Developers: thechineseroom and Robert Briscoe
Platforms: Mac and PC (played; available on Steam)
Release Date: February 14, 2012
What is a game? Traditionally, a game is an activity meant to amuse or divert one’s attention, has rules, is a competition (physical or mental), and involves strategy. Many will debate if ‘Dear Esther’ is a game, and I say it is. Did it divert my attention? Yes. Does it have rules? Not obvious ones, but yes, there are rules. Is it a competition? Yes, a mental one. Does it involve strategy? Yes. ‘Dear Esther’ is a game, but not a conventional one. If you only like games that are about killing things, then this is not the game for you. ‘Dear Esther’ is an experimental game that made me question everything I know about video games.
In a typical video game review, I would discuss weapons, enemy types, and leveling up, but this is not a typical game. When the game starts, there is no opening cinematic and no tutorial level or prompts. ‘Dear Esther’ is labeled a first-person adventure game, so it is you as the character and not much else. The controls are simple; W, A, S, and D move you forwards, side-to-side, and backwards, and you use the mouse to set the direction. You play as a man on an island, and you learn his story during voice overs; he reads excerpts from his letters, but the thoughts are not chronological, so you have to piece together the story. Finding out who he is and what is going on is the main driving force of the game, so I am not going to reveal what the story is or could be. The nature of the island and why the man is there could be debated for some time, which is why this game reminds me of ‘Lost.’ Like ‘Lost,’ the island could be an island or something else, objects may or may not be what they appear to be, and the man could be…well, I’ll let you discover what the man is or is not.
Although the game is an adventure game, I would argue that the game has a strong element of horror, of psychological horror. The unknown can be terrifying, and this game is filled with unknowns. There is no map, so I had no idea where to go. At the beginning, you see a tower with a flashing red beacon. I debated for a while if that is where I should go. The flashing red light beckoned me, but I thought it could be a trap, so I went the other way. The lack of guidance became frustrating, and my frustration transformed into fear because I had no clue what was going on. I finally realized that I was relying on my training too much; in most games, players pick up items, collect flowers, and expect visible enemies. ‘Dear Esther’ unravels all expectations. I looked for weapons; there are none. I moved slowly, anticipating enemies, but in this game, you are your own enemy. How you react to the situation becomes an obstacle. Navigation is another hurdle. You will get lost; you will get turned around and see similar scenery, doubting if you went the wrong way or not. You doubt your perception and your senses in ‘Dear Esther’. The doubt, the confusion, and the apprehension, combine to make ‘Dear Esther’ one of the most frightening and tense games I’ve played in a while.
Adding to the tense atmosphere is the setting and the sound. The landscape is breathtaking. The wildflowers sway individually, and not as one large clump. Water is difficult to render, and the water looks like water and not a liquid-skinned solid. The ominous dark mass of the sea churns, and the water inside the tunnels flow and fall in droplets, not streaks of whitish blue. When you are under water, the muffled sounds and the look create a submerged sensation. Rocks appear wet, the clouds drift across the sky, and the moon is luminous. The lichen in the cave glows, giving the caves an alien feel. The game starts at dusk and time passes into night, so shadows are a constant presence; scenes are lit with evening sunlight, candlelight, bioluminescent sources, or moonlight. The wind whistles and moans, and the music waxes and wanes, so you hear just the wind and your footfalls during certain sections, then vocals mingle with the wind, and you wonder if the wind is just moving air or a force of a sentient nature. The soundtrack is a mix of piano and strings; the music is not faint, nor is it intrusive. The music crescendos and falls in a rhythm that continually adds to the eerie and haunting tone of the game.
‘Dear Esther’ is a game; you use strategy to navigate and find the right path to the end. However, the game is unconventional. Everything you know and expect from a game will be questioned; you will have to go against the grain of your instincts. For example, I came to a hole in the caves, and there was no path around the hole. I had fallen off a cliff earlier in the game, so I thought falling equals death. I backed away from the hole and tried to find another way, but I ended up back at the hole. The gaping hole had no bottom; at least I could not see a bottom. Out of frustration I fell into the hole. And falling was the right way to go. Falling into the unknown is not how one usually progresses forward in a game, but this is the pull of ‘Dear Esther’—it plunges you into the unknown. If you are interested and intrigued by a non-traditional gaming experience, then this game is for you. ‘Dear Esther’ is a game that questions what a game fundamentality is, and, for the video game industry to grow and survive, games like this one are necessary.