Forward, backward, strafe left, strafe right – the WASD code gamers and developers live by. Combine them with a mouse and anything is possible, any universe is traversable, and all ambitions can be met. In the case of Dear Esther, it wants these keys – or whatever left handers settle for on a keyboard – to help overcome the isolation of an island. The steadfast compass will guide you along the lost enclave, through its sights, sounds, and story of its narrator, in hopes you will solve its contradictions.
Or at least, find meaning from them. Without intending to sound malicious, that’s all you really do in Dear Esther. The game is very much a museum room (no touching!) where you’re meant to ponder over relics from another person’s life, headset in tow. The voice in your ear is a man writing to his wife, an automobile accident that changed their lives seeming to be the forefront of his thoughts. No, it’s not a happy tale being told here, nor is it really a tale at all.
The wonderful news is that it’s very British. The country’s renowned intellectual flow of writing is apparent as the accent goes through some very dramatic, yet flowery syntax. The WASD keys make their move here, activating the orator when stepping along certain areas of the island. Walk to a cliff side to hear the ruined man muse on the mocking bounce of a distant buoy, or reminisce with literary imagery which then takes its cue in the game’s own visuals. Bold as it sounds, the game design here is quite fundamental. Move, and trigger.
By now you could guess the island probably isn’t real. Much likelier it serves as a metaphor, a manifestation of a dying man’s delirium, perhaps some of kind of purgatory or fever dream. Dear Esther knows this; it makes its symbolism so elementary that it could not be an accident for players to assume otherwise. The mast of a shipwreck stands on a beach in the shape of a cross, 2 fish and 6 slices of bread are set cleanly aside in a cave, references to Paul and the road to Damascus are in fact etched everywhere – the religious allusions, at least, certainly aren’t a mystery.
But in a way, Dear Esther becomes blatantly mysterious. It’s rife with nonsense and vague clues that seem to be present for the sake of being ambiguous. Scribbling on walls depict molecular diagrams, globular clusters of circles, plant life, bible phrases – all written in an awful penmanship that’s meant to confuse. There’s a bird’s nest with cracked eggshells underground. Why? Who wrecked their ships here? Who are these other characters in the narrator’s letters? Apparently one of them is said to have kidney stones.
It’s very much an invasion of privacy of another man’s life, and so there’s no hope anyone but him could understand it. Perhaps the developer knows, but the game does not convey anything beyond basic emotions, ones that don’t puncture very deeply. Staring at the night sky – or Dear Esther’s professional grade visuals — would make anyone feel poetic, though spending all your time trying to connect the stars would add little else to the experience. And yet, that’s all Dear Esther seems to be concerned with.
That’s not to doubt the talent behind the project, but within a medium that has made such great strides in expression in such a short history, the game feels awfully naïve. It’s designed along points, following pathways until you hit a dead end, only to double back in hopes you can find the narrator again. For an island so imaginary and jaggedly beautiful, traversing it feels resoundingly ordinary, archaic even. But when a dramatic piano decides to accompany your ascent of a hill, it’s as if the game assumes it already has you captured.
And if you are, probably in the sense that there’s a whole lot of thinking to be done about nothing at all. The ending confirms that any suspicions over the island’s meaning were indeed, undeserved. Anytime spent to stop and wonder, to look at the sea, to question the car parts, photographs, candles, and other museum stations that lay strewn about; any attempt to give the game a chance is met with an open ended conclusion left to player interpretation.
Yet personal theories – and many can be drawn about island’s circumstances – go unrewarded. Even if the ending actually sheds light on most of game’s aspects, their impact is minimal. They aren’t powerfully wrapped up; the finale is just as solemn as the journey began. Nowhere is the game concerned with those who decide to step through its world or what they think about it, it’s merely a tale about a man and the disaster that is his mind. His own, not yours, a concept WASD can’t quite maneuver around.
Although, to be fair, the four directional movements aren’t the only tools at the player’s disposal in Dear Esther. Additionally, the left mouse button can be held to zoom your view a bit more forward. It’s just that upon closer inspection, nothing on the island ever comes into view that couldn’t already be seen at first glance.
Love it or Hate it: Warning