You’re a diverse lot. Some of you exclusively play first person shooters, others among you can’t look past an RTS and some of you only play that one MMO that has engulfed your entire life. A fair chunk of you are open to most if not all genres. You like variety, you’re interested in new IP and you challenge developers to give you something you haven’t seen before. Even if you belong to the latter category, you may struggle to get your head around the idea that Dear Esther is actually a video game.
Heavy Rain is the subject of similar debate, but at least it has quick time events, interaction with the environment and a clear end goal. There is none of that in Dear Esther. It is best described as exploratory narrative. What if you took a poem and made it into a video game? You would be able to create an environment that would provide the audience with a visual and auditory experience to further enhance and immerse them into the story.
You begin the game in first person perspective on a deserted island. You’re not too sure what to do or even how to do it. You can’t open doors, pick up items or break any crates (if there are no crates to break, how can this be a video game?). However when you start walking around you trigger a narrator who reads letters addressed to Esther. The more you explore, the more you gain an understanding of what is going on. That said, the story doesn’t exactly have a clear beginning, middle and end. As with some poetry, it offers you a sense or a feeling of events, rather than anything clear cut.
Once you get deeper into the narrative, the tone of the letters become decidedly darker. Soon the narrator is conveying stories about disease and cannibalism. This is not a relaxing island getaway. If there is any competitive ‘goal’ to the game, it may be ghost spotting. It’s not exactly Luigi’s Manson, though. You really have to look hard for these shadowy ghosts as they quickly pass through a window of a deserted house or linger on a cliff top. You may even spot one if you look down as you step though a puddle to glimpse an unsightly reflection. It makes Dear Esther well worth a second play through as you try to spot the ghosts you missed the first time around.
The graphics are occasionally a little slow to catch up to your progress, perhaps a by-product of the ageing Source engine. While they’re not perfect, the visuals do add to the atmosphere of the game. Walking around, you get a sense of isolation and the beauty of the island as you watch sand gently swirl up in the air or weeds and plants sway in the wind. It’s an environment that you want to explore. Even more impressive is the subtle sound design. Along with the whistle of the wind, expressive birds and the sound of waves crashing against the rocks, you eerily hear the sound of your own footsteps. Occasionally you stop, hoping that it’s only your footsteps you’re hearing…..and not someone or something else.
You need to have an open mind to play Dear Esther, but if you’re willing to give it a go, you’ll appreciate what it has to offer. It not a survival horror game, as some of called it, but it is creepy. Its part of a new sub genre of games that generate a realm of possibilities for developers if they’re willing to break with well established conventions and potentially lure a new audience to the world of video games.