Dear Esther, when it first appeared as a simple, freely available mode for Half Life 2, was something new and refreshing. It narrowed the entire first person genre back to a single narrative focal point to explore a character going on an emotional and meaningful journey.
It was, given how frequently people dig out the phrase “walking simulator” as though this were a derogatory term, a very influential game. This tiny little subgenre of first person gaming has since spawned titles like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Firewatch, not to mention The Chinese Room’s own Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Yet those games have taken that original idea at the heart of Dear Esther and pushed it in new and more interactive directions.
Dear Esther’s world is a strictly hands off affair and one that moves at an achingly slow speed. There’s no running, there’s nothing for you to pick up, there’s no puzzles to solve, there’s no other characters to talk to, just a long meandering, branching path to follow on the way to a blinking light off in the distance. Yet, there’s no shortage of little points of interest and there’s a fascinating story that can be twisted and turned in your mind to find its true meaning for long after you’ve finished playing.
This Hebridean island is a truly gorgeous place to look at, in its own gloomy and miserable fashion. All the way through, I’m spotting scenes and angles to capture in screenshots, picking up on the little details tucked away in the world or taking in some of the grander spectacle. Though it’s beautiful on the surface, the decay is all around: the wreckage of broken ships, the grot and mess of an abandoned little house.
The wind assaults your auditory senses as you march onward, as the naturally harsh weather continuously batters the island. Your only respite is the soft crunch of footsteps upon the island’s grass-covered paths and walkways. It’s a deeply contemplative, almost to the point of meditation, I find, a slow game that can just wash over you and be absorbed.
The narration breaks through this, reading a series of letters to the eponymous Esther. Nigel Carrington’s voice acting is fantastic, meandering from fairly direct and literal to cryptically talking about a man named Paul and a shepherd named Jakobson. It’s so impassioned at times, as his character deals with truly traumatic events in his life, but it’s also randomised to a certain degree. It creates a story that’s so open to interpretation because of this, with each player potentially seeing, hearing and taking different interpretations from the story.
Jessica Curry’s soundtrack is quite simply a vital part of the experience. It’s sparse and lonely when it needs to be, emphasising the isolation that you feel on this island, but as the story builds and you get closer to your goal, her compositions flow and adapt to where you are and the emotions of the scene. A gorgeous moment that is so strong visually, as you walk up hill towards a small building, the dim glow of the sun behind the clouds, the mist rolling across the grass, and it’s accompanied by a simply beautiful piece of music that breaks the mould of what’s gone before and contrasts with most of what comes after.
What makes the Landmark Edition stand out, almost it’s raison d’être, is the inclusion of a developer commentary featuring Jessica Curry, Dan Pinchbeck and Rob Briscoe. Little paper cut out speech bubbles populate the world now, waiting for you to walk up to them and trigger them.
There’s some fascinating insights into the development of the game, how it transformed from a mod into a full release to the thinking behind the game’s form and structure, and how they tried to push new boundaries in storytelling. They naturally discuss how the game created the walking simulator, but also provide other key insights. Without being aware from external sources, you might not realise that a lot of the game is actually randomised, drawing upon different possible monologues and filling the world with different props and variations on things to see.
Perhaps the only downside is that, given how much these three have to say about the game, I often found myself walking forward and reaching the next commentary point at least thirty seconds before the last had finished. It’s a very different journey and a different, slower pace to simply playing through the first time.
This far on from the game’s original release, it’s important to have that as a little hook to get people interested once more. Its influence is clear to see in founding a small and vibrant cottage genre of other ambulatory exploration games. Even without that commentary, whether you’re returning to it or playing for the first time, Dear Esther is a game that’s well worth experiencing and interpreting for yourself.