I feel like at this stage, over four years after its launch, I’m one of the few people who hasn’t come into contact with Dear Esther. I knew of it, but had never played it. Despite this I still played a number of key games which I believed were influenced by it. ‘Walking Simulators’, if you must. The likes of Firewatch, Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (also from The Chinese Room, the Dear Esther devs), and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. But to my mind Dear Esther was always understood to be the progenitor. Ahead of the field in this respect.
So it was with some glee I saw a review key for Dear Esther: Landmark Edition plop into my inbox. It was time to see where it all began.
My first impression was that it looked old. The original game was a Half-Life 2 mod almost a decade ago, while the standalone re-release is already more than four years old. Four years is quite a long time in the world of technology, and up against its successors, Dear Esther’s pixel pushing looks a little lacklustre. There’s a lot of sharp edges, obviously polygonal terrain and repeated models. But this is soon brushed aside by the stark beauty of the art design and the desolate island on which you inhabit. It’s deliberately minimal and deliberately sparse. It nails the feeling of heading out to the middle of nowhere for a walk on a Sunday afternoon, going wherever the path takes and not seeing another soul.
It’s paired with a haunting, minimal soundtrack and ambient noises. The wind rustles the grass. Waves lap against the shore. A few notes kick in as you crest a hill. It’s beautiful, it really is, but it hinges on the player being fully immersed. I plugged my headphones in and I was off on a dizzying spiral for a couple of hours. Nothing of much consequence happened and the voiceover guiding me was deliberately abstruse, but I had a rough idea of what was going on.
It turns out after a little research that the narrated is actually randomly chosen based a series of different fragments of a letter. You may pick up on things you’d missed entirely on one playthrough in another. That’s not to say there’s some grand mystery overseeing the island, because there isn’t. That would be overselling it. But there is an engaging tale to wrap your head around around via the various, procedural narrative strands.
While I enjoyed Dear Esther for what it is, it never really felt like it had its hooks in me at any point. In Rapture I was desperate to find out what had happened to everyone in the town. In Ethan Carter I wanted to know what had become of the little boy. In Gone Home I was always waiting for something horrific to happen. Dear Esther is even more hands off than your typical ‘walking sim’ in this respect. I’m not a huge fan of that term but like it or not, that’s the most applicable way to describe the game. Despite this it grew on me over its admittedly short length, and I believe in terms of atmosphere and weaving level design it certainly bests many of its successors.
For those who already own the PC version of the original, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition will be available free. I haven’t played the original but this version has been moved over from the Source engine to Unity 5. I’ve gone back and looked at some vids and it looks much the same, so I don’t think it’s worth another playthrough just from a visual standpoint. What I did enjoy though was the addition of a developer commentary over the top. You can toggle this on or off before a playthrough and it features the talents of Jessica Curry, Rob Briscoe and Dan Pinchbeck. I’d avoid it on a first playthrough but for those looking to extract a little more value out of Dear Esther it’s an at-times fascinating extra, playing out like an interactive documentary.
In terms of narrative-driven first person adventure games, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is about as pure as it gets. If any part of you even remotely dislikes the prospect of a game with zero challenge and no fail states then there’s going to be nothing to change your mind here. But for those after a slice of zen-like calm, you’d do well to let a couple of hours drift away in Dear Esther’s dreamlike world on a Hebridean shoreline.