It’s perfectly reasonable to ask why something like Dear Esther exists in the first place. Essentially a remake of a Half-Life 2 mod. Problem is, it’s not really a videogame. Critics have been struggling to attach a label to Dear Esther—experimental, interactive movie, a narrative experience—none of which really describe it accurately. Dear Esther is a game that isn’t a game.
At its most basic level, Dear Esther is about a nameless protagonist traversing an island while occasionally narrating snippets of dialogue. This is an unreliable narrator, as his exposition becomes more blurred and obscure as things drag on. The titular Esther is his departed wife, allegedly, and he has written multiple letters to her. It’s difficult to empathize with the narrator as he prattles on about cartography and other inanities rather than about the horrible grieving the death of a loved one leaves in its wake.
Unsubtle hints are alluding to the cause of Esther’s death border on becoming a gag later on as the narrator keeps repeating the same metaphor like a parrot. The island itself may or may not be metaphorical, which is also true of most characters referenced by the narrator. Dear Esther is clearly trying to be a work of art, so it’s no surprise that it carries with it a level of pretentiousness and obscurity commonly found in other ‘experimental’ titles.
Dear Esther’s value will ultimately be determined by how well it can draw players into its narrative and the sad truth is that there’s nothing to draw one’s interest to the ’story’ or lack thereof. There are no other characters, no great mysteries to be uncovered, or compelling reason to trudge from one point to the next. With nothing to dwell on, it’s easy to experience Dear Esther in about two hours, give or take any aimless wandering.
Walking around is done at a glacial pace that can’t ever be sped up, no matter how irritating it becomes. At least the surroundings are nice to look at. Beaches, caves, and the entire island itself are rendered beautifully. Dear Esther might be the best-looking game to ever be powered by the Source engine. But with that comes the crushing realization that exploration isn’t possible given the invisible barriers that constantly show up whenever the player veers off the linear pathway.
Stirring orchestral music occasionally breaks up the dullness, but it quickly fades leaving silence and an overall feeling of emptiness to proceedings. Our humble narrator chimes in with infrequent observations. Some are very well-written, others sound off-key, but overall they come across as little snippets by someone who had a few pages worth of material and couldn’t connect them in any meaningful way.
What profundities can be reached after one experiences/plays Dear Esther? After so much walking and personal reflection, what is the point of the entire experience? None, although the developers might beg to differ. Thus it falls to the player to fill in the blanks left by the game with their own conclusions. Kept at arm’s length the whole time, it’s difficult to picture getting attached enough on this metaphorical journey to do so. There is nothing to be gained over playing Dear Esther versus watching a playthrough video of it online.
Why Dear Esther exists is something of a mystery. It’s certainly not a game, nor does it fit snugly into any other descriptor, but a more important question would be whether or not the experience is compelling. With no story or true narrative to latch onto, there’s no reason for players to care about what’s going on. And there’s only one thing ever going on in Dear Esther: nothing. Broken up into individual pieces—the graphics, writing, and music clearly show talent and might have led to interesting stories or games—but together they form a dull, lifeless experience that’s quickly forgotten.
Three out of ten