Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, PC/Mac/Linux: $10, Rated: NR) is a game without gameplay. It’s essentially a short story that unfolds though first person navigation of a 3D environment. (It started life as a Half-Life mod.) The superb score and atmospheric visuals provide an emotional canvas which is filled gradually with disconnected slices of narrative as you roam a mysterious island. There is no interaction whatsoever: merely triggers.
The narrative is a disjointed jumble of letters to a woman named Esther. They are narrated by man’s voice, but we never learn precisely who he is. He is, most likely, the husband of Esther, though based on which parts of the narrative you hear he may appear to be her father. In any case, Esther is certainly dead, probably in a car accident.
Other characters are mentioned in the course of the monolog. There’s Donnelly, who explored the island, and may be a reference to pseudo-historian Ignatius Donnelly, famous for his theories about Atlantis. There’s Paul, who may have killed Esther in the car accident, or may just be St. Paul. (!) And there’s Jakobson, a shepherd who lived on the island.
Religious elements weave through the text, but it’s hard to tell what the writer is trying to say about them. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus forms a kind of leitmotif, retold in modern terms as a car accident. There’s nothing particularly Pauline about these elements, and I was never able to determine how St. Paul related to the story. The image of Lot’s wife also makes a few appearances as a metaphor. Jakobson the shepherd clearly is meant to have some religious significance, but once again, it’s obscure. It feels as though the writer is trying to tap the power of Judea-Christian imagery without fully understanding it.
What all these people have to do with anything is deliberately cryptic, and probably best left to the gamer to discover. This discovery is, in fact, the whole point of Dear Esther. The game is hard to categorize because although it uses the technology and trappings of a first-person shooter, it has none of the other design elements that would define it as a true game. The only real element of play is the element of exploration. You stroll across an entire island in real time, choosing which paths to take and where to go. Those choices are the game.
The island itself is a remarkable achievement: both beautiful and creepy. Beneath the desolation you sense that something of great significance happened here once, but you never really learn what. Simply exploring it is one of the pleasures of the game, but you can’t help wishing there was something more to do here. There are moments where interactivity would have been appropriate and would have served the narrative, but those just don’t happen.
The entire script—which is really just a short story broken into bite-sized pieces–can be found online, and being able to read the whole thing from start to finish clears up some of the fog, a little bit. In the course of navigating the game, it’s possible to miss entire segments of the story based on which locations you visit, which simply adds to the mystery. These narrative slices, combined with an effective creation of place and tone, work together to create a suitably eerie sense of location and despair.
Is it any good?
Not wholly, no: the writing is strong in some places, but too often it’s awkward and pointlessly obscure. A piece of work like this stands or falls on the quality of its text, and the text reads like a writer trying too hard for a profound effect, and achieving mostly purple prose. He clearly has something to say, but rather than say it or develop it, he obscures it. I admit this is a personal bias, and your mileage may vary, but when you write a piece of fiction theme-first (rather than story or character first) the result is a narrative with a leaden quality to it. That’s not always the case in Dear Esther, but it’s the case often enough that I wanted the grab the author by the shoulders and say, “Good Lord, man: get to the point!” For example:
I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat without a bottom; I will fly to the moon in it. I have been folded along a crease in time, a weakness in the sheet of life. Now, you’ve settled on the opposite side of the paper to me; I can see your traces in the ink that soaks through the fibre, the pulped vegetation. When we become waterlogged, and the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle. When this paper aeroplane leaves the cliff edge, and carves parallel vapour trails in the dark, we will come together.
This hermit, this seer, this distant historian of bones and old bread, where did he vanish to? Why, asked the farmers, why asked Jakobson, why bother with your visions at all, if you are just to throw your arms up at the cliff and let it close in behind you, seal you into the belly of the island, a museum shut to all but the most devoted.
The other issue is the integration of the environment with the narrative elements. It doesn’t seem to have any real purpose other than to provide atmosphere, which it does in spades. I understand the desire to begin with a design challenge—no interactions, just triggers!—but there needs to be a tighter relationship between location and narrative. As it stands, the island (a wonderful location) becomes little more than a place to wander around, searching for the next block of prose.
Dear Esther is something more important than “good”: it’s interesting, and that’s rare these days. Even as the narrative and prose elements falter, it maintains a strong atmosphere, offering a kind of semi-interactive multimedia mood piece. It points to the potential of exploratory narratives that use conventional game elements in new ways.
Note: This review was a response to a query by reader Ben Milton, who likes the game. I’m hoping he posts some of his thoughts, since this is a game that can generate sharply different opinions. That’s a good thing.