Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review

By Jonathan Barnes, 3 months ago
Do games need to be fun?

Pardon the rhetoric, but this question ties into one of the central questions with which games, gamers, game designers, and critics have struggled for decades: Are games art?

If you believe that games need to be fun, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is not for you. It is patently not fun. If you believe that games are an art form and that art doesn't need to always be fun then continue on, but temper expectations because Dear Esther is not the Citizen Kane of video games, if it is a game at all.

Not all things containing the golden ratio glitter.Not all things containing the golden ratio glitter.

Dear Esther was the progenitor of the "Walking Simulator" genre when it was released as a Half-Life 2 mod back in 2012. Taking a long, slow -- very slow -- stroll across a Scottish island cues audio snippets of letters to someone named Esther. The walk, lasting around three hours, goes through the barren hills, dilapidated shanties, and bio-luminescent caves of the island, all while unfurling the mystery surrounding the unseen narrator, whose fondness for million dollar words and over-the-top metaphor would make him the darling of any junior college English professor. This overtly erudite narration dances and plays between metaphor, illusion, and reality to the point where it becomes almost impossible to determine what exactly is going on in the story.

Da whut?Da whut?

The director's commentary (included within Landmark Edition) sheds light on the fact that the creators didn't want to create a defined and authored experience from a narrative level. Dear Esther was intended to provoke emotions and to encourage discussion amongst players. They wanted for players to extrapolate their own story through the audio logs that they found (or didn't find) and the randomized visual elements that would vary from playthrough to playthrough. While this level of ambiguity is a nice idea, it is dissonant with how the creators allow the player to interact with the experience. The idea of a user-defined narrative hinges on the ability of the user to have some level of variance in their experience, yet Dear Esther restricts the player -- they cannot run, they cannot jump, they can only walk and zoom in their view, and they are constrained to pathways that the developers chose. While it is true that you may not trigger all of the audio entries for the game (although there is an achievement for doing so), that level of variation is limited by the restricted exploration space and linear path.

Nothing like some ethanol to spice up the SAT verbal.Nothing like some ethanol to spice up the SAT verbal.

For all its narrative foibles and overreach, Dear Esther has moments of absolute beauty in its scenic and audio design. Jessica Curry's musical score starts off as minimalist and mundane but gradually evolves and changes to provide a depth of experience that sets it apart from the narration and story. Likewise, the scenic design and artistic direction provide enough variety to keep the player moving forward through the island.

The Caves represent a high mark for visual design.The Caves represent a high mark for visual design.

On the achievement front, Dear Esther features ten achievements, seven of which will be easily unlocked through a single playthrough. The three that may require a bit of extra work are uncovering four urns, triggering all voice over points, and triggering all directors' commentary. When one of our saintly community members places up guides for these three, the game should be an easy completion.

Summary

During one portion of the directors' commentary, when speaking of walking simulators one of Dear Esther's developers says "...that sounds boring, why would anyone want to play that?" He then goes on to say that Dear Esther has created the genre and given a categorization for other designers to use to quantify their experiences. Unfortunately, his assessment of the genre is a bit too close to home when it comes to his own game. Dear Esther is a boring slog with little narrative payoff. Although it does encourage an ideal of "interpret as you will", it lacks the foundation and support to drive discussions of death, life, and grief to the point to which it strives. Fortunately, the experience is short, cheap, and a good boost to an achievement score, but beyond that, is worth a pass.
2 / 5
Positives
  • Some impressive environments
  • Excellent orchestration and score
  • Quick achievement score boost
Negatives
  • Slow. Walking. Speed.
  • Little interactivity
  • Overly dense and convoluted narrative
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent approximately six hours walking through the island, completing the experience twice. During his long walk spoiled, he popped seven out of the game's ten achievements and found himself questioning the value of his liberal arts education. An Xbox One copy of this game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.