“Dear Esther” is not a game so much as it’s an environment. It’s a place: somewhere your character has been, but has only vague memories of. You begin on the beach near the ocean, apparently on an island. You’re given nothing but a flashlight —no gun, no objective, nothing. That’s quite a theme in Dear Esther— nothing. Nothing really happens. It’s all already happened.
The only real content of the game is the littered island itself. At certain points throughout the journey, letters that the unnamed protagonist have written to someone named Esther are read aloud by the narrator. But nothing is happening on the island in real time. It’s got a lot of history, but no present. There’s a feeling that everything you’re seeing is really old— old enough that it is temporally “used up.” The abandoned buildings, rusty old beached ships, broken-down rowboats and ancient cave systems all give a very tangible sense of age to the environment.
The atmosphere, besides bleeding oldness and age like a bad simile, is cold. The sky is gray and bleak, the water is chilling and sharp. Splashes and waves break through the air and muffle your quiet, plodding steps. Your head is filled with the sound of the ocean, eventually lowering to a slow hum, only noticing it in its absence. It’s like bees. Bees that annoy you at a picnic until you don’t even notice they’re around—they eventually leave but then it doesn’t even matter because the picnic is ruined because the bees already touched everything and rubbed themselves on it in a desperate search for pollen and it’s really gross.
The place you are wandering is somber—the mountain that you slowly make your way up stares down at you, glaring through massive white scrawlings on its face. These impossibly large pictures and words leer down at you, daring you to understand them, because that sounds like a cryptic thing for scrawlings to do. But seriously, they get kinda creepy after you start seeing them all over the island. They look down and mock your progress, your slow shamble upwards, clambering up rocks and doing what I can only assume is called bouldering to people who know what bouldering is.
When you eventually do reach the top, the effect that I am pretty sure was desired by the writers and developers is that you can finally figure out what the narrator’s been talking about this whole time. Between a few well-delivered set pieces—one of my favorites being a large number of paper boats in the water close to a beach—there is some sense of communication that is surprisingly subtle, given the medium. Usually more artistically-leaning video games are somewhat ham-fisted about beating the player with “the point,” because they assume that anything less would just be skipped over, and nothing would make any sense. Which, I suppose, is a decently safe assumption to make. I’ve seen a lot of people just skip over cutscenes or story elements in video games just because they really want to get to the part where they shoot the enemy army in the middle of its face.
On a technical level, the visuals have troubles sometimes, but only if you go looking for them. The game runs on a modified version of the somewhat outdated Steam engine of Half-Life 2 infamy.
However, whereas that game had a physics-heavy emphasis, “Dear Esther” is not for the sort of player who likes prodding the barriers, trying to find your limits and the limits of the game. That’s not the audience this mod was made for. It is not to be understood; it is only to be done. And that’s pretty much sweet. It’s to the gamething’s credit that it is an ambiguously told story about something tragic, and that the player must piece together what exactly happened and to whom. It’s not exactly prime literature, but it is presented in an interesting enough fashion that it holds the attention and the curiosity.