In my years of reviewing games for FEARnet, I've experienced a pretty broad spectrum of emotions. Dead Space gave me gut-churning terror, Splatterhouse evoked psychotic smiles through its unabashed repulsiveness, and Corpse Party put me in a mood of severe discomfort. Dear Esther gave me a feeling that I've never felt before: sorrow.
I initially passed over Dear Esther as a peculiar novelty, a non-game that promised a thin veneer of interactivity over a florid narrative. However, after the reveal that Esther developer The Chinese Room, including writer Dan Pinchbeck, would be lending a hand in the upcoming Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, I decided to give it a proper look. What I found was unique, beautiful, and deeply emotional.
From a gameplay standpoint, Dear Esther is a peculiar title. There are no puzzles, monsters, or weapons. The game itself features no on-screen HUD showing health or ammo. Hell, there isn't even a jump or a use button mapped to the keyboard. Players are tasked with simply guiding their nameless protagonist around a deserted isle, where he explores the uncannily beautiful environments and dictates a series of letters that he wrote to his lost wife, the eponymous Esther.
Given that the gameplay is little more than the wispy skeleton on which the story is hung, it goes without saying that the story has to be fantastic in order for Dear Esther to work. I'm pleased to say that it works perfectly. To reveal the story in a game whose entire experience relies upon it would be criminal, but I will reveal the key points that the narrator is in a self-imposed exile on a Scottish isle, where he reveals—in incredibly subtle fashion—that Esther was taken from him in a car accident. Since then, he has been haunted by memories of both Esther and the accident.
However, the island on which he has found himself may also be haunted in a more literal sense. There are never outright conflicts with the supernatural, but there are subtle, creepy cues that imply that the narrator may not be alone. The light of a flickering candle seen in the distance is snuffed when the player approaches its source, and there are instances of inexplicable graffiti on the island's craggy rocks that mesh eerily with the protagonist's musings. There is a sense of someone, just out of sight—perhaps even intangible—manipulating things around the island as the character wanders its path. At times, I even thought I saw a figure standing on a cliff, but there was never a face-to-face encounter. It does a wonderful job of creeping you out without being outright grotesque or confrontational.
The fact that the game is so subtle in its sense of horror makes it all the easier to find yourself feeling the sadness that I mentioned in the opening of this review. Your character, as he waxes nostalgic about the history of the island or his beloved Esther, paints himself as a truly lost soul. His love for Esther resonates in his letters to her. It takes on a wholly different vibe from anything I've ever played before, and feels almost Poe-like in its themes of lost love. Esther is the narrator's Annabel Lee, and Pinchbeck's beautifully written prose has all the weight and beauty of an old English ghost story.
At its core, Dear Esther is just that: an old English ghost story translated to a modern medium. It doesn't have the gameplay chops of a true "game," and its slender two-hour play time will make some gamers balk, but the undeniable beauty of its writing as well as its visual presentation that falls into photorealism at times make it a fascinating, deeply emotional experience for those that can appreciate what it achieves.
Dear Esther is available through Steam for $9.99.