Note: A review of the Dear Esther 2012 remake can be read right here!
You find yourself standing on a pier, jutting out from a silent shore with only a small house in sight, a rocky mountain looming behind in the mist. You appear to be on an island, deadly quiet and devoid of life except for a lone seagull fleeing at the sound of your step. Venturing forth into the house you discover an abandoned shack with only boxes lying about, and on the walls a curious set of chalked symbols. Setting off on the path behind the house you make your way up the mountain in an attempt to make sense of this desolate place.
the gulls do not land here anymore. I’ve noticed that this year they seem to shun the place. Maybe it’s the depletion of the fishing stock driving them away. Perhaps it’s me.
Dear Esther is an interactive first-person adventure. Based on the Source engine popularised by Half-Life 2, it is a free mod that requires the game to run. Created by British games researcher Dan Pinchbeck under the development moniker thechineseroom, the mod is described as an interactive narrative that “puts traditional game technologies to new use”. Essentially the player has one action available to them, and that is to move around and explore the island. The narrative arrives in the form of the atmospheric visuals and sound, and short spoken fragments of story that are triggered at various spots on your journey. The narrator reads out extracts from a letter addressed to someone called Esther, and relates his attempts to follow in the footsteps of a man arriving to the island before him. Throughout his monologue he alludes to his experiences as well as those of other characters, all seemingly related in some way. The accounts sometimes appear literal but at other times feel more metaphorical and nebulous in their meaning.
The mod notes mention that the narrative triggers littered throughout the map have an element of randomness applied to them - each one selects one of three fragments, so revisiting the experience will produce different combinations of story fragments. This inventive story device ensures that any particular playthrough will be unique and that replaying will allow you more avenues of interpretation. Indeed, the pieces on their own have no context and are sometimes seemingly unrelated to the bigger story, and it is entirely up to the player to make connections betweeen them and meanings out of them.
It is required of the player to not play the mod like he would a regular first-person game. The controls have been stripped away of everything save for basic manoeuvring, the movement speed reduced to a patient walk. If you start bunny-hopping to move faster you may cause the triggered sound clips to overlap each other, if you try and overthink the path ahead and go exploring in areas you aren’t meant to you’ll find yourself seeing behind geometry and getting stuck in tight spots. Dear Esther demands that you settle into the relaxed pacing and trust the design of the environment to lead you forwards. In that respect the map flow is directed and fluid, there is always a way forward and it is never too obscure. At a few points there are alternate places to explore but these tend to just add more narrative fragments; ultimately the route is a linear journey from the pier to the centre of the island.
The extremely desolate surroundings and minimal aural ambience create a heavy melancholy that reflects the loneliness of the protagonist and the island. Most of the time all you can hear is the wind, but occasionally a soft piano melody floats in at appropriate moments. The island is a deserted place, there are only hints of previous inhabitants and the visuals are sublimely tuned to convey this. A thin mist lies over everything, the palette consists of muddy hues and the clues left behind by the man you are pursuing are the only signs of life - bright and in stark contrast to the greyness. There are moments where you may think you see something but a closer look brings uncertainty - little glimpses of things that you’ll miss if you blink. All these elements result in an ethereal quality that pervades the entire experience, and leaves you questioning the reality of even the island itself let alone the fragmented recollections.
I find myself to be as featureless as this ocean, as shallow and unoccupied as this bay, a listless wreck without identification. My rocks are these bones, and a careful fence to keep the precipice at bay.
Dear Esther is not a game. It is not something that you can derive fun or challenge from. It is a passive experience of the likes of games like The Path, the extent of interaction distilled to mere movement and observation. Pinchbeck argues that the active interpretation of the ambiguous story provides the drive for the player to ‘play’ the mod, however this still is an interaction not unique to games but common to all forms of art. Consequently Dear Esther is a melancholic, brooding story of a man discovering himself, told to you through the mechanics of first-person narrative. And all the better for it: this is a ghostly tale well worth experiencing.