Dear Reader, I find myself at a loss. As a critic I try to define everything into simple tangible prose that enlightens you into the works of others. In recent years, some works have been harder to establish an opinion than others. We’ve had horror games that explore the concept of metaphoric representation, in-depth narratives exploring the concept of relationships and even games that use the core mechanics themselves to characterise themselves. But none compare to what I can only describe as “my Everest” – Dear Esther. Some have taken it at face value, not tried to understand its concepts. Others have looked deeply and have come to their own conclusions.
As a game, the idea behind it is somewhat flawed. I was initially placed onto the docks of an island in the Hebrides near Scotland, with no explanation of what to do. No goal. Utter emptiness. The only thing to do was to slowly explore the island by foot as much as I could. During the entire time I spent on the island, I had nothing to hold. No foes to encounter. The only things I could do were look more closely at a given object or swim. Straying too far from the beaten path or falling down the cliffs of the island warped me straight back to moments before hurling myself accidentally from the peak. This then Reader is not a game.
It is instead an interactive advertisement for the Scottish tourism board. From the moment the game starts to the moment the game ends, the textures and detail enchanted my eyes in ways I’ve never seen in a piece of interactive entertainment before. Based off Valve’s Source Engine, the riveting shores of the coast give hugely immersive qualities, while the caverns and caves are as stunning and beautiful as the real thing. The most remarkable detail is in the florae, as I could not only see the difference between moss and other cliff-dwelling marks, but also distinguish between plant families which accurately depict the varieties found in the area. It is also clear that this deserted island was once occupied. Abandoned buildings and structures litter the island like thrown away rubbish, while various painted words, discarded items and the focal point of an aerial station provide an eerie undertone. Very occasionally I would catch the glimpse of a ghost in the distance, but then suddenly it will be gone.
My only companion in the journey through the island is a sole voice-over, recounting a sad tale through the power of recollection and suggestion. To say anything here would do the experience a huge disservice though. If one is to not try to engage with the occasionally over-complicated dialogue (somnambulist means sleepwalker), they will not see the majority of what this work is trying to accomplish.
If you are from England or Scotland, chances are some of the details are more familiar to you than others. Dear Esther also tries to represent its tale through the power of visual aids, as several objects found on the island directly reflect some details of the narrator. What I have taken away in the experience had encouraged me to explore a little deeper into the mystery and further details can be uncovered through thorough investigation. But sadly, once the tale ends, there isn’t anything left to see.
Dear Reader, I find it difficult to understand just about everything about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I see an incoherent game with little to offer but slow-paced walking and very few incentives on the side. On the other, I see a beautiful piece of narrative that is represented both visually and in prose recited by one man. Together with a most accurate representation of a Hebridean island, that while fictional for the purposes of the game, seeks to portray the natural beauty of the location.
Never before has something come along that has shattered my perception of a game beyond all recognition, and I sincerely doubt that anything will quite hit me like this has ever again. As a game, Dear Esther has barely any of it and isn’t worth your time. As interactive art though, it is something that I may one day look at again in sheer awe and enlightenment.