Genre: Interactive Fiction / Horror / Independent Developer
Release Date: Original mod: 2008 (version reviewed); updated 2009; being rebuilt by Robert Briscoe for a late 2010 release.
Platform: PC (reviewed), Mac
Note: This review was originally published September 27, 2010
The game starts with you standing on the dock of a mysterious island. The buildings up on shore tell you that man has been here, but there is no sign of anyone at the moment. A seagull appears out of the mist and just as quickly vanishes again. A deep, cultured voice begins to speak, “Dear Esther...”
No, this is not Myst. This is the research project of Dan Pinchbeck at the University of Portsmouth, UK. “The aim was to use Source to create something radically different from normal: an interactive story that dispensed with traditional gameplay and focused instead on an open-ended, semi-random narrative.”
What Dan ended up with was possibly the first successful attempt to tell a story via the medium of Gaming. (Portal attempted this years ago, but the “game” was just an excuse to get the text up on the screen. The story was later published in book form and it lost nothing.)
The game consists of using the Half Life 2 3D engine to explore the island. You can walk anywhere, hop a few inches to get over small steps and even swim around the rocks to get to that beach down the shore. If you stray too far from the path, a hollow voice disparately urges you to “Come back!” There are no puzzles to solve other than find the path to an unexplored area, which is not always easy. And there are the universal questions from every adventure game which need to be answered - “Who am I?” “What am I doing here?” “Where did this Chinese take-out come from?”
The island is a grey, moody place. The background music, while not depressing, sets a maudlin tone. There are old buildings and a modern transmitting tower still in operation, but no people. The place feels timeless. You can walk just about anywhere, but you cannot run. Why would you need to?
There is graffiti all over the island. Someone has painted prophecies, electrical symbols and... things on the cliffs and cave walls. They have left a pile of empty paint cans in testimony to their efforts. What they didn't leave was an explanation.
As you enter an area for the first time, the British gentleman will read one of his letters to Esther. Each one tells a small story. They name names, describe places and hint at relationships. They evoke images and touch emotions. They could almost be considered free verse. But they do not give definitive answers.
One of the letters tells of a fatal car crash. Is this a ghost story? If so, who is the ghost? The disembodied voice reading the letters? The shade which might be occasionally seen in the distance? Or you?
The island and the letters are one. Without the letters, the island would be empty. Without the island, the letters would have no soul. They feed each other and in the end you will find yourself moved. But you must decide for yourself just what is is that you have experienced.
I would dare call this Art.
Is it worth the expense? Dear Esther can be played in about an hour, but you will be thinking about it for much longer than that. You will also want to play it twice. Each area chooses its letter at random from a list appropriate to that point in the story. Not all the letters will be used in one game. So the second time through will likely yield more material as well as offer the opportunity to check out new directions you may have missed the first time around. After that, you will likely be satiated.
Is it that good? The voice acting is brilliant. The concept is novel. The execution, almost flawless. And it was done by a single independent developer.
Final Grade: A
Editor's Note: The new version, released in late 2010, has vastly improved graphics.
If you liked this game, then
Play: Amber: Journeys Beyond
Watch: The Haunting (original)
Read: The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe
1.2 GHz processor
256 MB RAM
DirectX 7 level graphics card