How do you review an experience? The easy answer is: You don’t. That’s why my review ends here.
Ok, that’s a flat out lie, but only because I believe it’s important to get the word out for titles that venture outside the box and attempt to push gamers into a new realm. Dear Esther isn’t revolutionary – you aren’t going to be wearing a sandwich board stating that it’s the “game to end all games,” but if you give it a chance, you will experience something new.
Prior to starting this review, before you lose interest and skim through to the end, ultimately never truly reading the whole she-bang, I want to say something about the art design. This game is beautiful. A truly breathtaking remake of the original title, with caves that never quit. Seriously, they are the hottest caves I’ve ever seen. With vibrant design and meticulous attention to detail, Dear Esther officially has the most gorgeous environment I’ve ever seen. And the music is phenomenal! Composed by Jessica Curry, the OST offers haunting and full-bodied tracks that provide another way to fall into the world thechineseroom has created. Ok, that’s off my chest. Let’s continue.
Dear Esther doesn’t follow in the footsteps set by the majority of first person titles. As more art piece than video game, you may finish this “game” and feel incomplete, which is why I’d like to start with a quick how-to guide for playing this title.
- Wear headphones
- Experience the game in one sitting
- Ignore all other forms of stimulation
Once you’ve prepped yourself using the aforementioned steps, you’re officially ready to experience Dear Esther.
You awaken on the edge of water, staring up at a blinking radio tower. It’s obvious this is your destination, as it’s the only dynamic object on the island, blinking slowly in and out of existence. This is your only clear goal for the duration. Reach that radio tower. And there is no clear indication of what will happen once you get there.
Typically, a game offers incentive to complete tasks or drive you toward the conclusion, but Dear Esther plucks that out of the equation. Without incentive, the question most gamers might ask themselves is “what’s the point?” which forces the player to determine the worth of a character’s actions. It’s like some wacky test a professor gives you where the only real answer is to flip the table and say “Fuck this test.” In this metaphor, the table is standard game design.
Dear Esther is solely about navigation and exploration, so don’t go into this thinking you’ll be chased by a monster – at least not a tangible one. Stripped completely of almost all basic game mechanics, you are reduced to walking, looking, and staying above water. Like a small child with scissors, no running is allowed, and even certain actions like crouching and using your flashlight are automatic.
Although this title may be criticized for its blatant lack of interactivity, it only serves to supplement the story more. Without the ability to go wherever you please and determine your own pace, you are effectively becoming the main character who has lost all semblance of control in his life. Some reviews are complaining about holding down W to move forward, and that complaint absolutely correlates to the journey this man is taking, trudging through the environment with only one path he can ever take, begrudgingly moving forward. With all the thoughtful design that went into this game, I can only assume that thechineseroom deliberately set up the experience in this manner.
You HAVE to pay attention to get the full value out of this experience piece. Every scrawl, every item, every line of biblical text, all contribute to the storyline. Racing past all of these thoughtful additions will effectively render Dear Esther pointless. You are meant to take in everything you see, and if you bring your preconceived notions about game design into this title and try to make it fit into that mold, you’re going to be disappointed.
Whereas some games can tie you up in gameplay that lasts for over fifty hours, but somehow lack any iota of emotional attachment, Dear Esther takes advantage of every minute you are playing and produces a truly touching experience. But this kind of game design is a gamble. Developers take a concept that requires a player to become fully immersed, which doesn’t happen without consent.
Creating the right atmosphere is a responsibility that weighs heavily on the developers, but becoming the main character in a title like Dear Esther takes active participation on the part of the gamer to show up and actually experience something. Should you choose to give this game another go after completion, you will be pleasantly surprised at the variations in story and attitude. It’s a game that offers more than one emotional experience, and is really your choice to experience or pass by.
When the waves roll in and the screen fades to black, expect to feel slightly depressed. Dear Esther isn’t about fuzzy feelings – it stays consistent with its solemn and, as the destination nears, increasingly irate narrator. Imitating real life and the metaphorical journey through a tragic, life-changing event, the despair should be palpable and doesn’t leave your system once everything is said and done. And that marks a successful story.
On the heels of Dear Esther hitting the market hard, becoming profitable within six hours of its release, was the news that thechineseroom would be handling a new title set in Amnesia’s terrifying world. Now, with the large reputation that Amnesia has acquired since its release, developing an addition to the series, however related or unrelated, is quite the daunting task. If Dear Esther is any indication of future work, I think thechineseroom is up to that task. They produced an emotive piece of interactive storytelling that, given the right conditions, will wrap you up tight in the experience, giving you a whole new level of interactivity. I can’t imagine another team more qualified to produce an experience on caliber with the immersion Frictional Games brought to Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
DISCLAIMER: Rating this on a 5-star scale is pointless, as what you take away from Dear Esther is different from person to person. Just because I give it 5 stars doesn’t mean you will. The only way to find out how many stars it is to you, is to play it.
The remake of Dear Esther was released on February 14, 2012 for PC.