Interactive story telling has made its way to consoles over the last year through some beautiful examples of the genre, helping fans get their fill of exquisitely rendered environments to explore. Dear Esther was one of the first to appear on PC back in 2009, and came in a remastered version from The Chinese Room in 2012, who also brought us Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Curve Digital has made the conversion to consoles to enable gamers to visit an isolated Scottish island and spend time figuring out the mystery that lies there.
In a similar vein to Firewatch, you play as a man coming to terms with loss and regret through exploring a deserted environment and uncovering what has happened in the past, though arguably Dear Esther was the inspiration for the games to follow. As you wander through the rocky landscape, an anonymous man reads fragments of letters to the titular Esther, each prompted as you reach various landmarks or views of the island. Three stories are told, one of a shepherd that lived on the island, one of the man who charted it, and that of Esther and how the narrator was related to her. As you walk to a beacon that’s seen in the distance when the game starts, more is revealed of the lives of the three invisible protagonists, and more of the letter extracts are read out.
From start to finish, the whole experience takes about an hour as you move through four key areas, and there’s a decent flow to the narrative that has you intrigued and engaged despite the fact that there’s no interaction with anything you come across. It’s a little jarring to begin with when you’re used to having contextual points and prompts on screen – there is nothing at all to interrupt what you’re seeing in front of you. Because there’s nothing but scenery, and the fact that the landscape is bare and reasonably monochromatic, there’s nothing to distract you from the voiceover and the impact of what you’re learning as you walk through hills, caves and coastlines. Equally, anything that’s not the colour of the island stands out like a sore thumb, and gives you a reference point to aim for.
Saying the environments are devoid of extreme colours doesn’t mean they’re unattractive… they’re the total opposite. Strolling between the rolls of hills, following a well-trodden path up to a derelict hut is almost like doing it in real life – not because it’s photorealistic, but because it captures enough of the elements you’d expect to make it familiar, and has the accompanying sounds to draw you into the world. The wind gusts, the sea laps, and the calls of the animals echo across the cliffs, and as you get closer to your destination, the music swells and builds to a crescendo that perfectly suits the exploration. Without doubt it’s one of the best executed soundtracks I’ve heard.
Dear Esther aims to give you a simple game with a complex set of emotions to keep up with, and refuses to tell you the full story in one sitting. The landmark edition has added director’s commentaries that are revealed on subsequent playthroughs, much like other fragments of the letters, so it has a unique feel each time you set foot on the island. Encountering mysterious symbols and luminescent drawings of circuit boards and chemical compounds adds to the strange and ethereal atmosphere, and keep you wondering about the nature of the archipelago as well as the state of mind of the person you’re inhabiting. It’s a short experience (I can’t really it call it a game), and one that’s definitely worth seeing through, but I know there’ll be plenty of people who won’t get on with it. If you’ve played and enjoyed The Chinese Room’s other offerings then there’s pleasure to be had in letting yourself soak up the atmosphere of a lonely Hebridean isle.
A PS4 review copy of Dear Esther Landmark Edition was provided by the Curve Digital PR team, and the game is out on PS4 and Xbox One on 20th September 2016.