GAME REVIEW: Dear Esther

DearEstherLogoDear Easter is a game that sets you on a bleak island full of ramshackle buildings, harsh blustery weather and strange luminescent rock drawings scrawled onto cliffs, standing stones and lining narrow tunnels.

It also wants you to walk around it all very slowly while it talks at you every now and then. Strangely, it works very well.

A large sink hole yawns in the ground before me, the bottom dark and swirling with murky water. Haunting voices blend with the orchestral score and after a few moments, I throw myself over the edge. The sides of the shaft whizzing past induce a real feeling of vertigo as my character’s heartbeat ratchets up, along with mine. What am I doing? Can my character die? I have no idea and the uncertainty causes a tingle of anxiety in my stomach. The screen darkens to total blackness as I hit the slurping water and a voice whispers “Come back…” I do. I am standing on the edge of the precipice once more, a strangely glowing stone hut beckoning to me from further up the hill.

No, this is not some strange kind of suicide simulator, but the world of Dear Esther. A game that sets you on a bleak island full of ramshackle buildings, harsh blustery weather and strange luminescent rock drawings scrawled onto cliffs, standing stones and lining narrow tunnels. Oh, and the game also wants you to walk around it all very slowly while it talks at you every now and then. It is a little like taking an audio sightseeing tour but instead of your trusty mp3 player pointing out the sights, you have someone you don’t know telling you things in a muddled, cryptic way.

And it works rather well. While walking around, the game tells you snippets of the events that occurred to various unknown people; each tidbit merging with others to slowly flesh out the details of where you are and what is happening. I did form my own opinion of what seemed to be going on and appreciated the dark and ambiguous tone of the narrating character. On completion, some light internet searching undermined the surety of my conclusions, but I still feel quite satisfied with “my” story.

The game gives you little free choice. You can decide to go into a cave or not, but largely the paths are environmentally contained; they are usually edged with sheer drops or wire fences. The slow walking pace does lend the world a feeling of size that at normal pace would feel quite restrictive, but it only became a chore on the couple of occasions I did manage to get lost, by adding time to getting back on track once more. Some of the environment looks very similar and it is easy to lose your bearings and find yourself backtracking unintentionally.

The graphics do set the scene very well; grass sways in the wind, sunlight illuminates things then vanishes amongst the heavy clouds and the sea looks suitably cold and foreboding. The sound scheme enriches the feeling of the environment further, with whistling wind and melancholy seagulls, laced together with haunting music that usually appears when something is being imparted by the narrator, or on approaching something of interest.

Now we get onto value. On Steam, the normal RRP is £6.99. The game takes about an hour to play through, and that’s even taking the time to stand and stare at the world every now and then. I was lucky enough to pick the game up for just under £2 in the recent Steam sale and with that price point, it feels a much better proposition. I also had previous knowledge of the type of game so I did go into it with my eyes open to the fact that it had stirred up some controversy about whether it was even a game at all. In my opinion it is. It is a lovingly created environment that you stroll around to experience the story and soak up the atmosphere, free to look at what you like and move on when you like. Whether it will be your cup of tea however, only you can decide.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Casey Douglass

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