Genre: Interactive fiction
Review Date: 2/28/12
"Dear Esther" is a curious experiment in interactive fiction that can hardly be called a game. The only thing the player is required to do is go from point A to point B, with no hazards to negotiate, obstacles to overcome, or items to collect. But it's a journey worth taking if you have and open mind and the willingness to immerse yourself in its world. Originally released as a "Counter Strike" mod in 2008, the 2012 remake is a visually stunning piece of environmental eye candy and a technology showcase for Valve's Source Engine. The game begins at an abandoned and decaying lighthouse on an uninhabited Hebridean island. The environment is cold and desolate, but also soothingly calm and peaceful. Played from a first person perspective, a story begins to unfold as you wander around the island and trigger audio cues. Some of the narrative is randomized so that multiple play-throughs result in different details, but one thing is certain: a woman named Esther died in a car accident. Many of the narrations are in the form of letters (or diary entries) written by the husband to his departed wife, and the first inclination is to assume that the narrator and the author are the same person. But as more details and conflicting data emerge, that becomes a point of speculation and interpretation. By the end of the game, reconciliation and closure become impossible and the player is left to ponder what it all means.
The game begins firmly planted in reality as the narrator wanders the coastline, alternately recalling time spent with Esther and following the footsteps of a cartographer named Donnelly who explored the island several hundred years ago. The only sense of discontinuity is provided by strange graffiti that dots the landscape in the form of chemical and electrical diagrams. As you progress through the game, the landscape and graffiti become increasingly bizarre, and the journey becomes more spiritual and metaphorical. By the second half of the game, reality is abandoned altogether and the journey becomes completely psychological and hallucinatory, even dipping into "Silent Hill" territory a couple of times. This could arguably be attributed to an injury that the narrator sustains and his heavy use of pain killers to remain conscious. Given the amount of contradicting data that's presented, the narrator becomes increasingly unreliable, which leaves even more guesswork in your hands.
But no matter how you interpret it, you can't argue that the presentation is superb. Robert Briscoe's level design is painstakingly detailed, and while some of the textures don't quite work, the overall impact of the environment is breathtaking. (as an aside, he formerly worked at DICE on the exemplary "Mirror's Edge" (2008) ) The real emotional punch comes from the thoughtful writing and Nigel Carrington's outstanding voiceover work. He imbues a profound sense of loss and wisdom in his performance, with heart-felt bursts of frustration, despair, and madness. Excellent work. Jessica Curry's sad music score also reinforces the sense of loss and nicely complements the setting. Overall, it's a contemplative and cerebral journey that's as compelling as it is confusing. The vague and open-ended nature of the story can be challenging and frustrating to digest, and you might be better off just going with the flow and gleaning what you can from the experience rather than attempting to over-analyze it.