I provide the star rating I chose for the purpose of avoiding controversy. It is not because I regard the game as remotely mediocre; Dear Esther is, as I see it, a masterpiece. But it is so bizarre and divisive that a 5 star review would give fans of a certain type of game the wrong idea.
In this game, you do not bear arms. You do not race, you do not fight and you do not compete. You can die technically but there is no penalty. Instead, you walk. You awaken on what appears to be a Hebridean island gazing out to sea with a melancholy Englishman’s voice talking to you, twisting and changing. You spend the game exploring the island all the while listening to the voice and slowly piecing together his story; that is it. There is no action, no puzzles apart from the plot and no adventure, in a conventional gamer’s critical-hit and record-time completion sense.
But what a story Dear Esther has! The island itself (if it is an island; this is left, along with so many other things, ambiguous) is a highly complicated, layered environment. You walk among it, whilst everywhere there is something intriguing to explore, and uncover more hints. You are first greeted by a deserted lighthouse. Scattered across the floor are papers almost indecipherable but for a few words, which can be distinguished. Debris covers the floor, and something flickers in the corner of your eye. Is it the wind? A bird? You turn, head out of the door and gaze up at a blinking red light glowering down from atop an aerial on high. That the visuals do a good job of pointing you in the right direction is a mere bonus. Motif after well acted motif of speech rolls out, randomly generated each time the game is played through, and slowly warping into what? Madness? Enlightenment? Inner peace? It’s easy to develop your own theory, and impossible to know for sure. Dear Esther is a game that lends itself well to replays to explore more of ruined buildings, hear different snatches of speech, or just gaze into the wind and sunset and think; all of this contributes to a feeling of intense sadness. Jessica Curry’s elegant soundtrack accompanies the game, shifting perfectly between a sweet sadness and insanity. And as you go o, there’s a gnawing paranoia that the island, with its Godforsaken aerial, may not be so deserted after all.
Dear Esther was originally released as a game mod in 2008 and this occasionally shows. The graphics are sometimes utterly beautiful (the luminescent caves, in particular, stands out in its eerie beauty) but at other times clunk oddly as bushes turn to see you pass. Whilst sinister, this may not have been intentional. Without jump controls and with a few invisible walls, the environment can also seem restrictive at times. At its price tag of £6.99, it’s understandable. Finally a gamer used to action-packed thrills may not appreciate Dear Esther’s slow stroll.
Nevertheless, as a thinking gamer’s ‘experience’ (not, I think, a game as such), Dear Esther cannot be matched.