Dear Esther

Whenever Dear Esther crops up in conversation, you’ll almost always find someone espousing the (not unreasonable) opinion that it isn’t a game. After all, I think most of us would accept that our traditional understanding of what a video game is includes ideas like having a failure state and overcoming some kind of challenge to reach a goal. Above everything else, interaction with the media is one of the most important distinguishing features of games, and definitely one of the clearest ways the format delineates itself from other forms of entertainment like TV or film. Back in 2012 though Dear Esther challenged these notions given that it barely (if at all) fulfills any of these requirements – and yet, it is unmistakably a game. That it invites the question in the first place is interesting, especially from a patient gaming perspective. If you’re someone who missed the boat on it the first time around, how does Dear Esther hold up? And, given we’re now 10+ years on from its release and therefore over a decade into the spread and prominence of interactive narratives – or, so-called walking sims if you prefer – how does Dear Esther stack up against years of iteration on the format that it popularised?

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Dear Esther (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)

Released Feb 2012 | Developed / Published: The Chinese Room

HLTB: 1.5 hours | Genre: Interactive Narrative

It’s hard – impossible, maybe – to discuss Dear Esther without diving into its legacy. Partly this is because if you don’t and focus solely on the game itself, I don’t honestly think there’s tons to say, but Dear Esther is a game with a history and definitely a game without which the genre of interactive narratives – or walking sims for those who still think of them in that way – probably wouldn’t exist in the form we know them today. I suppose some people out there might opine that this would be a good thing, but if there’s one thing I’ve seen over the time I’ve spent playing games for this blog it’s that there’s plenty of genres that I would otherwise write off until I found interesting examples.

With that in mind, I can’t help but find Dear Esther at least a little bit compelling. I should stress now that “compelling” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”; what Dear Esther is, is a fascinating case study into the proliferation of a genre despite controversy and criticism over its status. It stands as a striking attempt to explore new ground in terms of game narratives and to reconsider the role and responsibilities of the player within the needs of a video game. As a final point, it’s clear that Dear Esther wanted to recontextualize the possible place of games as a medium and art form by placing itself as a hybridized confluence of both game and literature, wielding a bevy of literary techniques in its efforts to showcase a new literary paradigm in which games could exist as both play piece and worthy members of an established literary canon.

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In the spirit of things, lets get the game part out of the way first. The gameplay of Dear Esther, such as it is, as barebones as it gets. It’s almost an afterthought, and that’s a large part of the argument against it being a game. There is a reason it became known as the first commercially successful walking sim because all you do – all you can do – is walk. Well, that’s not strictly true; you can also focus on stuff with a very slight zoom! There’s no value to be found in looking a bit more closely at stuff; there’s no collectibles to find or examine, nor any enemies to avoid. In a nod to actually being a game, there are technically failure states, like if you wander off into the ocean or over a cliff edge but these aren’t perils or pitfalls put in to trap you or impede progress. In reality, you’d have to be incredibly absentminded or make a deliberate choice to come a cropper of the dangers of Dear Esther.

Instead you just walk, following the track laid before you as you bounce between hidden triggers that set off another round of narration, like the world’s loneliest guided tour. This is the big reason why Dear Esther attracted any controversy, and it remains a fairly common shout when people decry it as not being a game, extrapolated into a general shout against the validity of walking sims as a genre. It’s easy to sympathize with this as a viewpoint, particularly if you don’t engage with the narrative or themes in Dear Esther; with many games if you don’t connect with the writing there’s often at least some fun gameplay mechanics to fall back on, but Dear Esther denies itself that liberty.

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The plot unfolds as you begin to wander. A narrator starts speaking almost as soon as you take your first steps onto the bleak Hebridean island upon which Dear Esther takes place. Nigel Carrington provides the calm, ever-so-slightly posh accented ramble, which proceeds in a very post-modern novel style monologue, with every line dripping with symbolism or mildly pretentious over-written agonising; you definitely get that from the opening by the time he starts describing his feeling of birthing the local beach, of his shoes trying to drag him back down below the waves. The narration is figured as a letter or address to the titular Esther, but the elements are delivered in broken fragments; because the snippets of narration are triggered by observing specific things or by trekking to certain places, you can easily miss entire passages of the story, giving everything a kind of detached, unhinged quality. When you get a string of speeches in sequence you can start to mentally create a sense of what events have occurred in the narrator’s life to prompt his interest in this remote Hebridean wilderness, and into who Esther might be and what her significance to the narrator might have been. However, it’s also just as easy to miss some bits of the story, and suddenly your ideas of what events or characters there are is thrown astray, muddled by twisting directions in the dialogue, time- and scene-skipping as the narrator’s attention wanders, and by the increasingly weighty obtuse symbolism overlaying everything else.

While Esther might be in the title, there’s no visible characters in the game at all. Through the narrator we hear about a few people clearly of importance to him. Jakobsen, for example, appears to have been a shepherd who lived on the island in the 18th century. He crops up a few times in the annals of some dusty historical text the narrator seems to have plucked from a library and often the narrator draws parallels between his life and Jakobsen as he comes across places important to the shepherd’s life, such as his ancient farmhouse which sits, lonely on cliffs, surrounded by the detritus of his animals and their lives. We also hear about Donnelly, the apparent author of the text that the narrator follows as he follows his steps around the island; he shares his wonder at the harsh, cold shoreline, trying to find evidence of the island’s rumoured hermit. It’s through these two characters, both lonely and unloved relics of times past, that the narrator offers their most constant self-reflections.

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Perhaps more than the characters and the narrator’s relationships with them, the writing is instead defined by its recurring themes. It’s certainly clear what things burned themselves into the narrator’s mind as he wandered the island. The flight of the gulls, for example, and their notable absence from this remote haven, are a recurring idea, as is the positioning of flight as a rebirth of the soul. Images of aerials, inspired by the glowing red light of the phone tower on the far cliff of the island, are also dominant, acting as both focal point for the narrator’s (and our) journey. The light and its colour are also significant, blending into recollections of car headlamps and medical instruments; in fact, it’s when the narration slides into the banality of modernity that it’s at its most unsettling, and all of these images of modern Britain, sparse though they are, collapse together in a melange of melancholy and half-remembrances.

If I’m being vague or wordy, it’s because it’s kind of a struggle to describe it without entirely giving away everything and while I’m not trying to protect any kind of twist or ground-breaking revelations, I do think if you give away the plot of Dear Esther it doesn’t really have much else left. Suffice it to say that as the story progresses into its later chapters the narration becomes more and more muddled as symbols fuse with other symbols, layering onto one another and distorting the narrative into an nigh-undecipherable mix of metaphors filtered through the unreliability of practically every character’s words.

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Basically, what I’m trying to get at here is if you enjoy slightly wanky modern novels or if you, like me, actually really enjoyed high school English classes, Dear Esther’s writing might well appeal. If not, well, there’s plenty of other games out there I guess. It’s also a good game for fans of unreliable narrators (bit niche, but you never know) as one of Dear Esther’s most interesting features is the use of randomization with its narrative. It’s not entirely random, of course, but one notable aspect of it is that at a number of points there are actually several different pieces of narration recorded but the game will randomly choose just one to play. As a result, each time you play you can find yourself experiencing a similar but notably different version of the story, further enhancing the uncomfortable sense of weirdness that suffuses the game.

Now, while this is a fantastic idea, it does come up against one unfortunate pitfall, and that is that it requires its player to actually want to replay Dear Esther. I don’t say that to be disparaging or mean; I just think that for the majority of its playerbase, Dear Esther is destined to be one of those “one-and-done” games. There’s no indication within the game that it has this randomization running under the hood so unless you played it through in quick succession and noticed the differences you’d never know it was happening. It should be noted that nothing in these different audio fragments serves to elucidate the narrative at all; if anything, it muddies it further. It’s the thing I think is most compelling about Dear Esther, so it really does feel odd that it’s buried so much, but perhaps there’s value in being a feature that only your most dedicated players will find.

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I said at the top of all this that it was impossible to discuss Dear Esther without looking at its legacy, and the place it holds now in the canon of interactive narrative titles. Dear Esther was undoubtedly the first commercially and critically successful walking sim, and as such it really did work to kickstart the entire genre into the limelight. We live in a wonderful era of gaming in which independent developers have more tools than ever to make and distribute their own games, outside of the grip of major publishers carving the edges off their work in order to make it fit some narrow profit-driven form. The proliferation of indie development has lead to a surge in auteur projects, and among them the walking sim has become a very common vehicle. It’s easy to see why; few other genres of games force the player into quite as narrow a track as a walking sim, reducing the opportunities that players have to mess with the pacing or presentation of the writer’s precious story. We owe all that to Dear Esther, for better and for ill.

But Dear Esther is, at time of writing, pushing past a decade old. It might have been the first big walking sim, but no genre stays static. Even just on this blog, over the years we’ve looked at a small range of games that owe a lot of their existence to Dear Esther but take the genre in creative directions in order to challenge the stigma of being labeled a walking sim. Titles like Abzu, AER, and Bound all follow the formula pretty closely, but even they are aware enough of the genre’s shortfalls to introduce variety into the way in which you make your way around their worlds, not to mention trying to give you more evocative and interesting places to explore, such as AER’s shattered world of floating islands, or Abzu’s lush underwater remains of a long-lost civilization.

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Others have pushed the genre even further; Firewatch added in narrative choice and more robust platforming, Frog Detective placed humour at the forefront of its writing to back up its vestigial puzzling, and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter dropped the genre into an unsettling mystery setting, shored up by the innovation of adding in an entire mechanic based around visualizing the events that occurred before you arrived. I’m not necessarily trying to paint these games as better than Dear Esther, but they are more than it; Dear Esther might still be playable, and still has something to offer an engaged audience, but it stands more than ever now as an anachronism, long supplanted and surpassed by almost every other higher profile walking sim as developers immediately sought ways to expand what Dear Esther left on offer. This progenitor game, then, largely exists as if like a museum piece, a relic of the place these games came from. It’s a parent slowly aging while around them its children grow and learn new things and beget yet more new lives that in turn surpass them. It’s the fading echo of a bright and brand new sound that has reverberated for so long to become a familiar part of the background, only notable if one strains one’s ears. Dear Esther remains a beautiful curiosity but it’s no longer the marvel it once might have been.

4/7 – GOOD.

Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.

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