Perhaps the very definition of ‘not for everyone’, this maudlin, action-free, abstract and gorgeous to behold exploration game has nonetheless managed to become a commercial success within days of launching. Proof, if proof be needed, that there is a real and profitable appetite for non-conventional games after all.
Dear Esther is a short game about wandering across a Hebridean island while an unnamed narrator hints obliquely at what brought him/you there and the fate of the titular Esther. There is no shooting, there is no jumping and there are no visible people. There is only you and the island. There also isn’t much in the way of clear answers, but instead implications and fragments from which you can construct your own interpretation of your situation and what led to it.
That’s one of the draws of the game – a thoughtful, if occasionally over-florid, change from gaming’s usual torrent of breathless exposition and posturing cutscenes. The other draw is the look of the island. Dear Esther, while steeped in sadness, offers one of the most beautiful environments that videogames have ever mustered.
The island, rich in vegetation, glimmering ocean surround, moonlight and, in its underground sections, eerily luminescent subterranean rock formations, is an incredible sight to behold. Even if the scraps of narrative were removed entirely, just the remarkable, ultra-detailed and highly evocative look of this place would tell a story of its own. Dear Esther will paint possibly the most striking in-game images you’ve ever seen across your monitor.
The game does need to be approached in the right state of mind and the right environment. Turn off all distractions, don a pair of headphones to feed the pretty-but-bleak skeletal piano soundtrack and the narrator’s increasingly manic commentary directly to your ears, and allow yourself to feel like you’re wandering a remote cliff-top path on your own, lost to your memories and regrets. That is Dear Esther’s power, that palpable sense of place and situation, and it’s a genuinely vital change from the pop-up baddies, scripted melodrama and hectic sprinting that characterises even the most painstakingly-realised of other game environments.
But it’s for just that reason that it’s deeply unwise to recommend Dear Esther to any and everyone. Anyone who’s ever recoiled from the phrase ‘art-game’ will find plenty to sneer at here, while even the more open-minded may bristle at the fixed, slow ambling pace and the tendency toward purple prose. It is an almost deliberately boring game, a careful mood piece – so don’t go in expecting sudden shocks or moments of revelation.
Plus, while the remarkable island would seem to suggest freedom of movement, there is ultimately only ever one direction you can head. This seems, in a way, underusing such a spectacular construction, but Dear Esther does have a final, emotive resolution and to turn into a free-roaming exploration game would rob it of its power and risk reducing it to a very pretty screensaver.
The issue of pricing looms large too, even if in the best of all possible worlds a game could be judged solely by its quality rather than its value for money. £7 is certainly a high price for a game that will take a maximum of two hours for a full playthrough, but the counter-argument (in addition to the fact that repeat playthroughs will turn up different dialogue and even events) is that this is an experience that, if you’re suitably receptive to it, will stay with you for weeks, months, even years beyond that. Close your eyes and you’ll be back on that bleakly beautiful island, wracked with loss and guilt for uncertain crimes and unseen people.