Ever wanted to take a stroll around a random island? A barren plot of land in the middle of the ocean with its own set of landmarks and history? In Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, which makes its way onto consoles, this daydream becomes a reality in what is now known as a walking simulator.
Walking simulator, whilst not a proper genre, is a perfect name for the kind of game that Dear Esther is. There are no paths to take or puzzles to solve. There are no collectables or missions to undertake. Dear Esther is mechanically barebones when it comes to its gameplay, instead relying on storytelling, narrative, and atmosphere. It excels in each of these departments without a doubt.
You begin your journey on a beach adjacent to a cliff side. As you make your way around the island, audio snippets are triggered from, presumably, yourself which are monologues addressed to your partner, Esther. These gritty and very well read letter excerpts speak of a car accident that clearly refuses to leave the protagonist’s mind as he navigates the landscape. This haunting tone of the story, the eerie wind, and the inescapable sense of isolation make Dear Esther an unnerving journey. The protagonist also delves into a little of the island’s history like how white marks were carved into the clifftop; it’s the kind of thing that sends chills down your spine, especially since it’s all being read to you with a creepy musical score overlaying every word. I can’t mock the atmosphere.
In the distance, you can see the only true landmark on the island: a radio tower identifiable by its blinking red light. It’s the only thing to aim to get to, the only destination. What will happen when you reach it? Will your love, Esther, be there waiting with open arms? Or something more sinister? Questions like these kept me playing on, and I’m kinda glad I did. On my journey, I encountered a cargo ship, wrecked with its cargo spread all over a beach head. I encountered an eerie looking circle of rocks which looked like a miniature Stonehenge, but what really took me by surprise was when I wandered deep inside a cave that took me on a colourful path through the island; a kaleidoscope of coloured stalactites and stalagmites and formations that gave each cave I stepped into an enchanting personality. It decorated the screen. It is beautiful, and I couldn’t help but wonder if Dear Esther should have been a hardware demo for some graphics card.
Dear Esther is filled with beautiful views and great attention to detail. The graphics are fantastic, but this is where the good parts end, unfortunately. Apart from walking you literally do nothing throughout the entire game. All the buttons on the controller are used to zoom in, and whilst there is lots to look at, there is literally nothing to do. Illuminous painted symbols are scattered all over the island which gave me hope of an objective, but I never found out their meaning, and my walking speed didnt help as it is frustratingly slow. Although this did help me look around and soak in the views, walking across larger areas was a pain. Developers The Chinese Room have created a spooky setting and a gritty overture, but they haven’t put anything substantial in it to make the player feel any sense of progression or accomplishment. There are no set pieces or cutscenes. No hair-raising moments or jump scares, although I was waiting for it all the way through. Reaching the end left me dry mouthed and trying to make sense of what I’d spent an hour and a half walking around this island for. I wanted to see Esther. The woman I apparently so dearly loved and missed. All I got was a brief flashback of the car crash that I can only assume took Esther’s life and left me walking this seemingly barren island.
I wanted more from Dear Esther. The addition of the Landmark Edition label is only because of the inclusion of director commentary. Although this was a 2012 release initially, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition holds its own in the graphics department. I was impressed, although I wanted to do more, find more. I suppose you can’t argue with its low price tag considering the lack of substance here. It fills in a good hour and a half of your time.
There is literally nothing more I can say about Dear Esther. It’s a barebones journey into the unnamed male protagonist’s tragic past who has written letters to his love in the hopes of seeing her again. This mature tone mixed with the eerie island are the only reasons to pick up this game, but avoid it if you want an in-depth adventure with loads to do.
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Curve Digital
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 20th September 2016