“Dear Esther. I have lost track of how long I have been here, and how many visits I have made overall.”
The player stands upon a rocky shoreline staring out towards the endless sea. He turns to reveal a well-worn, long-abandoned lighthouse. Red and white paint chipped with aged, wooden shingled battered by the wind, and glass windows long-since cracked and broken. Above him gray clouds stand before the sun who struggles to put forth his rays.
So opens Dear Esther, an interactive ghost story told through first person exploration. Where many modern games venture to push the limits of gameplay mechanics, Dear Esther instead focuses on the video game as a medium through which to tell a story. There are no puzzles to solve. There are no quests to complete. There are no enemies to conquer. Instead, players unveil the hauntingly poetic story of a man trapped alone upon an island and writing letters to a woman named Esther. As a result to Dear Esther’s curious lack of traditional game mechanics, gameplay itself consists of little more than guiding the first-person narrator across the island’s various landmarks. This camera is executed smoothly: in looking from left to right or up and down the game moved seamlessly. Players also have the added benefit of being able to zoom in, a nice touch that allows the opportunity to see all the small details right down to the labels on bottles scattered across the island. The only downside of this exploration-based style is that the pathways across the island are incredibly linear. A path will seem open and promising only to prove to be a dead end and a jarring jolt back to reality.
At the heart of Dear Esther is a heart wrenching tale of sorrow and mystery. As players explore the often otherworldly environments of the island — spanning from the rocky beach to the very heart of the island’s many caves — the narrative unfolds through fragments of letters written to the mysterious Esther. Herein lays the game’s only challenge, as players progress through the story the narrator recounts moments from his own past and blends them with stories of Donnelly, a man who had once explored the island, and Jakobson, a shepherd who had once lived upon the island with his flock. Players, in a way, collect the fragmented letters and piece together the mysteries of the island. This is done not only through the epistles recounted by the narrator but by the stunning visuals that spread across the screen.
Key to Dear Esther’s success is its prose, and Dan Pinchbeck’s writing does not disappoint. Pinchbeck proves to be an artful wordsmith whose poetics often strike to the very core—sending chills down the spine. These flowing narrations pour forth like silk from the lips of British actor, Nigel Carrington. Carrington’s voice captures the raw emotions and torment of a man left alone upon an island with little company save burnt-out buildings, the distant red-pulse of the aerial, and his own thoughts. The game starts out with contemplative gray skies and a pensive narrator who, as he moves towards that distant red light, deteriorates in both mind and body. These disjointed narrations bring up a variety of questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Who are Esther, Paul, and Donnelly? Is any of this real? Rather than offer up these answers upon a silver platter, the game forces players to draw their own conclusions making a unique experience for each individual.
Environment plays no less a role than that of Dear Esther’s narrations. It feels, at times, as if the game were taking place within a three-dimensional painting. The landscapes are crisp and range from the realistic to the sometimes unreal. The island’s landscape displays a world of decay with the ruins of ships, the remnants of ancient buildings, and a variety of discarded memorabilia. All across the island are scattered empty cans of luminescent paint, broken needles, bits of maps, and letters, and books. Here and there players will come across small candled shrines or mysterious graffiti painted and carved into the landscape. As the narrator ambles aimlessly across the island players hear his footstep, the sound of the wind through the grass, and the dropping of water within the caves. Dear Esther’s soundtrack, composed by Jessica Curry, at times floats subtly through the air to enhance the melancholy felt within the narrator or swells in a fury of emotions like a raging sea-storm.
In retrospect, Dear Esther may not be every gamer’s cup of tea as it is devoid of the ordinary tropes and mechanics consumers have come to expect from the industry. Instead, this first-person narrative bridges the art of experimental storytelling to the world of video games.