I’m no stranger to short games, nor am I overly antagonistic to first-person experience titles (often derided as “walking simulators”). When listing out some of my favorite title recommendations, I often suggest Firewatch, Gone Home, or The Stanley Parable as unconventional, rewarding experiences that break the mold for the medium. With that said, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition feels like a jumping off point to much, much better titles in the genre — a product where “influence” seems to be the only real selling point. For the $10 price tag, I find the experience hard to recommend.
By way of background, the original Dear Esther launched in 2008 as a Half-Life mod from developer The Chinese Room when they were students at the University of Portsmouth. After years of financing difficulties, the experience emerged on PC in a remastered edition in early 2012. Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is a nearly-direct port of this latter version, adding developer commentary scattered throughout the island, remastered audio, and not much else.
The ‘gameplay’ for Dear Esther (like most first-person experiences) can be described as minimal, at best. Players’ options to interact with the world around them consist of moving and zooming. The experience is extraordinarily directed even for something in the genre, focusing player efforts in following an A to B directional path with very little variation in between. While other first-person experience titles often give more agency (even by means of exploration), this experience feels more it was crafted for another medium, but certainly not a game.
The setting, an uninhabited Hebridean island, looks fairly mediocre compared to other similar titles in 2016. While the experience was resoundingly praised for its aesthetic scenery in 2012, the title now has to compare its existence to The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or even Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. In comparison, Dear Esther seems almost blotchy with the occasionally noticeable pop-ins, dull colors, and muddled textures. While the Landmark Edition is supposed to be remasterd, The Chinese Room decided against updating the models and the textures.
The story is segregated into four different chapters, each one with its own voice-over narration addressed to the titular Esther. I won’t delve too deep into the story — if you are looking into picking up the hour-long experience, the smallest detail may be spoiling a substantial chunk of the game. However, it is resoundingly ambiguous and will likely be divisive on audiences — some will find it a tad of pretentious, others may find a unique artistry in its vague storytelling. Despite this, the game does offer you a lot to think about, and at its best will have players explore their own feelings of loss, mourning, and sanity. New segments and in-game elements will appear randomly within each playthrough, and players with hawk-like vision may notice the occasionally disappearing shadowy figures scattered on the isle.
Along with the environment, Jessica Curry’s score is often lauded as phenomenal, winning many awards in the process. At the time of the original release, orchestration in games — let alone indie titles — were more-or-less unheard of.
Though Curry’s orchestration almost perfectly fits the atmosphere of the island and sets the emotional tone of the experience, I find myself a tad spoiled for having experienced Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture first. With the soundtrack on my latter being among one of my favorite gaming scores (alongside Journey and Flower), this score seems like a step back — a fact I can hardly begrudge her for, seeing that Dear Esther is three years Rapture’s senior.
As mentioned above, the game lasts roughly an hour — double that time if you are adding a second playthrough to delve into the developer commentary and more context into the story. The latter option offers a nice slice of a development expose for those hardcore fans of the title, but I imagine many will have their fill after their first playthrough.
While I may come off sounding hypercritical of an experience lauded as art a few years back, that is anything but true. The title’s ability to forge a path for other first-person experience titles is not lost on me — Dear Esther‘s best aspect is the influence it was able to bring to The Chinese Room’s later project as well as other games in the industry. However, for a $9.99, hour-long title without upgraded visuals, the only people this experience will hope to satisfy are people who were fans of the 2012 release, or people interested in delving into the etymology of a genre.
Otherwise, the experience doesn’t feel like it has the sense of weight and raw human emotion that Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture possesses, the game-like wonder that The Vanishing of Ethan Carter showcases, or the offbeat experimentation that Gone Home or Firewatch aimed for. There isn’t a title in the genre that has come out since that I think hasn’t walked the same path with more flourish or novelty.
Developer The Chinese Room is capable of capturing many highs and lows of human emotion through both their sound design and storytelling. With that said, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition feels more like a lukewarm experiment — a legacy precursor that paved the way to their more successful titles; an experience that is both significant, while also being entirely out-of-date by modern genre standards. Dear Esther was the baby step that aided in the creation of the genre — while you have to learn to walk before you can run, Dear Esther’s modern competitors have been sprinting for years.