Game Review: Dear Esther (PC)

Published on February 15th, 2012

By Jon Turner

It’s only the first sentence, and already I feel a bit dirty. Intellectually disingenuous, even. I’ve strayed. You see, this can’t be a “game review”, as my lying headline would have you poor suckers believe, because Dear Esther is not a game.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I know. When I started what will henceforth be known as the experience, I was in fact, expecting a game. An adventure game, no less — complete with all the puzzles, the mystery, the atmosphere, maybe a nice inventory or two, a map, etc. All these expectations slowly dissolved as I wandered through the picturesque, million-word Hebridean landscape, waiting for the game to start. At first, I was disappointed. “Wow,” went my sarcastic internal monologue, “this is bullshit. There is literally no action at all for me, the player, to perform.” Expecting puzzles, I had carefully taken screenshots of various “clues” around the island, hoping that they’d come in handy when I had to pull switches or press buttons or whatever it is that you do to solve puzzles.

Yet no puzzles were forthcoming. It was just me, alone in the experience (apart from the dazzlingly beautiful, almost-surreal disrepair of the island and the evocative, increasingly incoherent narration). There is nothing to do but explore and reflect on the world. There is no conflict or action (save the trivial task of movement) or anything that could really be considered gameplay. At first, the paths took me through hay-coloured hills and above clifftops, with just enough freedom to give the impression of an overworld. But as I went further and further into the lonely narrator’s journey of isolation, the linearity became crystallized (quite literally, in fact) in the caverns beneath the island, and I realized that this was the experience I was supposed to be having. Dear Esther has a story, thick with allusion and dense prose, but it takes a backseat to the journey of the player through the world. There are signs painted in luminescent paint, chemical abstractions or mechanical diagrams, and the occasional creepy phrase tagged along the shoreline, but 80% of the experience is natural, not man-made. The blue-tinged crystal caverns were beautiful, and needed no context. The swaying vegetation and cold cliffs were made all the more real by the absolutely stunning sound design, a triumph of atmospheric immersion complete with whistling winds, otherwordly clanks, and soft piano notes. Perhaps too noticeably for 2012, the game runs on Valve’s Source Engine, which means it doesn’t really look much better than Half-Life 2. Now, this may or may not affect your reception of the experience. I found that, in general, it did not affect mine, although I did find myself wishing for slightly more passable textures at times. The lighting, however, is simply spectacular, and the art design (somewhere between Rule of Rose and Silent Hill) was appropriately chilling and desolate.

All that being said, Dear Esther is not by any means a long experience. I doubt it took me a full hour to complete, so if your definition of value doesn’t include enchanting, immersive¬† environments with an absolute minimum of player interaction, you may find it pricey for $9.99. I can see myself replaying it later on, but honestly, there’s no real reason to. Once will probably be enough for many people.

Grade: A-

Jon Turner writes about games for the Polyphonic Pixel. He likes to bang his appendages on input devices to create words and articles, and also appendage bruises. Cats cause his crinkled, cynical brow to momentarily uncrinkle.