I was very thankful to have a few weeks off from work during the holidays to play a video games. My friend Steven dropped by my apartment at least once or twice to enjoy some a lazy afternoons. And as usual, he came with an assignment. This time it was Dear Esther.
Being a compliant friend, I found the greyed-out game logo and double-clicked it. In a span of time so short that I wouldn’t have believed it possible 10 years ago, Steam downloaded and installed the game for me. Cup of coffee in hand, I sat down and pressed some buttons for a while.
Standing on a weathered concrete embankment at the foot of a ruined lighthouse, I heard a nameless voice in my ears. The voice spoke about the time he spent on the same island that I was exploring. As I continued to walk the branching paths of this once-inhabited island, the voice returned again and again to wax poetic about the events of his life that drove him to come here.
But he never offered a satisfying explanations. Only more questions: What is this place? Why am I here? Who is Esther?
I struggled to put the pieces of his story together, to contextualize the remnants of life on this island. I was completely and beautifully confused.
Dear Esther wielded restraint with extraordinary precision. The natural beauty of the island begged further investigation. And when I obliged, I found that the islands understated charm was confined to its surface. The subterranean passages were ethereal in a way that bordered on eerie. By the time I emerged from the caves, the island appeared to have abandoned any semblance of nature in favor of a sublime dreamscape of metaphor.
Dear Esther‘s sound design was equally as striking in its restraint. I experienced much of the game in silence that was broken by the occasional sound of soft winds or distant birds or rushing water. This only deepened my sense of solitude, and made me all the more thankful for the voice of the narrator, which was accompanied by bits of orchestration… all the more poignant and stirring because of its scarcity.
The narrator’s continued presence in my ears seemed to indicate some connection to reality, but I had plenty of room to doubt the authenticity of things that I was seeing. Dear Esther managed to present an experience and cause me to immediately question that very experience.
Even though I found Dear Esther to be a starkly atmospheric experience, it would be a mistake to call it a dark game. I was never scared or unsettled. Just melancholy and somewhat bemused.
That is the point of the Dear Esther.
When final scene faded to black, I had more questions than answers. Steven and I had a long talk (over more coffee) about what it could have meant. Apparently, his experience with the game was quite different than mine. He took different paths and heard different bits of the narrator’s story. Even then, neither of us could cobble together a definitive explanation of what Dear Esther was about.
As is my custom, I am a few years late in realizing this, but I can’t help but to be excited about how Dear Esther and its contemporaries are setting higher and higher standards for nuance in interactive storytelling. And I hope you’ll pardon the hyperbole when I say that I’ve been waiting my whole life for this time to come.
What a time to be alive!