Dear Esther Review

In many ways, trying to “review” a game like Dear Esther is as random and interpretive as the game itself. An experimental title originally created as a Half-Life 2 mod, there’s much debate as to whether Dear Esther — a first-person title in which players can’t actually interact with the world around them, but only walk, look and listen — is a game at all.

But in terms of what experimentation in storytelling such as this can do for video games, Dear Esther is in a precarious position. It toes a strange line: on one side, there’s the advancement of games as an artistic storytelling medium; on the other, there’s Dear Esther’s lack of “game” elements, which makes one wonder just how much such experiments can do for the medium as a whole.

Dear Esther (2012): PC (reviewed)
Developer: thechineseroom and Robert Briscoe
Released: February 14, 2012
MSRP: $9.99

Dear Esther began its life as a experiment in first-person storytelling in 2008, and its complete release on Steam this month is part of an incredible graphical overhaul of the original. Set on a deserted island, it places players in the role of an unnamed protagonist. In fact, the information the game gives players is incredibly limited: voice-over narration plays at intervals as players explore the island, triggered either randomly or by viewing specific objects and vistas. But who is this narrator? Is he the player character? Is he someone else? And who is he to the woman, Esther, to whom all his narration is addressed?

Such are the questions Dear Esther never answers. The game is purposely built to be highly open to interpretation. Many story bits and narrative additives are procedurally generated for the player, meaning that multiple playthroughs of Dear Esther can yield a different experience. Some of the story bits are about Esther and other unseen characters, Donnelly and Paul; others concern the island and its history. The way all of it fits together, however, is determined in the mind of the player.

Stripped of its narrative obscurity and ambiance, Dear Esther is simply a walk across an empty island. It’s a beautiful island, definitely, but it’s also a slow trip. The players awakens in the water a few feet off shore and starts trudging across the landscape toward a distant radio antenna. Along the way, the player happens across deserted structures and buildings, remnants of people who formerly lived on the island and have since left, died or disappeared. The game is rich with sound and visuals and, truly, is beautiful to behold, from its beaches to its underground caves to its beached shipwrecks.

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