Dear Esther started as a free-to-play stand-alone modification for Half-Life 2. Released in 2008 to minimal fanfare, it soon garnered critical acclaim as word of mouth allowed it to gain recognition for its avante-garde approach to game design and storytelling. Later redeveloped for commercial release by the developers, who had by then formed their own studio dubbed The Chinese Room, the controversy surrounding the 'game' has survived intact, all the way up to the release of this latest Landmark Edition, which serves as a sort of celebration of the game and the effects it had on the world indie developers.
Frankly, there's not a huge world of difference between the original commercial release of Dear Esther and this new version. The changes are minor, with most of the graphics receiving only subtle alterations and a few new lines of narration that were originally left on the cutting room floor serving to separate the two versions. All in all though, the divide between new and old isn't worth discussing so much as the game's message and impact, which the Landmark Edition serves to highlight. What those are exactly has been discussed over and over, perhaps just as much as whether Dear Esther deserves the title of 'game' rather than say 'interactive art piece'. It's a highly subjective piece of work, but for the sake of this equally-subjective review, I'll do my best to offer what I think.
Afterwards, if you're so inclined, you can go and pick the game up on Steam for just $9.99 (or less if it's a sale). The Landmark Edition is now the only version available, but as I stated, don't feel you're missing out on anything. Like everything from The Chinese Room, the experience and story are the meat of the material. With that in mind, let's dig in.
One of the first things that sets Dear Esther apart that it is not told as a linear story. Rather, it is a collection of plot points which can be assembled in almost any fashion to produce a narrative of one's choosing. This complements the starkly-real yet subtly-unreal environment by leaving the player in a perpetual state of confusion as they struggle to find a way that everything they are seeing and hearing fits together. Unreality is very much an unstated theme of the game's plot, which weaves together the strange sights and odd narration into a bizarre piece of post-modern story-telling that is less a progression of events from point A to point B and more of an effort to provoke introspection and specific feelings, like a piece of art.
This is where a large part of the controversy surrounding Dear Esther stems from, since many argue that since it has no classically defined goals or plot, it cannot be referred to as a 'game'. Perhaps the best counter-argument to this is that the experience isn't so much about finding an answer or achieving a goal as it is about seeing what you do when you realize that neither of those things exist. Dear Esther's 'goal' is to make players sit and think; about the setting; about the story; and about what it all means to them.
In this way, it bestrides the boundaries between media, leaving those disinclined to accept that some things cannot truly be categorized struggling for purchase. Indeed, the term 'walking simulator', which many early reviewers coined as a form of denigration, is a very shallow label that has been slapped onto Dear Esther and other games sharing its features as a way to try and name the unnameable, placing it under control. The truth is though that Dear Esther isn't about control. In fact it might be argued that it's about the complete opposite of that.
On the surface, the initial setup suggests that the whole game takes place on an unnamed island in the Hebrides, an archipelago of barren rocks off the coast of western Scotland, remembered to those that know of them for their stark beauty and harsh weather. Players follow the narrator as he wanders across this empty environment, listening as he details the events that presumably lead him to arrive in this desolate environment. A car crash is mentioned, and hospital visits, as well as a relationship with a woman called Esther, presumably his wife. Just as a pictures starts to form however, he goes off on a tangent about the island and its history. This jarring shakeup in narrative leaves any prior assumptions that might've formed stumbling as they try to catch up, while with every passing second, the narrators words grow more and more confusing.
As the journey continues, moving at a sedate pace across the starkly beautiful environment of the island, the cohesion of the plot begins to grow more and more loose, and the diction of the narrator grows more and more poetic. New elements enter the mix, including a long-dead goat-herder named Donnelly, whose name becomes tangled with Esther's, and a man named Paul, who may or may not have driven the car that seems to have killed her. At the same time, things begin to crop up in the environment that speak to the air of unreality that seems to hang heavy over everything. It starts innocently at first, with things like circles of standing stones or garbage strewn on the beaches, but quickly progresses to things like a pile of books washed into a dark crevice where any paper should've rotted away long ago, or strange chemical and electrical diagrams scrawled on the rocks in luminescent paint that look strangely like synapses.
All of this bleeds together as the journey approaches its climax, when, after a jaunt across the island and a brief descent into its stony depths, the narrator reaches the ultimate destination of his travels: a radio tower on a high bluff. This final terminus remains visible for a good chunk of the game, serving as a reference point in an otherwise chaotic and hilly landscape, and its disappearance during the time spent in the undersea caverns about half-way through the journey is marked by even more psychedelic phenomena, including a full-blown hallucination of the mysterious motorway where Esther was presumably killed. Upon finally reaching this beacon of reason, the narrator climbs to its top, then hurls himself off, ending his voyage and his life (at least so it seems).
This ending is part of what might leave most people scratching their heads. The disjointed narrative might be solvable if it had a precise beginning and end, but again, it has neither, its only certainty being uncertainty. This is because, and I say this in speculation, Dear Esther is not a story, so much as a parable about grief. The narrator's story of the loss of his wife and the knotty mess of tangents it tangles with is a reflection of the eternal struggle made by those who have suffered loss to try and put the world they thought they knew back together in a way that makes sense, only discover that it's an impossible task.
The design of Dear Esther is very much inspired by bleak games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., where the landscape does as much storytelling as the characters that populate it. Everything in the game's world is designed to have meaning and purpose, even if it's just to confuse the other meanings. Art doesn't mean the same thing to everyone, and neither does Dear Esther. It's slow and steady pacing is there to provide room for thought as the player lopes their way between locations, providing time for people to ponder the deeper significance of the things they are seeing. In these ways, the game is very much an art installation; made to be consumed by a large audience to produce a variety of perspectives. Some people will see meaning in the search for the hidden urns scattered through the 'game', while others will tussle with the story itself, trying to find a way that it produces a narrative they can understand. Both will be validated in their pursuits, and neither will be.
The primary distinguishing feature of the game from its past iteration is the inclusion of an audio commentary by the creators, which goes into details about the game's past versions and its origins. Jessica Curry provides background on the soundtrack, while Dan Pinchbeck and Robert Briscoe commentate on the art and aesthetic design. It really is something of a surprise to learn that a creation which had so much impact and sparked so much controversy was the product of so few. But then, innovation rarely comes from large factories in any field. Apart from this new addition, and some virtually unnoticeable graphical- and software-fidelity patches, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is still the same game that was released in 2012. What changes is the player's perspective every time they play, as new dialog offers new structure with its florid prose and superb voice acting. In that way at least, the game has stayed very fresh.
Is Dear Esther: Landmark Edition art? Is it a game? Is it something between? The debate will probably continue forever. But with regards to whether or not it's worth buying, that's up to you. If it's a linear story with action or even puzzles, you might want to look elsewhere. However, if you're looking for something new that isn't what you've come to expect from the world of video games, then this is definitely worth picking up. While the game itself won't last hours, it will make you ponder both its nature and meaning long after the credits, and that in itself is a triumph of narrative design. So for those who seek fresh experiences in a world of clones and curiosities, come to the island…you might just find what you're looking for, and then some.
|+ Breaks traditional rules of game design.||– Aimed at a niche audience.|
|+ Offers a stunning visual storytelling experience.|
|+ Superbly written and voice-acted meta-plot.|