piano selections to orchestrated pieces, the soundtrack is memorable and left quite an impression on me (I purchased it after playing the game). The same goes for Nigel Carrington who is the one reading the letter. His delivery of the letter’s content is superb. Combined with the setting, the sound makes Dear Esther memorable.
Yet this is a game like no other. All you do is explore the island and listen as the fragments of the letter are read to you. You don’t interact with any objects and you don’t even open doors. There is no puzzle solving, no great quest to complete, and no villain to thwart. Just you on an island walking around and listening to the voice.
And when I mean walking I do mean walking. There is no running and no jumping; just wandering around the island at a normal pace. This, of course, can be a little irritating at times because certain paths you take will end up being a dead end and you will have to backtrack. Several times I found myself wishing there was a run button assigned so I could sprint back to the other path to continue exploring and hearing excerpts from the letter.
Aside from dead ends and walking the entire game, it is also rather short. Dear Esther can be completed anywhere from between one and two hours. Retailing for $10 this might seem rather steep for a two-hour game but the cinematic quality of the title more than makes up for its price tag.
In any case, you can replay the game by taking different paths and hearing different excerpts from the letter that you will not have heard on your first playthrough. There are also objects and signs you will see throughout the game that might give you a better understanding of the events regarding Esther and her husband.
All in all, I found Dear Esther to be an intriguing, emotional, and thought-provoking game. It has been a long time since a game has made such an impact on me. I didn’t yell out in triumph or grin from ear-to-ear at a happy ending. Instead I found myself contemplating the game and what had transpired in it.
This is certainly not your typical game in any sense of the word. But for a game where all you do is walk around and listen to someone read you a letter, it is brilliant.
Tested on PC