Dear Esther: Landmark Edition PS4 Review
Publisher: Curve Digital Developer: The Chinese Room Genre: Walking Simulator, Adventure
Players: 1 Age Rating: 7+ Other console/handheld formats: Xbox One
From the team that made Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture comes the game that popularised the walking simulator, Dear Esther, a story driven game recognised for its complete lack of gaming mechanics and for challenging the idea of what makes a game a game.
Any gameplay is minimal – at times you’ll use a torch and you can zoom the camera in and out – though mostly your only objective is to wander around an island in the Scottish Herbrides. Moving around, you reach certain areas that will then trigger dialogue from the forlorn narrator who is reading letters to a woman known as Esther. Story-wise, it can feel very confusing with its intent to be open to interpretation and whilst the voice acting is decent, I found that the way in which the narrator spoke was rather pompous, spouting sentences full of words that makes the story sound too overly dramatic. The narrator certainly isn’t a relatable chap, sounding more like a university lecturer than an ordinary human being; I certainly found myself numerous times asking who in the heck talks that way?
Mostly you’ll be walking around and taking in the scenery, and the graphics are certainly glorious, especially during one section that takes place in some caves. The water effects are some of the best and the way in which the cave walls look damp and moist brings the environment to life. The lighting in the caves makes it look as though you have reached somewhere magical and fantastical, green and blue lighting giving rocks and boulders an almost neon glow. Even the little mushrooms scattered about glow ominously. The environments have been done in such a way as to make you feel you are really there, drawing you in with small details such as the wind blowing and howling as you stroll through the vast hills. Dear Esther certainly succeeds in being a very atmospheric game. In motion, the game is like a picture come to life and easily draws you in with its mature tone. Any music in the game is also minimal though can be heard at pivotal points, and what is there is excellent. The times when there is no music has an equally large impact with only the sounds of the environment making the game feel all the more emphatic.
Unfortunately though, Dear Esther is a game that is supposed to evoke emotions and whilst at times I did feel drawn into the game, this is mostly thanks to the wonderfully recognised environments and not the story-telling. I felt confused by the story and, given that the game does have randomised dialogue, it can make for some questionable moments where you’ll be asking why the main character is saying such strange things, things that will only make more sense on a second playthrough. The only problem I have is with the narrator. His way of talking is not relatable and at times he even sounds a tad over-dramatic, elevating quickly between calmness and anger. Despite the dialogue sounding almost poetic, the narrator failed to draw any sympathy from me and at times it sounds as though he is talking in riddles. I also felt I never got to know Esther as a person; you find out certain things about her, such as why the narrator is reading letters to her, though you never really learn anything about her background or anything from her day to day life – she’s just a character that something bad happened to and you’re supposed to feel sympathy because of this, and the narrator has been sorely affected by it. There’s no real context behind it. There is a nice twist at the end that did catch me off guard, though with such a confusing story, it fell rather flat. A different narrator and style of storytelling would have been a much better option, having someone more down-to-earth and with a calmer tone that gradually begins to sound enraged as the story reaches its peak.
Being the Landmark Edition, the game does have additional content, although this only comes in the form of a directors commentary. This extra does add some sort of hunting/searching gameplay to the levels as the directors commentary is dotted about throughout the areas that you need to find. To hear the dialogue, you walk about as usual and walk into a speech bubble in the shape of a piece of lined paper. The commentary does give you more of an insight into the games design and even the story, so for those who are confused, the directors commentary will hopefully shed more light on what Dear Esther is actually about.
The game as a whole though made me feel as though I needed a degree in creative writing to fully understand what was happening – yes, it has been done in such a way that it allows players to pick at the story and come to their own conclusions and to encourage further playthroughs, though it comes across as very vague – at times I felt I could understand the story and then there were times that made me question my conclusions (which turns out was the developers intention, so well done!). Despite Dear Esther’s intent to encourage further playthroughs though, the story doesn’t ever feel as though it comes together; it’s a game that has an ending open for interpretation, but this only makes it feel incomplete and unsatisfying, raising more questions than answers. A lot of subtle detail has gone into enhancing the story, from the music to the design of the environment and what can be found in it, to the narration, though this will be one game that will make some players feel very smart and others feel very dumb indeed.