PC review: Dear Esther

In some ways, Dear Esther is a video game, yet in others it is not. You are given control of a man who is seemingly alone on an island. He has decided to trek from one side to the other, passing by abandoned brick houses, the wrecked hulls of ships that have run ashore, and through colorful caves whose walls are marked with chemical equations. As the narrator/protagonist makes his way across the island, he relays his many messages to a woman named Esther – a character whose identity and fate will be explored before the final destination, referred to as ‘the aerial’, is reached. Eventually, you will have to move forward to make any progress, though Dear Esther does allow literally as much time as you so desire to explore and area before moving on. Some areas are a bit off the beaten path, but visiting them will reward you with even more dialogue elaborating on individuals known as Jakobson, Donnelly, and so on.

One of the most important bits of information the protagonist relays early on is that there is an infection on the island – one that affects not only the body, but also the mind. This line is intended to get players thinking about just what is real and what is imagined, while also lending itself to the game’s eerie nature. At a few points during the journey, there will be a shadowed figure visible from a distance. Sometimes this figure will be in an area that is altogether unaccessible. Other times, it will be on top of a hill or around a cliff, but should you decide to chase after it, you will find absolutely nothing outside of the rocks and grasses that already decorate the area. The cave portion, which acts as Dear Esther’s midway point, and everything that follows, will perform a duality of answering more questions and forcing you to question the mental state of the protagonist.

Though it is a Half-Life 2 mod and is thus graphically a bit aged compared to more recent releases, the lighting effects, environment designs, and occasional cryptic messages that line cave walls and cliffsides make this one of the most gorgeous looking games I have played in a long while. With a fog that hangs low, partially obscuring rocks and buoys out in the sea, and a radio tower whose blinking red light is constantly visible from practically anywhere on the island, there is a beautiful, haunting contradiction between abandoned, rusting man-made objects and the natural beauty of the island; between the old brick houses and the modern shipwrecks. The soundtrack goes above and beyond – its delivery mostly gorgeous and sometimes eerie, not unlike the tale being woven.

Portions of the story are left open to interpretation, though by the conclusion of Dear Esther, you will have quite a clear idea of who’s who and why each character and place mentioned is important. It’s a pattern of repetition, with each mention of the aerial, Jakobson, Donnelly, and the museum slowly revealing more and more about their nature. To consider it exclusively as a game would render the experience sub-par. It is more accurate to consider it an interactive story – one that is poetically written and beautiful to take in.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

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