The Lonely Island
HIGH Exploring gorgeous phosphorescent caves.
LOW Abrupt loading screens break the immersion.
WTF Could they have made the protagonist walk just a little faster?
Despite the fact that the term “walking simulator” causes some people to cringe, it seems the most pertinent description for games that heavily emphasize atmosphere and storytelling while downplaying interaction, and the name stuck. Whether for good or ill, the game industry owes this nickname to Dear Esther, because it’s pretty much the O.G. walking sim.
Although it’s hard to determine if Dear Esther was the very first of its kind (I’m sure someone will correct me in the comments section below) it certainly came before Firewatch, Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, just to name a few. If nothing else, it helped pave the way for walking simulators in contemporary gaming.
After initially releasing on PC and Mac in 2012, Dear Esther is now on consoles for the first time. The Landmark Edition features sharper visuals, updated audio and an option to play with developer commentary tracks. Although I finished Dear Esther twice on PC prior to this reissue, I was elated to trudge through its dreary oceanside landscapes once again. I say “trudge” because this work from The Chinese Room isn’t necessarily a pleasant affair — the story and setting hang and weigh me down in a near-tangible way. That said, despite the merits (depressing or not) that Dear Esther’s story holds, it’s also the most obtuse piece of the puzzle.
On the surface, Dear Esther is about an older gentleman wandering an island’s waterside cliffs while recounting letters he’s written to his late wife. However, as players dive deeper, the plot opens up to interpretation. This is partially achieved in concrete ways — physical details and certain voiceovers are actually randomized. Each person who plays will, literally, take different meaning and emotion from it.
For me, Dear Esther feels like a heartbreaking poem. Instead of reading black and white words on a page, I’m thrust into visible waves of the author’s emotion. I see the sights, I climb and descend alongside the protagonist’s highs and lows. Music swells as the gentleman poignantly reads his heartfelt letters aloud, and the island comes alive as gusts of wind buffet against me on a peak’s narrow path. Dear Esther always resonates, and even on my third time through I felt tears forming as I trekked to its ardent monologues.
Only one minor setback mars this otherwise-excellent package. Dear Esther is comprised of four chapters that lead directly into each other, but immersion-breaking loading screens pop up between them. It’s a shame the developers couldn’t figure out a way to load the whole game at once or slowly buffer the next chapter as players walk. A five or ten second pause might seem short on paper, but after exploring a glorious cave system and listening to somber monologues, being hit with a black loading screen kills some of the mood.
It’s also worth noting that this game is short. For first-time players, it’ll probably take two or three hours at most, and no matter how clever I think its design is, Dear Esther is quite linear. Some exploration is available, but one path must be followed to the end. It’s clearly narrative-driven, and this will inevitably appeal to some while pushing others away. Me? I’m enamored with short, to-the-point experiences — especially those that pack a visual or narrative punch. I’ve also got a weak spot for ambiguous stories, so Dear Esther directly caters to some of my personal tastes.
It would be easy for me to qualify Dear Esther by saying “it’s not for everyone” but that would be meaningless since that qualifier could be applied to any form of media. Instead, I’ll say that for those looking to spend a few melancholic hours drinking in the sights and sounds of a desolate island while churning over an old man’s heartbreak, this version of Dear Esther is as good as it gets.
Disclosures: This game is developed by The Chinese Room and published by Curve Digital. It is currently available on Playstation 4 and Xbox One. This copy of the game was obtained via Paid Download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 3 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Teen and contains drug references and language. Although this title probably wouldn’t appeal to pre-teens, I don’t find any of the subject matter offensive enough to limit this game to teens and up. However, the emotional depths it explores will best be understood by mature audiences who have some life experience under their belts.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Dear Esther features full subtitles (in two size options, no less!) for all of its dialogue. This game is perfectly playable for hearing impaired gamers, but the absence of its beautiful musical score might cause it to lose impact if inaudible.
Remappable Controls: This game’s controls are not remappable The Y-axis can be set to standard or inverted and the field of view can be adjusted on a scale. Given that this is a “walking simulator” any player familiar with maneuvering in a first-person game will have no problems playing through this.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.