by Jonathan Rothwell

Review: Dear Esther

A distant island with a red beacon in the distance

If there is any way of condensing Dear Esther into a sentence, this is my best shot: it’s a clever, creepy and tumultuous storytelling experiment.

The story is presented as fragments of letters from the male narrator to Esther, who we assume to be his deceased wife. The setting is a remote, uninhabited Hebridean island, which we’re invited to explore as the letters tell us the story of the many souls who have landed, wrecked and died there.

Soon, the letters begin to contradict one another. Esther, it becomes clear, died in a fatal car crash, but the cause is identified both as a drunk driver and as a brake failure. The narrator might be an explorer, might be an historian–these aspects are never made fully clear.

Soon, strange mystical elements and biblical references begin to creep in too: strange symbols, circuit and chemical diagrams scrawled on cave walls, glowing bacteria, a cleverly-realised reconstruction-cum-flashback scene, and a clever motif of the Golden Spiral appearing as ominous graffiti.

One thing is certain, though: the narrator is dying, delirious, and untrustworthy.

The mixture of the tranquil setting, narrative style and the deep mysteries of the plot make Dear Esther a truly compelling story in itself, a fascinating riff on the ghost story genre. So, what is Dear Esther? Read on, because this may shock you.

Dear Esther is a video game.

More specifically, it started life as a total conversion modification for Half-Life 2, before being re-made in its present form as a full game, with new graphics and remastered audio. The gameplay experience is stripped-back: although the game uses the Source engine, you can’t shoot, attack, jump or crouch. You can barely interact with the environment–a torch comes on automatically in the darkest places, but you can’t pick up or manipulate any objects. You can only move around, look, and use the right mouse button to zoom in.

The game places you at a jetty on the Hebridean island on which the story is set, and sets you free to explore, wandering about the island on a vaguely linear route. There are no enemies, and the only way to die is by swimming too far out to sea and drowning.

Visually, the game is stunning. Vegetation sways in the wind. Waves crash against the rocks, hurling clouds of billowing spray into the air. Clouds roll above you, and the beacon atop the transmitter tower flashes in the distance like a blinking Eye of Sauron. It demonstrates clearly, if nothing else, that Source is still capable of rendering environments that are more sumptuous than one would ever find in a Call of Duty game. Considering that both engines are derived from the Quake engine (albeit Call of Duty’s from id Tech 3, and Source distantly from the Quake I engine) and that Source is actually older than the IW engine used to power Call of Duty, this is something of a testament to Valve’s engine design.

The soundscape Dear Esther provides is wonderfully atmospheric. The music comes from a British composer called Jessica Curry, and is a haunting orchestral affair with a touch of sinister electronica and poignant soprano solos. The track “Always,” in particular, which has a main hook that sounds like a mutated version of Alexander Courage’s Star Trek theme, is a wonderful exercise in creating something that is serene, saturnine, melancholic and unsettling. Critically, the music is also silent in places, allowing the sounds of the narrator (played by Nigel Carrington) and the wind and the waves to instil a sense of remoteness, and loneliness.

If you hand over your seven pounds expecting an adventure game, prepare to be disappointed. However, if you’re at all interested by Dear Esther’s premise, I can heartily recommend it, especially for those sceptical of the storytelling ability of video games. On its own merits, it is ethereal, poignant and stunningly sublime.