Rewarding exploration, however a little pretentious.
It's not that uncommon to see gaming mods turn into full-blown retail releases; over the years we've seen Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and even Natural Selection make it to the big leagues after modest beginnings. thechineseroom have just re-released their 2008 mod, Dear Esther, with a brand new engine, higher production values and a bigger scope than ever before. Is this mysterious narrative-driven game worth the price of admission?
What Dear Esther Got Right
Atmosphere - From the opening moments until the thrilling conclusion, Dear Esther is simply dripping with atmosphere. Stuck on a mysterious island, the player will be exploring the unkempt mountains, delapidated shacks and the mysterious caves. There seems to be an unspoken sense of urgency as you inch your way through each area, with the atmosphere making up a good portion of the experience.
Thrilling musical score - The soundtrack featured in Dear Esther is just as important as the spoken narrative when it comes to driving forces. The sweeping strings as you wander the fields, the gloomy piano sonatas as you explore the depths of the caves, and the suspenseful crescendo bring the experience into a whole new world. Without the soundtrack, Dear Esther would be lacking a soul.
Exploration is the key - Dear Esther is about as linear as a game can get, but it uses exploration as a very interesting mechanic. The required path is not always the most apparent one, and the more the player explores, the more information they gather about the setting, and story of this adventure. Certain areas will trigger an internal monologue from the protagonist, which will reveal just a little more information about the situation. The player could rush their way through the game, however exploration makes it all the more rewarding.
What Dear Esther Got Wrong
Pretentious at times - Dear Esther is a different kind of experience. The player simply walks through the environment, with the protagonist occasionally coming in and revealing a little more about the story, often in cryptic ways. These cryptic reveals are often contrived, and are somewhere between a 16 year old girl's diary and a pretentious ass from Yale. It doesn't happen often, but at times the dialogue will leave you apathetic rather than entranced.
Interactive snore-fest - For the average gamer, Dear Esther is going to be an interactive snore-fest for your senses. The player is tasked with simply holding the W key to walk forward and not much else. There are no actions to be completed, just a gorgeous island to explore and a story to enjoy. This will appeal to some of us out there, but for the majority of gamers, this is going to wear thin pretty quickly.
The Final Verdict
Dear Esther is an interesting experiment of interactive storytelling, presenting the player with a mysterious island and an even more mysterious narrative. The game oozes with shady atmosphere, and the moody soundtrack really transforms the experience into a work of art. Having said that, it can come off a little pretentious at times, and the entire game can be completed by holding down the W key and moving the mouse. As a game, Dear Esther is hard to recommend, but if you are interested to see an interesting story that takes just over an hour to complete, it is well worth the $10.
By Stephen Heller