The culprit: Dear Esther (PC, Mac, via Steam)
It’s a little difficult to say what Dear Esther really is. On the one hand, it’s been presented and advertised as a game, from indie developer thechineseroom, but you’ll quickly realise that there’s not much actual gaming involved. I guess ‘semi-interactive art film’ would be a better definition. And I would be lying if I said that that wasn’t somewhat disappointing: I went in expecting some sort of Myst-like adventure, but ended up with something very different instead. However, I would also be lying if I said I wasn’t affected at all. Quite the contrary, actually, due to a mix of haunting music, lovely visuals and some heartbreaking writing, which all mesh together to form a peculiarly mesmerizing atmosphere.
The premise is simple, if somewhat mystifying, especially in hindsight. You are put in the shoes (read: first-person view) of an unknown character, appearing on a stone jetty in front of a lighthouse on a forlorn island in the Hebrides. The game greets you with a voiceover: a man reading a letter to the “Dear Esther” of the title. And from there, you’re essentially left to your own devices. Except that all you can do is walk. You can’t jump, you can’t run (that one can get especially aggravating at times, when you have long distances to cross), you can’t even interact with your environment. No picking things up or twiddling with buttons, levers or what have you. You do have a flashlight, but that automatically turns on whenever you enter a darkened environment. Player agency? Yeah, not the game’s strong point.
One thing you can do besides walking is swim, but that only sees limited use in some specific situations. If you just try to swim off the island, there’s only so far you can go before the game–rather distressingly, I might add–forces you to go under and respawn on the shore. Which makes sense, I guess: that water must be awfully cold. That said, do try it out at least once. Trust me.
Within this framework, all that’s left for you to do is explore. Observe. Listen. And take in. The game is split into five main areas of uneven size (which are gradually unlocked for easy access from the main menu once you’ve reached them in the game), and while it does keep some autosaves, you can also save wherever you like. The voiced narrative is your guiding line, popping up at predetermined spots on the island. All excerpts of letters to Esther, explaining the backstory piece by piece. The developers did pull a neat little trick here, however, to add replayability. Several different texts may trigger at the same spot, and the game randomly chooses one. And no, you can’t walk away and come back to hear a different one: you’d have to reload a save or play the game again. This allows for a slightly different perspective on the story each time.
The essentials are in place fairly quickly: Esther is the narrator’s wife, and she is dead. How she died, what surrounded and followed this event, and, ultimately, why you’re on this island (and exactly who the character you’re controlling is supposed to be), I will leave you to experience for yourself. Because this is the heart of the game. And it’s beautiful, if unrelentingly sad. If I had to criticize it, I would say that the language may seem a tad overblown at times, especially towards the end, where the cohesiveness of the narrative starts to–intentionally–fall apart, and the metaphors and images become rather extravagant. Some may say that this is the game trying to show off how artsy and poetic it is, just because it can. There’s also the fact that the ending offers very little in the way of answers, and you may end up more confused than when you started out. At this point, it all depends on how receptive you are to the game’s own brand of mystique: either you buy into it, or you think it’s a load of hogwash. I’m in the first category: some passages moved me profoundly. In fact, I dare you to get as far as “From this infection, hope. From this island, flight. From this grief, love. Come back…Come back…”, without experiencing at least a slight shiver.
Aside from the emotional narrative, there’s the eye candy. The exterior of the island is bathed in an overcast, late afternoon light, with pinkish clouds slowly sailing across the sky, and the greyish tint of twilight beginning to settle on the forlorn landscape (it helps that this just so happens to be my favourite time of day). Besides the dilapidated lighthouse, there’s a beached cargo ship, the ramshackle remains of a hut and an aerial, blinking a red eye in the distance. Oh, and caves. Lots of caves. And, running like a trail of breadcrumbs throughout these surroundings, mysterious symbols–chemical formulas, electrical circuit diagrams, drawings–and a string of candles. Possibly ghostly figures, as well, if you’ve got a keen eye. And, accompanying all this, the music, all eerie violins and lonesome piano notes, never intrusive, occasionally goosebump-inducing, always poignant.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about Dear Esther. On the one hand, I hesitate to qualify it as a game and feel slightly…cheated in that respect? I did spend time scribbling things down, in the hopes that they would come in useful later, to no avail. On the other hand, I’m not sure that added interaction wouldn’t have spoiled the overall impact. Because the lack of player agency becomes an integral part of the experience as you progress. Would the ability to pick up stray pieces of paper or bits of rock have added anything to it? Most likely not. Would puzzles even have made sense within the framework of the narrative? Again, probably not. So, really, I’m not sure that Esther could have been anything else than what it is: a nugget of condensed beauty, loss and sadness, defying classification. And I shall leave you with the game’s own words:
“From here I can see my armada. I collected all the letters I’d ever meant to send to you, if I’d have ever made it to the mainland but had instead collected at the bottom of my rucksack, and I spread them out along the lost beach. Then I took each and every one and I folded them into boats. I folded you into the creases and then, as the sun was setting, I set the fleet to sail. Shattered into twenty-one pieces, I consigned you to the Atlantic, and I sat here until I’d watched all of you sink.”