Dear Esther has always intrigued me; I’ve seen it get criticised for its lack of gameplay, yet it also seems to have a fan base that absolutely adore it. I’m a fan of the whole ‘walking simulator’ genre, but Dear Esther really embraces that tag quite literally, with the whole of the game being simply spent walking.
After originally releasing on PC back in 2012, Dear Esther is finally available on console in the form of the new ‘Landmark Edition’ featuring remastered audio and the addition of Director’s commentary. The question of whether this ‘walking simulator’ contains too much walking and not enough interaction remains though – does Dear Esther: Landmark Edition keep up the pace with newer titles in the genre, or has it been left behind in the four years since its original release?
With less of a focus on exciting gameplay and an emphasis on story-telling, Dear Esther takes the unique approach of offering you different pieces of the story each time you play. It’s told through an overarching monologue with the main character arriving on an island and narrating a tale in the form of letters to his deceased partner, Esther. There’s no real detail as to the exact going-ons revealed until the backend of the game, so the player is left to interpret the protagonist’s words as they please.
When the player reaches certain areas of the environment an extra piece of the story is told, though it’s never told in any particular order; one moment you’ll be hearing about a Shepherd that used to live on the island, whilst the next it’ll be the details of another character’s car crash. As previously mentioned, each time you play the game you’ll get a different part of the story revealed. It adds to the replay value, but also makes the story feel a little more confusing.
The fact that Dear Esther’s story is told in no real order and often breaks off onto random subjects can make the game feel a little fragmented. Whilst it does come together in the end, I found the lack of real direction throughout the bulk of the game prevented me from getting fully engrossed in the game. There were certain observations made at certain points that I could appreciate though, such as the blinking buoys in the distance or the paper boats containing the words that the protagonist has spoken.
That’s not to say that it’s not a well written tale though, because it really is – in fact, the writing is terrific. Details aren’t spared and the writers have done a great job of putting a ton of depth into their words. It was just a little difficult to fully appreciate when it was never told in a fully feasible order. Having a second playthrough of the game will make you understand things a lot better though.
Being a walking simulator, the whole of Dear Esther is simply spent traversing through the environment. Seriously, all you do is walk around the island and zoom in to take a closer look at things – you don’t interact with anything at all. Frustratingly there’s no run button and with such large environments to explore the snail-paced movement speed could make some treks a bore, even if the sights around you are often spectacular. Whilst I figured that the lack of running could be a contextual thing (or perhaps a means to lengthen the already short running time), I couldn’t help but to wish the game had a hidden run button à la The Chinese Room’s latest title Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
There’s a set path you need to follow for story progression, though Dear Esther’s environments are so large that there are plenty of different things to see along the way. There are also plenty of dead ends that you’ll hit along the way too, though you won’t really consider them a waste of time since you might get to see something new or even unlock an extra snippet of story progression.
Whilst exploring I found a ton of strange messages and engravings in the environment that were intriguing to look at, though unfortunately they were never fully explained in the game’s payoff. I was expecting some glamorous reveal to a big mystery that’s going on behind the scenes, though in the end most of my questions were left unanswered – well, besides a brief and easily missable mention of them in the dialogue.
Dear Esther’s standout feature is the island itself, with the natural environment not only looking utterly fantastic, but almost managing to make you feel like you were exploring this living, breathing world. I felt like I really was scaling along the cliffs of the island as the wind whistled past me; the island really immerses you through sound as much as sight. There’s a surprising amount of things for you to see too – I walked through the wooden skeletal remains of a boat along a beach, explored caves that were lit up by bright glowing fungi, and even saw plenty of stunning waterfalls as I explored the depths of the island. There’s no shortage of things to see, whilst the scale of your surrounding are evident too as you explore natural habitats that were previously just a speck ahead of you in the distance. Dear Esther consistently looks stunning.
The soundtrack is absolutely beautiful too, with composer Jessica Curry putting together a string of melancholic pieces that stuck with me even after completing the game (so much so that I had to make a Spotify playlist of the soundtrack). There’s a good mix of piano, strings and even some vocals, each track shining through and conveying the desolate emotions of the game world better than anything else. There were slightly odd moments of silence when a track finished, though it just ended up encouraging me to progress and find the next piece of the game’s amazing soundtrack.
It’ll only take you around two hours to finish Dear Esther, though that could easily be a lot shorter depending on how much exploration you do. It’s a fairly bug-free experience too, though I did manage to get stuck between some rocks in the environment at one point that frustratingly required a full restart of the chapter to fix. The short running time at least encouraged me to return to try and uncover new bits of the story though, plus there’s the Director’s Commentary which I plan on checking out to see if I can make sense of some elements of the game that confused me.
I appreciate that Dear Esther has been designed as a ‘walking simulator’ with not a whole lot to do, but I think I may have got suckered in a little by all the hype I heard from people who love the game. It’s certainly not a bad game by any means and the stunning environments and beautiful soundtrack have certainly left their mark on me. I just wish that the story and mysterious aspects of the island itself were better realised; multiple playthroughs do help, but after playing through the game a second time I didn’t really want to return for a third.
I’m glad I’ve played through Dear Esther after hearing so much about the game over the years, but I just wish that the incredibly well written story wasn’t so fragmented. Maybe it’s just me – after all, there are plenty of gamers out there who love the game. Baring that in mind I’d certainly recommend fans of ‘walking simulators’ check it out, just don’t be surprised if the game doesn’t blow you away as much as you’d hope.
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: 20/09/2016
Format(s): Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux