Is Dear Esther a game?
It looks like a game. You control a character from a first-person perspective using the mouse and WASD keys like a game. It uses the Source engine - not unlike a game. But Dear Esther is infinitely less and undeniably more than a traditional gameplay experience; simultaneously barely interactive and thought-provokingly profound.
This is probably going to be the most challenging review I've ever written. Not least because, at the time of writing, I haven't fully wrapped my brain around what Dear Esther is actually about.
On the face of things, players embark on a linear journey through a deserted, windswept island. An omnipresent narrator starts reading you snatches from letters addressed to the mysterious Esther - which quickly raises all manner of questions. However, rather than confronting you with obtrusive exposition, Dear Esther primarily tells its story through its sumptuous yet morose art direction. Every environment, seemingly innocent object and landmark carries deep symbolism of its very own; imparting more than the narrator ever could. Bolstered by the letters and your own curiosity, you'll start questioning Esther's identity and reality itself; touching on themes of trust and perspective as you wend your way across the island and the occasional flashback. You'll start out as a blank slate and Dear Esther will fill in as much as you let it.
Please excuse the brevity of this description, but that's all I'm prepared to say. All I can say. To explore the themes and story here would ruin what Dear Esther is trying to do: challenge players to make the experience their own and draw their own very different conclusions from its short and linear narrative. Elaboration would ruin everything. Go in with no expectations and an open mind.
So, in a sense, Dear Esther would work as a movie (probably a David Lynch film à la Mulholland Drive), but that comparison would be doing it a thorough disservice. The fact that you can explore the island at your own pace makes the experience infinitely more personal than a silver screen indie flick; putting you directly into the narrative rather than forcing you to simply observe. It's more like an interactive poem presented in a non-traditional way, or a work of art from an old master that speaks to onlookers on many different levels. If you've ever wondered - really wondered - why the Mona Lisa sports that wry yet pensive smile, Dear Esther speaks to you in the same way.
Gameplay, therefore, is at a bare minumum in the traditional sense... but this isn't the end of the story. Rather, the real 'gameplay' takes place, not within the confines of your processor, but in your mind. Piecing the snippets of story together, making sense of it all and coming to your own conclusions is like a puzzle game in its own right, and continues long after you stand up from your keyboard and go about your daily routine. 'Multiplayer' is aptly provided by the enormous scope for debate and collaborative exploration of its themes with other gamers - everything you'd want from a game is there, just not in the way we're used to. And that's wonderful.
Value is almost impossible to quantify here. While you're unlikely to want to replay the two-hour campaign more than twice, Dear Esther leaves you with a lasting impression, and a feeling of really playing something that matters. Instead of high scores, you have memories. Instead of multiplayer, you have limitless scope for debate. And instead of sleepless nights spent in front of your flickering screen, you'll be kept awake in bed trying to make sense - your own sense - out of it all.
Which, for £6.99, has to be a bargain.
- Utterly profound
- Sumptous, meaningful art direction
- A challenging, new experience unlike anything else out there
- Non-traditional gameplay will fail to resonate with many gamers
The Short Version: Like the Mona Lisa's smile, Dear Esther is an enigma - and a jumping off point for players to form their own conclusions and debate its story, symbolism and themes with others. Many simply won't understand or enjoy the experience, but for £6.99, I'd urge you to try.