Dear Esther is a game everyone has probably heard of by now and read plenty of reviews or impressions about. That doesn't stop me ghost bumping, no sirree. Spoilers ahead!
For those that don't know or need a reminder, you play as an unnamed man who lands on a barren, bleak island and periodically verbally transcribes his letters to a woman called Esther. Though I initially thought that Esther was a love of his, perhaps his wife, the more I played the game, the more that belief would change. Later on in the game we hear that she is called Esther Donnelly, which is interesting given that your character also talks about a separate character, simply called Donnelly, a cartographer, a hermit. The name Paul is also mentioned, though it seems that you character is somewhat unimpressed by who this Paul is or has become, which as you progress throughout the game and more emotions emanates from who you play as, makes you wonder if you are indeed Paul.
It's hard to tell what is allegorical and what is literal. It's also worth noting that your character will describe what he had done in the past tense, as we in the present come across that event, such as when you find the paper boats made from letters he wrote to Esther floating in the water by a bay.
The entire story seems to be an allegory, but it also seems that in reality what happened was that Esther was killed in a car crash and that perhaps it was your characters fault. Perhaps you are the individual suffering from syphilis, perhaps you are an alcoholic and you cannot cope with what has transpired and so you come to this island, well you come back to it and this is where you die. Sometimes I would wonder if the island itself was fictional, perhaps the character had gone somewhat insane.
There are 3 stages to this game and I know that many people are conflicted about calling Dear Esther a game at all. I know I am. But I will get to that in a moment. The 3 stages are, day time traversing the island (which oddly enough is the most bleakest coldest section of the game), being inside the island, deep down amongst the luminous stalactites and stalagmites, where luminous paintings adorn the walls, a mixture of chemistry and scripture. I didn't mean to rhyme there, but it sounds nice doesn't it.
Then when you come out of the belly of the island it is nighttime and the moon is large and bright, quite a beautiful spectacle in gaming. This is perhaps the most poignant part of the game and the most pleasant on the eyes and ears, it's also where the spooky element really starts to follow through and in my opinion we could have done with more of that in the game. I'm not saying that massive frights were needed but in all honesty, a slight increase in what was already there would have done wonders.
The score is haunting and beautiful in an unexpected manner, though random monastic sounds would arrive randomly and I suppose it did heighten the spooky atmosphere. Make no mistake, this is not a horror game, nor is it a game that will ever make you jump. But it does make you shiver one or twice, though primarily as you can tell from my game-play footage, that was caused by how well the game makes you literally feel cold and depressed, which is mainly contained to the first third.
As for whether this is a game or not, well I use to think that because there was no interaction and you were just walking a path already laid out with a narrative that that was the main reason it was more a moving picture than a game. But when I played it for myself I noticed that you really can only move and look, that's it. The game does everything else for you, when you enter a run down shack or cottage, the game automatically turns on your torch and turns if off again when you leave. If a section requires you to crouch, which happens maybe 3 times at the most, the game will do that for you. You move, you look and you kinda zoom, that's it.
You can die in this game, it happened to me once, but I was in the water and definitely didn't go under or to the extent where I would have drowned and I 'died'.
All in all, what more can be said about Dear Esther? People praise it's narrative and while the execution of the diary dialogue is wonderfully pleasant on the ears, there's a lot of in-coherency, never quite following a consistent storytelling path, at least that's what I found. I get that it's a game of interpretation and that's all very well and good, but you still need to give players (I used instead of gamers), something to work with, vagueness on this level can annoy people more than entertain. It's a sad tale, with the only sign of hope coming from the final swooping moments and up until then, bar the beautiful shots, eloquent voice acting and constant curiosity, I don't see it as a re-playable game, even though it's very quick to play and I'm not left with any feelings, other than the need to put on a nice warm jumper.
Without a doubt I would wear that!!
Gameplay of the entire game can be found on my Youtube Channel!