What separates dramatic films from video games? Is it the interaction? The emotional depth? Or is it something else? Something more sombre, more melancholic? It might just be that, and the absolute opposite of the same. It might be all about being stranded on an island, with nothing to accompany you but your own, slowly fading sanity. Dear Esther emphasizes on that very point, on the sweet spot between minimal interaction of the player and deep emotional depth. If I were to summarize this review into one word, it would be art. Pure and simple.
Released back in 2008 as a Source mod, and met with positive reviews all over the internet, Dear Esther was reworked as a standalone title and released in 2012 by The Chinese Room, a development team worth keeping an eye on after witnessing this game.
In Dear Esther you play as someone stranded on an island, and as you walk in the world, admiring the admittedly beautiful scenery that I wasn’t aware the Source Engine can muster, you encounter small voice notes from someone else who was on the island, these small notes constitute the entire story of the game, but it is a convoluted story at that and worth a couple of playthrough to understand and draw a logical explanation out of. I will not discuss the story since I am yet to fully understand it myself, but suffice to say that it is a very surreal one at that.
There is not much to gameplay in Dear Esther, you just walk around the island and listen to the voice notes left. You don’t jump, sprint, crawl, or anything to that effect, you just walk around and any other key press (at least on a 360 controller) zooms in the view a little a la gun iron sights.
Dear Esther’s visuals are something that will keep your jaw opened for the entirety of the playthrough, its scenery is both gorgeous and captivating, the mere sight of the moon, the water, the grass, the weird electric circuit diagrams in the caves, everything is an absolute delight to look at.
However, Dear Esther’s saving grace is without a doubt its soundtrack, it captures every moment of the playthrough beautifully and really makes you relate to what you hear as to what the person talking to you in the notes has to say. Which brings me to my next point, the audio in the game, overall, is also really nice, the man’s voice is full of despair and sorrow, captivating yet distant from considering the presence of any hope left for him or the people he talks about, sometimes anger fills him, taking this adventure to another depth. Your very footsteps offer tremendous company to the deserted island you’re in, along with the sounds of the crows and the howls of the wind.
Clocking at only 90 minutes, Dear Esther is almost a movie with minimal dialogue, but that should not deter you from trying out this stunning experience, and if you can get over the $10 price tag, you’re in for a real emotional treat.
Let me know what you fellas think of Dear Esther, has it affected you as much as it has me?