Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects as if they were not familiar. Percy Bysshe Shelley said that in 1821 and he wasn’t wrong then and he’s not wrong now. While Dear Esther has been called a Walking Simulator (I don’t like that) and an ‘experience game’, really, it’s poetry. The beautiful language of the spoken narrative, the expressive music and even the island itself are all parts of one poem, a moving tale of sorrow and acceptance. Or is it grief and loneliness? Or guilt and regret? Pick out any Shelley poem – even a tiny sonnet – and you can spend a lifetime trying to interpret it and never be quite sure of exactly what he meant. The story of Dear Esther is open to the same level of analysis. It’s been written for you and the story is yours alone.
Your journey begins at a lighthouse on a remote island and continues across a landscape that is both beautiful and bleak. As you wander, you will trigger pieces of the story, which appear to be in the form of a man reading parts of a letter to a woman named Esther. There are no collectables, no inventory, nothing to pick up, no levers to pull or crates to drag. There are no puzzles in the traditional sense, which has led critics to complain that, without puzzles, Dear Esther is not a video game at all. If you agree with that I guess it will depend on your own ideas of what constitutes a video game. Yes, I think the cornerstone of any game is interaction, and while in Dear Esther you are essentially just walking around an island, the interaction takes place between your brain and the narrative.
Dear Esther’s story is the puzzle and it’s not a simple one. Told in fragments that trigger when you arrive at places around the island, you’ll need to put the pieces of it together yourself. Where Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was extremely open, Dear Esther’s landscape is a little more intuitive, certainly smaller and never feels like a slow slog. There are four areas to explore and many parts of the narration to find. You don’t have to trigger all of them, and the events I trigger in my game will be different to yours, giving each person that plays a slightly different experience and potentially a different interpretation.
Although you have no map and nothing obvious to guide you, you’re unlikely to get very lost. The island’s landscape seems to pull you towards its conclusion with an inevitability that in itself feels like part of the story. Every step you take is the next line of the poem and slowly you are drawn down the page towards its end. What you finish up with is a story that still retains its puzzling fragmentation, but at the same time feels more gracefully and purposefully structured than Rapture.
The narrative flows beautifully and this is helped along by a top class voice actor. The narration is the best I’ve heard in any game or indeed any audio book. Well spoken, clear with soft but firm inflections and a subtle lyrical cadence, the narrator Nigel Carrington reads from the heart. He believes in what he’s saying, he knows the story, he’s acted it out in his head and he speaks every word like he really is this man and this man is him. It’s quite a feat, especially when you consider the language is often more like the musings of a madman than something someone would generally say to you over a coffee. Yet nothing ever feels pretentious or obtrusive because every beautiful line is delivered with so much passion and belief. This intensity of this passion picks up as the game draws near its end, and it was here that Mr Carrington began to remind me of Richard Burton as the Journalist in Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of The Worlds. I could have easily broken into a verse of Forever Autumn.
While Justin Hayward most certainly does not make an appearance in Dear Esther’s soundtrack, it really doesn’t need him. Instead we’re given the most beautiful score imaginable. It’s breathtaking with its sombre lows, and swelling piano highs. With the game’s decision to keep visual representations of the story to a minimum, it needed music that would help players create those visuals in their imaginations instead. It does an incredible job, working in perfect synchronicity with the narration to craft and mould a story as enigmatic and yet powerful as Dear Esther.
As I said earlier, it’s not a simple story. Your playthrough will come in at under two hours and all being well you should come out at the end with a theory, or possible three theories. Or four. All is not what it seems. Or is it? You’ll one hundred percent finish the game with more questions than when you went in, and even if you think you’ve cracked it, just peek at some of the discussions online and have your thoughts obliterated into a thousand tiny mini-theories. There’s a depth here that needs to be respected, and the story absolutely benefits from a second playthrough. Armed with a good (ish) idea of what’s happened, different random pieces of story can be triggered to fill in some of the gaps, clarify or quash your thoughts completely – or you can simply soak in the beauty of the island.
And what a gorgeous island it is. I spent an embarrassing amount of time just gazing up at the perfectly rendered sky. Just like Rapture, Dear Esther, although smaller, bleaker and with no pubs, is just as beautiful. You can almost feel the deathly chill of the ocean and the bite of the attacking wind. Although this game is all about the story told in the narration, this austere island clearly represents more than just scenery and is just as important in figuring out what the game is trying to say. Symbolism plays an important part and most of it is subtle enough to miss if you’re not really thinking about it. Dear Esther: Landmark Edition includes a Director’s Commentary and I do advise that you take a couple of hours to listen to it. It works in the same way as the game but instead of triggering narrative as you explore the island, you’ll find very obvious markers that trigger the commentary instead. It’s so interesting and really does deepen your understanding of the entire game and its development. I did a standard playthrough first, then a playthrough with the commentary and I couldn’t wait to start a third playthrough to see if my original interpretation stood firm. It didn’t. I had a completely new experience and while normally a first playthrough would have a bigger impact, my second interpretation felt much more devastating and it moved me to tears in that last beautiful scene.
Dear Esther has created a brand new genre – video game poetry. Every word, every pixel, every musical note is the line of a poem. Its interpretation is yours alone and its sorrow will bind itself to your heart forever. Powerful, personal and devastating, Dear Esther is simply beautiful.
S J Hollis Rating – 9/10