Welcome to Late to the Party, a series in which I discuss video games that I’ve finally gotten around to playing. Today I’m going to talk about Dear Esther, a first-person exploration game. I played the Landmark Edition of Dear Esther on a PlayStation 4 Pro and today’s post will be spoiler free.
All the way back in 2008, UK developer The Chinese Room released a free Half Life 2 mod called Dear Esther. It quickly gathered critical acclaim and in 2012 a commercial version of Dear Esther was released on PC and Mac that featured bug fixes and redesigned levels. In 2016 the game was remade again, this time with the Unity game engine, and released as the Landmark Edition on both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. I was a big fan of one of The Chinese Room’s other games, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, so I had been meaning for a while to try out Dear Esther and earlier this month I finally played it.
Dear Esther is often credited with popularizing the genre of first-person exploration games, sometimes referred to as “walking simulators,” where the player explores an area and the game’s story unfolds as they move around and find things in the world. There are no enemies to fight, no high scores to achieve, no game over screens, and normally the player has very limited interaction with the world they are exploring. Because of this there is some debate over whether these games can really be called games at all but that’s not argument I’m going to get into today.
At the start of Dear Esther you find yourself on the windswept shores of a rocky, desolate island that was abandoned by man years ago. You’re not told what’s going on, but instead the game’s wordsmithing narrator reads a short letter to a woman named Esther. From there it’s up to you to explore the island and unravel Dear Esther’s story as the narrator chimes in at certain points to read additional correspondences. The story itself is open to interpretation and depending on your experience with Dear Esther it’s quite possible that you’ll reach a different conclusion from someone else who played the game.
Just as integral as the narrator is to Dear Esther is the island that the game takes place on. It’s lonely, bleak, and strewn with the leftovers of human civilization, and yet also hauntingly beautiful and intriguing. The island is a faux open-world and you’re limited to exploring only a small part of it but for those willing to look around there are a lot of details throughout the island that add depth to the story and potentially some twists as well.
While the graphics of Dear Esther are mostly dated by today’s standards it expertly uses lighting and color to craft the look and feel of its world. That feel is supplemented by a great musical score from composer Jessica Curry and some good sound design that adds to the island’s desolate ambiance by being very selective and sparse with the game’s sound effects.
Where Dear Esther really shows its age, however, is in some of its game mechanics and level design. There’s no way to move faster than the game’s default speed and your character has a hard time climbing over even small objects in the world. More frustratingly, once you trigger the next chapter of the game a new area loads and you can’t go back to where you were a minute ago, so if you unwittingly advance to the next region of the island you can’t backtrack to make sure you didn’t miss out on any important story details. For a game that emphasizes exploration in order to decipher the narrative this is a pretty notable flaw. Thankfully because of Dear Esther’s short length it doesn’t take long to get back to any particular spot on the island, particularly after you beat the game and unlock the chapter select option.
To reach the end of Dear Esther will only take about 1 to 1.5 hours depending on how much exploration you do, so if you’re looking for a longer experience then this game likely isn’t for you. That said, Dear Esther has some replay value, though I can’t explain why without dropping a spoiler. If you finish Dear Esther and really liked it then you’ll also want to check out the director’s commentary mode that becomes available after your first playthrough. In this mode the narrator is replaced by three of Dear Esther’s lead developers and they give a lot of insight into how the game was made and how it works.
Playing Dear Esther feels like going through a bit of video game history and it was interesting to finally play the game that helped launch an entire genre and put The Chinese Room on the map. Overall I’m going to score Dear Esther at a 7.5 out of 10. The game is very short and has some design flaws but its story and world make it a worthwhile experience for as long as it lasts. If you’ve never played a walking simulator before then Dear Esther might be a good place for you to start since it’s both a good game and if you play any other similar games afterwards it will help you appreciate how far the genre has come over the past decade.