Game Review: Dear Esther

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.

Or

 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.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Trudy W Schuett

    I’ve been hoping for a game like this, so THX very much for the heads-up!

  • Harry

    I played this when it was a mod rather than a game, and I was blown away by it. I think the atmoshphere, soundtrack and narration all come together to provide a powerful emotional experiance. My interpretation of the difficult narration is that it reflects the degenrating mind of the protaganist- the script and the environment become much more bizarre after you fall into the caves, breaking your leg in the process.
    Though others say they just found it completely opaque, and when I stand back and look at the script I find it hard to disagree. Fair enough.
    Still though, it’s a remarkable achievement and one I feel we can point to whenever someone asks whether the gaming industry is capable of making interesting stuff.
    The Chinese Room is a team to watch. Apparently their next project is “The Rapture”, and is based around the end of the world. Could be cool.

  • Bob Miller

    I think my wife would love this, she loves the journey. I just want to get there….God pairs couples perfectly! We will be married for 33 years this month!

  • Ben Milton

    Oops. I must have misspelled my own name the first time; it’s Milton, not Miltom. Oh well.

    I did find the game very moving. I have heard from a number of people that they found the prose a bit overwrought. I found it fascinating for the most part, however, and frankly the voice acting work is some of the best I’ve ever seen in a game. One of the most interesting things I find about the game is that it changes slightly with each play through, and it never really ends. At the end of the game, the screen fades to black, but you can still hear the sound of the ocean, forever. Some have suggested that the protagonist, whoever he is, is a ghost, and I think this may be right, but the game works especially well as a representation of the way that we return to and mull over the same events in out lives again and again. This ghost (you) can come to this island multiple times, visiting the same places, retracing the same steps, and struggling closer to an epiphany that is just out of reach, a chain of events that cannot be coincidence, but which remain inexplicable. It’s possible that the island is a metaphor, in which case the game is an exploration of grief and bereavement from the inside.

    I suspect that the game is really a meditation on suffering in general, and the possibility of drawing meaning and purpose from that. Note that you fall three times while in the caves, which is reminiscent of the Via Dolorosa, as is the painful ascent of the mountain at the end. Christ’s suffering and death leads him out of the tomb, Paul’s fall on the road to Damascus leads to his salvation. The protagonist is seizing these stories as a way to reach for meaning in a meaningless mechanistic world (note the constant themes of science vs. religion in the game), and we get to participate in that struggle from within. The game is less of a story and more of a visual, participatory poem, and is best experienced as such.

  • http://www.chesterton.org Sean P. Dailey

    What’s a “trigger” in gamespeak?

  • victor

    I think I remember playing this on my Mac’s CD-ROM, back in 1993. Only that version featured some cool music by Robyn Miller.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    In navigating a game world, a user will enter a portion of the environment that “triggers” and event or action: in this, a monologue.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    An excellent interpretation, and I can see that. It’s a sign of a good work that it can spark that kind of completely different reaction and response.


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