Developed by thechineseroom and written by Dan Pinchbeck, Dear Esther was originally a mod for Half Life 2 that quickly gained a following and matured as an independent release - in which financial backer "indie FUND" recouped their original investment within the first 6 hours after going live. It's beautiful. It's dark. But for game reviewers, it can be frustrating to describe.
For example, if you were one of those folks who – after hearing all the hype surrounding movies like Lost in Translation and The Royal Tenenbaums – felt cheated after falling asleep trying to actually watch them; then you might not want to plunk down the 10 bucks on Steam for this product. Despite all the gaming hype: It’s not a game. There’s no action or weapon, you can’t jump or crouch, and – I think I’m not giving too much away by saying – there’s no creature that jumps out and goes “Boo” here. You simply waft through a first-person world in an exploration of (to use the author’s original project description) “experimental game play and storytelling”. You can save your progress, but you’ll probably down this apéritif in a single evening.
In the words of the author: “Dear Esther is a poetic ghost story told using game technologies. You explore a deserted island, uncovering a tale of love, loss, grief and redemption…”. But if you came to shoot or see ghosts, or even fall in love, you’ll be disappointed. This is no tropical Far Cry island either, it’s obviously in the North Atlantic. You’ll wander the cold, rocky paths and trigger narrative installments – which reveal the anguish of someone who has tragically lost a love. The story culminates as one might expect, in a sequence where you can no longer control yourself – and are lost to a cut-scene that first felt like a rip-off – but ultimately gave me adequate redemption for my $9.99 investment.
So, having turned off traditional gamers to this “game”, I now give my endorsements: If you – like me – are into the art of game level design, then you should watch “Dear Esther”. If you like to traverse Valve game mods like “The Lost Coast” – with the developer commentary turned on – then you too should watch “Dear Esther”. If you love emotional journeys as much – or more – than BFG’s and health kits (ya know… like a girl), you’ll enjoy this little head trip.
The levels and visuals are spectacular. My Alienware M15X laptop has a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260M and Windows 7 64 – and I felt like I could reach out and touch the waving grass, or catch on my tongue the drips from stalactites. The caves were beautiful (I just love the way the Source engine renders water) and navigation within their tight spaces tended to confirm my suspicions that our character was perhaps not really embodied – a nod to Pinchbeck’s “experimental storytelling”. Jessica Curry‘s soundtrack is mesmerizing, and Nigel Carrington‘s narration is perfect. The ocean, wind and story all gave me chills.
It’s unfortunate that all the hype surrounding Dear Esther is coming from the gaming world though, because it’s not really a game. It’s just a great production.