Dear Esther is, in short, complicated. It’s hard to describe. In my brief research, the best description I have been able to find is “graphical masterpiece”, which was the description given by Joe Martin in his review for bit-tech. Graphical masterpiece, however, does not really account for the music or the feelings it evokes, so maybe something more along the lines of sensuous masterpiece or a beautiful invocation of the senses, but neither of those quite sound right and that is not what I’m here to talk about. I am here to talk about what Dear Esther is. It is very complicated and certainly up for discussion so here goes.
Dear Esther is not a game. It has all the pieces and components of a game on a basic level but somehow it does not actually form a game. It has a narrative, as it should, but the narrative is disjointed and actually randomizes with every playthrough because it is not directly connected to the game play. The narrative talks about the player or a farmer that died 300 years before or an explorer that died at some point prior to the game or the titular character, Esther, who may have died now or may have died 50 or 20 or 2 years before the game. It has gameplay simple movement and camera adjustments but this lacks purpose. This being as complicated as it is, let’s suffice it to say that this game has some minor gameplay, some minor narrative, and vibrant setting and then discuss each of these individually starting with the gameplay.
Ok SPOILER ALERT I have to start talking about some specifics to make this more understandable. You, as the unseen first person player, traverse a Hebridean Island (The Hebrides are a cluster of islands off the coast of Scotland). The island is constant and you as the player have the ability to move and look around, but that’s it. There are no controls other than WASD movement and adjusting the camera with your mouse which is a 360 field of vision with the left mouse button being used to zoom. As you move you trigger the narrative. Some parts are constant such as the narrative sequence on a cave will only be triggered by that cave and the narrative sequence for the giant 40 feet-in-diameter hole in the ground will only be triggered by that hole, but everything else is not only random, but not connected to the game. Basically it is a linear game with your only purpose being to look around and trigger unmarked narrative sequences until you get to the end which is unclear to say the least. You commit suicide by jumping off a radio tower, but turn into a bird at the last second. Oh and that entire sequence is a pseudo cutscene in that the perspective does not change but the camera becomes fixed. And with that on to the narrative!
Have you ever played a game like a first person shooter or a puzzle game, something that requires minimal attention or input on your part as the player, and then had a family member or a friend or a relative come in and start telling you a story about their day or their life? A story that just rambles on in a sense and a story far removed from whatever you are playing? That’s how Dear Esther plays. There is a story about an explorer and a shepherd and a drunk driver and a marriage. The problem is that it could be one story or it could be all of them. They could be one person or four and there is no way of knowing. At the core of the matter though is that they all die. It seems like they all die on the island but who knows. The narrative talks about a car accident on an island with no roads and no life. It talks about common diseases killing people in times when they should but also killing people in at least relatively modern times. Dear Esther is a narrative that does not really know where it belongs like it was written tangentially with the game, but not for the game. The setting does TheChineseRoom credit though.
Dear Esther is a beautiful well rendered world. It includes graphic landscapes and vibrant colors. The detail is fairly impressive. What it is not, however, is connected to the game. The landscape’s only connection to the game is the occasional narrative sequence, the place for the gameplay to occur, and the occasional cave paintings and cliff scrawl of a madman. They have created a beautiful world, but a world seemingly without purpose. There are no goals or reasons to be there or things to look for. The only goal is to hear the end of the story.
I think the most telling thing about Dear Esther is that no one knows how to classify it. Is it a game? Only really in the broadest possible definition. Should we go with Extra Credits term “Interactive Experience”? Maybe, but can it be an interactive experience if there is minimal interaction with or by the player. Even Steam does not know how to classify it as far as genre so they give it three different titles: Adventure, Indie, and Casual. Adventure is probably sort of accurate. You could even say causal is accurate because just about anyone could play it, but Indie is probably the most interesting. Classifying a game or movie as Indie always seems odd to me because Indie refers to the fact that it was produced by a non-AAA studio, but does that really say anything about what the game is? Star Wars started as an Indie movie. Minecraft is also considered an Indie game. It just seems odd to attach a title referring to development studio as a method of classifying what game will be like. I suppose we probably have to give Steam credit as this is truly an Indie game (if a game at all) in the sense that it is unlike anything I have ever played. I refer back to my original statement: Dear Esther is not bad, but it is complicated.