Ever since Dear Esther arrived as a free mod in 2008, it’s been dividing gamers and critics alike. Originally an art project from a UK university, the “game,” such as it was, simply featured the player walking around an island in the Hebrides, listening to voiceovers, and, well, that was more or less it. Now, the game that arguably spawned the “walking simulator” genre is on consoles in a newly remastered edition, and you might be considering it if you’re not a sports gamer. But is it worth going back to the Hebrides?
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (PS4 And Xbox One)
Considering it’s been eight years, this had better look good and, indeed, it does. Dear Esther has, regardless of how you viewed it, always been dripping with atmosphere and this overhaul has only amped it up. Wandering through caves painted with bizarre scrawls, standing on a beach as the wind rises disturbingly, it’s all here, all quite beautiful and even creepy at moments. It’s not entirely clear if you’re alive or dead, or just who you’re actually playing. If you’ve never played this game before, or if you’ve only played the original mod, it might jolt you just how good this looks and sounds.
The original game was pretty short on mechanics and so it is with the overhaul. About the only measurable difference is that the reboot has a set of trophies, including a few that add a bit of much-needed dry humor to the proceedings
When Dear Esther arrived, years ago now, it was a bit shocking how many people it ticked off by being, resolutely, barely a game at all. All you do is wander around, trigger voiceovers, and occasionally see what happens if you decide to walk off a cliff. True, you can wander around on multiple playthroughs and get more of the story, or a different story entirely depending on your perception, but it’s not like our protagonist, whoever he may be, is going to be doing much.
On one level, Dear Esther is and always has been worth playing simply because it pushed the boundaries and standards of video games. But, on the other hand, eight years and one equally controversial game later, with the novelty worn off a bit, it’s a game that’s easier to admire than enjoy. A playthrough or two underscores that the story is only interesting because it’s vague, and the game is carried largely by voice actor Nigel Carrington, who does excellent work and fills the game with the emotion it might otherwise lack.
Intellectually, it’s fascinating. As a gameplay experience, however, it can be troublingly empty. It sometimes seems like there’s not much beneath the excellent art direction and audio work. These games really need more mechanics, more things to do, gameplay that requires players to put in more work to piece together the story and more substantial characters. Storytelling in video games is generally best done with rules; players learn what they can and cannot do and, ideally, use what they can do to figure out why they can’t do something, or overcome that rule.
Some have argued Dear Esther isn’t a game, but that’s, at best, an attempt to dodge the real issue. It may not be a “game” in the sense that there are points or enemies, but it’s a work of art built in an interactive medium. And if it doesn’t use the medium to its full effect, that’s a flaw worth interrogating. You can’t pick up the many tokens of Esther you find in the island to learn more about her. Returning to an area after you learn more about your character or Esther doesn’t change your approach to the game. And on a story level, the ending, which is arguably a romanticization of suicide, has only gotten more off-putting over the years. It’s fairly common to confuse “ground-breaking” with “good,” but the two don’t go hand in hand, and Dear Esther desperately needs more depth.
Another controversial aspect was how short the whole thing was, and that aspect hasn’t changed. We blew through the game in less than an hour, and we popped most of the trophies. One requires you to play through with the director’s commentary, which has some interesting musings on the game all these years later, so you will at least go through it twice.
Well, it’s not like you’re going to be forced to download a bunch of multiplayer maps or shell out another $40 for a second single-player campaign. That said, some people might object to shelling out $10 for a game that’s over in less than an hour.
The principles behind Dear Esther remain admirable. The conversations it’s kicked off, and the influence it’s had on gaming in the eight years since, is undeniable. But as we get further away, and we have games like Gone Home and its rich detail or the minimalism of Three Fourths Home, the flaws in its design become more apparent. This isn’t nearly as pretentious as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture but, except as an intellectual exercise, or perhaps a way to cleanse the palate between AAA games, it’s perhaps best to play it once, appreciate it for the conversations it opened, and move on.