Dear Esther
Gameplay 6
Graphics 8
Sound 8

Dear Esther is definitely more of an “experience” than a game which makes it very hard to review it objectively. Some people are going to love the thought provoking subject matter, while others will wander around aimlessly looking for something to do. One thing is for sure, you cannot enter this experience expecting everything is going to be laid out for you in an easy to understand manner. The visuals are beautiful, but they are just part of the narrative. Definitely destined to be a love/hate title.

Gameplay: Pretty much a two hour stroll on a beautiful island.

Graphics: Gorgeous and dripping with atmosphere.

Sound: The voice acting is good and the music is hauntingly beautiful

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Dear Esther

Developer: thechineseroom & Robert Briscoe | Publisher: thechineseroom | Release Date: 2012 | Genre: Adventure / Indie / Casual | Website: Official Website | Purchase: Steam

The question whether or not games can be art is one that has been raging in forums across the Internet with no clear answer. Titles like The Path & To The Moon has achieved success by experimenting with what can be done within the confines of a game. Dear Esther takes things even further by removing virtually all interaction & presenting itself to the player as a type of experimental visual novel. The question is, will this appeal to gamers?

Dear Esther actually started out as a free mod for Half-Life 2. It must have caught the attention of Robert Briscee who previously worked on the design of Mirror’s Edge for Dice because he set out to redo the visuals & design of the game. While the island where the game takes place only consists of four “levels” the amount of detail that has been put into them is quite astonishing. It is actually hard to believe that this title is running on the aging source engine.

The biggest debate surrounding Dear Esther is whether it is even a game & deserve to be judged by the standards of other games or not. This is a very difficult question to answer since for every gamer exploring the island in rapt fascination you’ll find another frustrated by the plodding pace & lack of interaction. This obviously makes it a very hard experience to review since the whole adventure is very brief & very open to interpretation. To say anything about the story will inevitably spoil some of the surprises.  I finished the whole thing in less than two hours & while it was definitely a departure from what I am used to the whole experience was captivated enough that I did so in one sitting without growing bored. This is quite a mean feat for something that required almost no interaction from my part.

Despite there being no interaction beyond walking along deceptively linear paths the game remains very thought provoking. Even the narrative which is told in a very jumbled almost incoherent fashion will leave you pondering its meaning as you make your lonely expedition of the island. Your character trudges along at a snail’s pace which gives you a lot of time to reflect on the prose. Some might find the dialogue to be pretentious & overdone as you will often hear repeated phrases laden with meaning but masked by layers of the same words. It might appear to favor style over substance sometimes but coupled with the desolate environments & haunting soundtrack it still gave me chills at points. The intermingled stories barely make sense at first & the game almost feels like it is dangling all the answers just out of reach. There is a definite air of expectancy as you continue on your journey. Don’t expect answers to all your questions however.

I never played the original mod so I cannot comment on any improvements apart from the visuals. It is a pity that despite the seemingly open world you are pulled along almost on rails, but in context of the narrative this makes sense. I would have loved to see more of the island & discover its mysteries. For the observant there is a lot to see despite the desolation. Walls covered in graffiti phrases, personal belongings found in old places. The game almost begs to be replayed but subsequent journeys through its mysteries are rarely as powerful as your initial playthrough. The dialogue seems to be randomized to a certain degree, but you will have the gist of what is taking place after only one play through. Apparently the jump button that was in the mod has been taken away to prevent people from bunny hopping across the island which ruins the carefully choreographed pacing. Dead ends are thankfully not very frequent but can result in tedious backtracking.

While I enjoyed Dear Esther I know it is not something that will appeal to all gamers. With games becoming more complex & realistic it is not easy to relinquish almost all control. We are used to manipulating our gaming environments, but in Dear Esther we are reduced to nothing more than observers. Some will love the novelty of the experiences while others will see it as a waste of time. This is truly one of those experiences where your enjoyment is going to depend on your state of mind & expectations going into it. It has garnered some critical acclaim at this point which might give some players unrealistic expectations. All I can say is while that it is not one of the best games that I have ever played it is certainly one of the most memorable. Whether or not it is worth the asking price is something only you will be able to decide.

*Review originally published February 2012.

System Requirements

  • OS:Microsoft Windows XP / Vista / Vista64
  • Processor:Intel core 2 duo 2.4GHz or higher
  • Memory:1GB XP / 2GB Vista
  • Graphics:DirectX 9 compliant video card with Shader model 3.0 support. NVidia 7600, ATI X1600 or better (Pre-Sandybridge Intel graphics chipsets not yet supported)
  • DirectX®:9.0c
  • Hard Drive:2 GB HD space
  • Sound:DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card
  • OS:Microsoft Windows XP / Vista / Vista64
  • Processor: Quad core 2.4GHz or higher
  • Memory:1GB XP / 2GB Vista
  • Graphics:DirectX 9 compliant video card with Shader model 3.0 support. NVidia 8800, ATI Radeon 2900 pro or better (Pre-Sandybridge Intel graphic chipsets not supported)
  • DirectX®:9.0c
  • Hard Drive:2 GB HD space
  • Sound:DirectX 9.0c compatible sound card
    • OS: MAC OS X 10.6.7 or higher
    • Processor: Intel Core Duo Processor (2GHz or better)
    • Memory: 2GB
    • Hard Disk Space: At least 2 GB of Space
    • Video Card: ATI Radeon 2400 or higher / NVIDIA 8600M or higher / Intel HD Graphics 3000

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