Dear Esther Review

It’s a pretty trip across a pretty island, one that will last roughly an hour and a half or two hours, depending on how much wandering about the player does. And without giving away much of the “ghost” story Dear Esther claims to be — it should really be experienced rather than discussed — the narrative is intellectually challenging and interesting. Dear Esther manages to effectively ask questions about how well video games can tell stories: it’s rightly seen by many as a step forward in the developing medium that is video game storytelling. Dear Esther is a subjective experience and what you take away from the story is for you, and no one else, to determine. But you do take something away from it.

However, while Dear Esther challenges you to draw your own conclusions from its narrative, it effectively robs you of any other agency as you cross its beautiful but desolate landscapes. For an interactive experience, there’s little in the way of interactivity to be had whatsoever. The player is relegated to a pair of feet and a pair of eyes; what you discover on the island is up to you, in a way, but it’s hard to feel the real significance of the story or the various objects and structures to be found. They’re essentially just pictures, and you’re essentially just along for the ride. The player trudges along a fairly linear pathway from place to place, experiencing what the game has set up along the way. Sure, some of the story is random and all of it is ethereal, but by the end, Dear Esther feels something akin to an artsy, tragic Pirates of the Caribbean.

All meaningful choice is removed from the player in the position of observer, and while Dear Esther is a first-person game and thus the player’s story, the presentation and lack of interactivity throughout the world strips the player of any ability to internalize it. The tragedy suffered by Esther, the narrator and the other characters is completely external and never very clear. The decisions made by the narrator or the player character (or whoever, really) to cross the island, revisiting that painful place and the memories that go with it, are never made by the player. The player goes forward because forward is the way to go. Please keep your hands and feet inside the car at all times.

As a player and a lover of stories, it’s my belief that video games haven’t even scratched their potential as a storytelling medium, so experiments that push the envelope of the kind of narratives it’s possible to pass to players such as Dear Esther are especially exciting to me. And Dear Esther is worth experiencing for the ways that it gives its player its story, the methodology through which it’s presented and the world which it builds. There are some very interesting things at play here.

But that question, “Is it a video game,” is a pertinent one. It’s not really — it’s more like a guided tour. It’s a fascinating guided tour, but the invisible bubble around the player, limiting where you can go and what you can do, serves to separate player from story and world. It indicates that Dear Esther is another step down the storytelling path, and that the path yet untraveled is still very, very long.

Pros:

  • Beautiful, surreal world
  • Graphically gorgeous
  • An interesting narrative that challenges players, forces interpretation
  • Procedurally generated elements change the story across multiple playthroughs
  • Definitely worth experiencing at a very reasonable price

Cons:

  • Fails to make the player an interactive part of the story
  • Extremely linear, even if it pretends not to be
  • Exploration limited to looking and listening
  • Lots of limits placed on where the player can go, countering “exploration” ideal

Final Score: 75/100

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Follow Hornshaw and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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