I'm having some difficulty describing this game, because, in all my years of gaming, I've never played anything like 'Dear Esther.' There are no clear goals; no enemies, no tasks, you don’t even have a weapon. You cannot jump, run or interact with your environment. Instead, you wander around, you explore, you discover, you listen, and you feel.
Stepping into an enchanted painting
Dear Esther reminds me of the book, 'The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' by C.S. Lewis. The main characters get drawn into the world of Narnia by them looking at an enchanted painting. I cannot explain my experience with this game by saying that 'I played it', it's more a case of allowing the story to grip you. It felt as if I were walking inside a haunted and exquisitely beautiful painting that came alive by me allowing it to tell its story.
The excruciating slow pace of the game is the main element that forced me to engage with the story. I couldn't run to get through the game quickly; there's no forward or skip button. You have to slow down, or quit the game, and slowing down the rush of never-ending thoughts that relentlessly marches through my mind took effort and a decision. A decision to allow this game to speak to me, to allow its world to draw me in and to share the feeling of immense sorrow that is the emotional tone for this story.
A shrine of sorrow
“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I'd ever meant to send to you, if I'd have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I'd watched all of you sink.” the Narrator to Esther
By exploring the island, you get fragments of a tale of tragedy. The environment expands the storyline, yet never completely reveals or explains it to you. The only part of the tale that you do get to experience in depth is the emotions surrounding the story. The ever present sense of heartache, loss, loneliness, but above all of a great love, are profoundly displayed by the art, music and poetry of the game. You are unable to distance yourself from it. You cannot ignore it; it engulfs you completely. It's all around you, sorrow seeps from the island, broken thoughts painted on the cliffs, small candle shrines, photos scattered around it.
This invokes an intense feeling of empathy with the narrator. It's something that I've not experienced in any game before and, this is what sets 'Dear Esther' apart and in a class of its own. It's a work of art; it speaks to the player in the way that only art can. It elicits a response of understanding heartache. It connects you to the moments when you have felt those same feelings.
If you can set aside all you've come to associate with 'good gaming', quiet your inside for a while and just allow this story to wash over you, you will be left with an impression of profound beauty and wonder. Dear Esther will linger in my heart for a long time.
Creator: Dan Pinchbeck from thechineseroom
Composer: Jessica Curry
Platform: PC, download through Steam
Playtime: Roughly 2 hours