Before Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, there was Dear Esther. By means of its very creation, The Chinese Room had created a genre that over the ensuing year’s has continued to grow stature within the industry. Furthermore, the modest British studio paved the way for so many independent developers to follow suit, spawning a rash of iconic and successful narrative tales in its wake with the likes of Camp Santo’s Firewatch, Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable and Fullbright’s Gone Home to name just a few. The walking simulator genre is as much a part of video game culture in today’s market as any first-person action shooter or wide open world role-playing game. The genre has become synonymous with the innovative world of video games and that in itself is a testament to the creative genius of Dan Pinchbeck and The Chinese Room.
Dear Esther originally began life back in 2008 as a Half-Life mod, following a vast number of downloads and positive player feedback, The Brighton-based studio redeveloped the game for commercial release for PC in 2012 to acclaimed success from both critics and gamers alike. The game that pioneered the walking simulator genre, Dear Esther was championed for its intimate storytelling, exploration and emotional pull as players traverse a small Hebridean island off the coast of Scotland while an anonymous man narrates a series of letters written to a woman named Esther.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition: Xbox One [Reviewed], PlayStation 4
Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: Curve Digital
Release Date: 20 September 2016
Price: £7.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Dear Esther will take a little under 2 hours of your life away but in that very short space of time, it will intricately open your eyes to the landscape around you, slowly reeling each player in with its charm. Ultimately, Dear Esther is what you make of it, be it a poetic love letter or tragic ghost story. The game is delicately balanced, open to interpretation for everyone who sets foot on the island. And yet, you don’t have to fully understand or comprehend what the studio is trying to convey throughout Dear Esther to at the very least feel touched by its sadness or in awe of its natural beauty. At its core, Dear Esther is slow paced, expertly written and wonderfully narrated with a score to die for. It’s not hard to see why it captivated so many or why it became more than just a popular mod when it originally released for PC.
Dear Esther voice is driven home brilliantly by Nigel Carrington, his voice is the only voice players will hear throughout the game (Directors Commentary aside) and without it, your brief walk through the wonders of this remote island wouldn’t be quite the experience that it is. By simply exploring all that this beautiful desolate Hebridean island has to offer players will trigger the game’s narration which allows you the opportunity to weave together the pieces of the game’s heartfelt story, how you choose to perceive the drip fed fragments of letters read to you by Carrington is of your own making. Dear Esther is often regarded as a work of art, a landscape painting that entices you into its green hills and its dark dreamlike caves, prompting you to go forward in order to uncover all that it has to offer. Like Ruisdael, The Chinese Room’s Robert Briscoe beautifully encapsulates the harsh elements and environment of a coastal island, even without noticeable graphical improvements Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is still a wonder to behold, a place to enjoy the silence of the world.
Beginning in front of a lighthouse by the calm tide, players are free to wander inland, braving the winds and climate without fear of death, something Pinchbeck was keen to remove from the journey altogether. And while players are able to walk into the sea until the screen begins to blacken or jump from the highest cliff to a seemingly inevitable death, they will always return almost instantly to that very point with no repercussions whatsoever placed on the player, there are no checkpoints in-game and only 4 short levels to navigate until you reach its climax. Through my second playthrough, I stopped at every note sheet available in order to listen to the director’s commentary and found it intriguing to hear the studio actively discuss the absence of player death in Dear Esther to prevent the overall experience from becoming hindered, making it more free flowing and fluid, it’s a rare quantity in video games in the modern age.
Dear Esther‘s gameplay is minimalistic to the point where only a zoom option is available to players, mapped to almost every button for gazing at crazed fluorescent scribblings on cave walls or chalk markings on the edge of a cliff face. There are no objects or items to interact with and despite there being enticing open areas of exploration available the game is fairly linear with no alternate routes to get you safely from point A to point B. Dear Esther simply points you in the right direction and allows you to get there at your own pace. Walking is purposely slow and sluggish, which, while part and parcel of the adventure can slightly bloat and drag out gameplay as players often wander into blocked off areas only to have to turn and return from whence they came at a surprisingly slow pace. As you move from the grassy fields to a graveyard full of broken disjointed ships and shipping containers before heading into mesmerising caves you cannot deny this games undeniable charm. Although Dear Esther feels a world away from the current crop of walking simulators it will always have its place in video game history and if you allow it, a place in your heart.
The combination of art, narration and a beautiful soundtrack composed by Jessica Curry that fits every moment of the game solidified Dear Esther one of the most beloved and iconic video games around. With its long-awaited introduction onto Xbox One and PS4, console players can now enjoy the intimate experience first hand with in-depth commentary from key members of the original team at The Chinese Room. It has been eight years since we were first welcomed into the loving arms of a small yet quaint island off the coast of Scotland and in that time Dear Esther has undoubtedly been surpassed by the likes of Firewatch and even their own with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, but without The Chinese Room, we may have never seen or got to experience a game like Campo Santo’s. While it’s great to see Dear Esther in its purest form, a graphical upgrade would have been a nice and welcome touch, without it though the game still stands as a great short tale and one that every player should experience for themselves.