Dear Esther Review

Dear Esther spins an intriguing narrative, leaving you to decipher not only the outcome, but if this is even a game.

by

Dear Esther is not a video game; at least, not in the traditional sense. In 2008, it was released for the PC as a Half-Life 2 mod. Now, it has been rereleased as a stand-alone product with updated visuals and remastered audio. It casts you as a person stranded on a lonely island. At first, it seems you are the narrator, whose voice chimes in as you explore. However, even this easy assumption is called into question as the pieces of the narrator's story come together. If met with an open mind, Dear Esther can intrigue you with its haunting tale.

You're more of an observer than a participant in Dear Esther, walking and listening and doing little else. It's devoid of enemies to test your reflexes, and the only puzzles are those built into the story. The singular goal is exploration, albeit along a linear path. Your journey begins on a shoreline, staring out into the endless sea. Then, the narrator interjects. His voice--that of a seemingly middle-aged, well-spoken Englishman--is your only companion. He recounts events from his life, both past and present, that lead up to his incarceration on the island.

These snippets are automatically triggered as you progress, and their delivery is excellent. The lyrical prose blends exposition with poetry, and the articulate delivery injects hints of frustration and melancholy. Together, they form a consistent tone as somber and beautiful as the island itself. Dear Esther's visual update renders it almost unrecognizable from what it was four years ago. While the setting is realistic, Dear Esther plays with light and color in a way that makes each section feel distinct and, at times, otherworldly.

Eventually, you learn of the island's previous inhabitants and their toils. That, in turn, informs your own situation. As you start constructing what's really going on, more questions are raised than can be answered. Am I dreaming? Why am I here? Am I the narrator? One of the tale's few certainties is the significance of the distant, blinking radio tower, which is rarely out of view.

Revisiting areas can yield new narration dialog.

Dear Esther is more of an experience than a game. You are intended to experience and internalize everything around you and form your own conclusions about what's happening. The story in Dear Esther works well in video game form--possibly more than as a book or movie. Obviously, the narration and images could be conveyed in either medium, but video games allow for pacing and discovery that would be impossible to reproduce elsewhere.

The narrative is intentionally ambiguous, and it is flexible enough to accommodate what you see or don't see. An old photo coupled with a simple candle could go completely unnoticed by some, along with the insight that could be drawn. Split paths and side routes are common. And while most lead to dead ends, the additional narration or imagery gained could help shape Dear Esther's outcome. Revisiting previously completed areas will sometimes produce new lines of dialogue as well. Depending on how much time you invest, you can flesh out the world in impressive and intriguing ways that could be ignored by someone who rushes through.

For the most part, the story is expertly told, but there is one stumbling block along the way. At one key juncture, control is wrestled away from you, and the transition is immensely unwelcome. After spending hours unraveling the tale at your own pace, this is a jarring intrusion that hurts the suspension of disbelief. It's a shame a more creative solution couldn't have been implemented since this one scene ultimately couldn't end any other way.

Dear Esther's realistic environments are given otherworldly touches.

Dear Esther's somber tale is a fine companion to a stormy evening and a hot beverage. In the right setting, with the right mindset, it can be engrossing in a way that few games can. Going in, you may question if Dear Esther should even be classified as a game. But that question slowly fades the more hours you sink into this adventure. Instead, you question the existence of your character and the fate of the island, showing that semantic inquiries aren't nearly as interesting as a well-told tale.

The Good
Great writing weaves a complex story
Narration is excellent
Somber, beautiful setting.
The Bad
N/A
8
Great
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

Discussion

128 comments
widdowson91
widdowson91

It's not really a game, but I enjoyed the experience.

travisstaggs
travisstaggs

I loved the caves, narrative (though somewhat pretentious), and some of the small things like the ghostly figures you can see standing at candles sometimes. My only main complaint is how slow you walk, though I understand why. I doubt I ever replay this game again, but it's definitely not bad if you can find it cheap.

monowasp
monowasp

I liked it, the cave-scenarios where really great.

naryanrobinson
naryanrobinson

Yeah it was really good.I loved the narration and the setting.

At the beginning I just wished the guy would walk a little faster, but by about 30% of the way through I was convinced it was better that way.

Some people will feel nothing because they've been desensitised to this sort of game, and literally can't enjoy anything where they aren't blowing someone's head off every few seconds, but if you play the game for the experience, for what you get from it after you've finished, I really think this is worth taking a look into.

UpInFlames
UpInFlames

It is beautiful and the music is wonderful, but the story is lackluster. It's ambiguous to the point that it is self-indulgent and boring. It does not showcase the strength of video game narrative, there is absolutely no interactivity here. I'm all for some originality and trying something new, but this is simply a weak attempt at video game storytelling.

skidmoore
skidmoore

Extremely boring, I would have rather taken an actual hour long walk than walk around in this snooze fest.

EliOli
EliOli

I just played through it now.  I have to say, I enjoyed it very much.  It was more of an experience than a game, as Maxwell described.  It was sort of like interactive prose.  I got it on sale on Steam.  Glad I did. 

Warmuro
Warmuro

Just Press "W" key and look around with mouse. Nothing do to here, i prefer watchin a movie.

Breyant
Breyant

Picked this up from steam sale for a few bucks. At first I was like... what the hell am I supposed to do... and almost turned it off. Then I just started walking around and became completely engrossed by this mysterious island. Can't wait to walk through it again in a few days after I've had some time to think about what I've just experienced.

nkaiton
nkaiton

Got this during the Steam summer sale. Not a game, but well worth a few bucks to experience it. Look forward to going through it again in a few months. Great cave sequence.

DamageIncM
DamageIncM

I just noticed this game on sale on Steam, and while I like unusual games and artistry, I'm a little disappointed to read that it's barely a game and you don't even have to do puzzles or anything like that.

The description really reminds me of those older point-and-click-games that were more about imagery, story and some light puzzles, or at least some interaction.

Nonetheless, reading about how great the graphics are and how intriguing the story would be and that there's a beautiful soundtrack, I have no problem "blind buying" it on sale.

The game seems rather ominous or at least eerie, if not only beautiful. So I'm very curious about it.

And 3 Euros for the game plus the soundtrack (although it might be in MP3) I'm going to get it now.

Powerwalk
Powerwalk

Awesome game the caves tripped me out looked so real

Sam3231
Sam3231

Hours? What game did he review I finished in 40 minutes.

monowasp
monowasp

Great price on STEAM today.

Renoo27
Renoo27

Just finished the game. Absolutely amazing. Loved every moment. Definately going to require a second playthrough some time in the future to better understand what the guy is on about.

Lithos_
Lithos_

"More beautiful caves than Skyrim"... Wow, this is really relevant... :roll:

Lithos_
Lithos_

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

Nomassangre
Nomassangre

This game has much more beautiful caves then Skyrim. That's right! I said it out loud!

melante
melante

This is not a game, just a long cut-scene/technical demo with beautiful graphics and sound. A well deserved Visual Arts IGF winner but a ridiculous nomination for the IGF Grand Prize. What were the judges thinking? Are indie "games" losing touch with reality and turning into a fancy elitist snobbish medium like avant garde music of the 60s (think of Stockhausen, Cage, Berio...) that 99.9% of people found un-listenable but that made you feel "inferior" if you publicly said that was rubbish because it was supposed to be "high art"?

melante
melante

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

jazzbrownie
jazzbrownie

Wait, they're charging for this now? Have they really added anything that expands it beyond the hl2 mod that came out years ago? I did enjoy it when I played it a few years ago, though.

jeppejust
jeppejust

Well-written review. It is nice too see that some people can still appreciate a slow-paced game.

josh7845
josh7845

Good stuff: Good writing. Changed my definition of video games and opened up a whole new genre. Great atmosphere. Good use of music. Good use of sounds. Good voice acting. Beautiful graphics (especially in the caves). Very unique. Bad stuff: A bit overpriced for a 1.5 hour experience. Lacking in gameplay (crouch and flashlight are automatic functions and cannot be controlled by the player). The ending, as good as it was, took away player control which seemed like a silly thing to do considering the player had been discovering the island on his/her ownfor the entirety of the experience.

ABC2K
ABC2K

Sometime people just want a relaxing experience though which is what games like this are good for.

brannons
brannons

Nothing here. Pretty island. and a English man that talks to you on trigger points. No touching, jumping, running..nothing. you just move through at a steady slow pace. Not for me anyway. Heck, adventure games are more cool. Mist is more cool.

LunchSackSal
LunchSackSal

**Warning** This game is Short.. and by short I mean buy a Real game along with this one so you have something to do after the 8 minutes it takes to see this tiny island. Yes, you can replay it OVER and OVER again to get the "FULL EXPERIENCE" .. but that can be said for almost ANY GAME. So instead of buying THIS.. get Skyrim.. the environments are Just as interesting.. if not more.. except you can RUN.. and JUMP.. and... Yknow.. DO stuff! This game would be a GREAT buy for $3 (maybe $4) .. but not for $10.

y3ivan
y3ivan

its a virtual tour on the island, with paragraphs of a story read to you.

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

i've also just finished it... it's more like a short story written like a poem! (or maybe a poem written like a short story)

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

@JC_AEK4ever e, me 10,000,000+ views katalavaineis poso mas ta exoune pri3ei me to: "Arrow in the knee"!!! Skyrim kai 3ero pswmi!!!

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

JC_AEK4ever
JC_AEK4ever

@Disturbed_88 Nice. I had already watched it! @ABC2K It's not interactive at all! You just walk in a path and randomly hear parts of the story.

ABC2K
ABC2K

Gamespot should of announced this game wouldn't be like by spotty sugar infused 12 year old COD scrubs who have never read a fictional book. The game looks quite nice, I like the idea of a interactive fictional book like this. I wish it was available on the PS3 so I could try it.

JC_AEK4ever
JC_AEK4ever

@Disturbed_88 I used to be an adventurer like you. Then i took "Dear Esther" in the knee...

Disturbed_88
Disturbed_88

i'm in the middle of exams, but i'm so intrigued that i'm willing to spend a couple of hours for a weird experience like this... hope it's worth it.

JC_AEK4ever
JC_AEK4ever

This was the worst "game" i have ever played. If you want to lose 1 hour of your life walking in a linear path (just walking) listening to some "story", try it. Thank you gamespot! Now i don't know if Street Cleaning Simulator is as bad as i thought!!!

StimpackF2
StimpackF2

Honestly, the writing was anything but great. It was incredibly dull, and obscure. A man who feels compelled to use the most extravagant words he can find in an attempt to appear intellectual, does not a good writer make.

VilandasUK
VilandasUK

@dono14 It's even better if it's a negative comment :lol:

dono14
dono14

@VilandasUK Mentioning MW3 on a completely unrelated game...? Classic.

dono14
dono14

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

BlackDevil99
BlackDevil99

reminds me of myst, I'll give it go when it hits one of Steam's sales.

outlawst
outlawst

it is a game after all,its genre is first-person walker !

CassadyH
CassadyH

This (game?) looks fantastic. I can't believe the source engine is still showing chops after all these years.

parrot_of_adun
parrot_of_adun

I've heard from just about everywhere else that this is incredibly short (at an hour and a half or so, exploring every nook and cranny), so I'm a bit surprised that isn't touched on here. It may not be a bad value, but it does seem worthy of mention.

kpolicoff
kpolicoff

 @Sam3231 He was stating that you can replay it got additional dialogue. I've played the game through 3 times, and each has given me different bits of the story. It's almost as if each time you play, you're a different visitor hearing a slightly different version of the same story. I've spent well over 40 minutes playing this game.

ufokane
ufokane

 @StimpackF2 

totaly agree.

I've bought the "game" after reading some reviews.. Was expecting something fresh and new, got very disappointed.

Nothing in this "game" is above average, it looks like a "demo" from the old cg days. Story is poor, I am sure most of you will be disappointed.

You finish it in 40 minutes, and its easy to figure out the ending in 10 minutes. It misses dept, to be considered a piece of art. It does in fact opens ground to explore and sell visual compositions that can be made in a couple of months

Dear Esther More Info

  • Released
    • Macintosh
    • PC
    • Unix/Linux
    Dear Esther is a first-person ghost story.
    7.2
    Average User RatingOut of 544 User Ratings
    Please Sign In to rate Dear Esther
    Developed by:
    The Chinese Room
    Published by:
    thechineseroom
    Genres:
    Adventure, First-Person, 3D