Also available on Xbox One, Linux, OSX, and Windows
Dear Esther is a game that I've heard people hotly debate. The main debate isn't over the game's visuals or story or voice acting but on whether or not it even deserves to be called a game. Dear Esther is the best example I've found of a relatively new genre - the "walking simulator." While opinions on the genre as a whole and this game specifically remain fairly divisive in a lot of circles, I was extremely satisfied with my experience with Dear Esther.
The "gameplay" in Dear Esther doesn't really exist, at least not in a traditional sense. The entire game consists of walking - not running or jogging, but walking - across a deserted island as an anonymous narrator reads letters to Esther. There's no context given to these letters, and they're triggered by reaching different parts of the island, meaning that the letters are often read in a different order each playthrough. That ambiguity is the game's strongest aspect because it leaves it up to the player's own mind and understanding to piece together the story. There are a few different people mentioned in the letters, but exactly who is who isn't made explicitly clear. It's a kind of agency that games rarely give players, and it serves only to deepen immersion.
The most striking thing about Dear Esther early on is the visuals. The island is absolutely beautiful especially with respect to the lighting effects. On some of the higher areas of the island, it's an extremely rewarding view to just look over a cliff at the landscape below and the sea stretching out the horizon. It's not AAA game studio tier, but it is breathtaking, especially with the way the game is presented. That presentation is probably the game's strongest aspect. You're given no context, no prompting, and no goal. You just start walking and eventually hear the narrator. Then you keep walking, and you start to piece together the story little by little, always with enough gaps left to keep you interested and curious. I've never before had a game's story engross me in quite that way before.
If the visuals are the most striking aspect of the game, the part of the game that will last the longest in players' memories is the way it makes you feel. Lots of game make you sympathize or even empathize with the characters, and there are some games with great storytelling. There are tons of games with voice acting so superb that the characters feel like real people. Dear Esther is something else. When I finished the game, I felt. I felt the sorrow of the narrator's loneliness. I felt the despair of his hopelessness. I felt the anguish of his mourning. Whoever did the voice acting for the narrator gave one of the most masterful performances in voice acting history, and I firmly stand by that statement. His voice is the only connection to the game's narrative that you get, and it alone is enough to make you feel every emotion, both fleeting and life changing, that the character felt. It's truly a marvelous performance.
Dear Esther is, in a lot of ways, the finest of what the walking sim genre has to offer. I want to give it a perfect rating due to how brilliantly the game delivered its narrative, how perfectly balanced the ambiguity of the story is, and how emotionally powerful the presentation is. The only reason I can't is because it is a pure walking sim; most others incorporate some degree of puzzle solving to give the game a little more gameplay, and that little bit of interactivity is needed to push me over the edge. Even just finding a few ancillary documents throughout the island that give a little context. The fact that I'm so tempted to give it a perfect rating even with no actual interactive gameplay, though, should be a testament to how damn incredible the game's presentation and emotional impact are. If you're at all interested in powerful stories, you owe it to yourself to play Dear Esther.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.