Autopsy: Dear Esther

James McCoull isn’t an agony Aunt, but he does have a few words to say on this one.

James McCoull
5th December 2016
Image Credit: The Chinese Room

Christ alive, where do I even start with Dear Esther. Its laughable misunderstanding of the concept of ‘value for money’? Its incredible belief in itself as some kind of legitimate piece of art? Or go for the low-blow and just slag off the 2004-era graphics? Worry not, dear reader. There’ll be time enough for all that.

Dear Esther is an early example of the now somewhat standardized (though enduringly controversial) ‘walking simulator’. Whereas later instances such as the excellent Gone Home have generally found ways to make the form work, Dear Esther’s only real value is as a kind of redundant 3D map, explored for the sake of itself, following an incoherent and genuinely quite uninteresting story. Originally priced at £8 (eight whole British pounds! For a Half Life 2 mod! In 2012! I could cry), I couldn’t even recommend Dear Esther for a pound. There simply isn’t value to be found here.

To the game itself, though: you play as… fuck, someone, I genuinely don’t know. It’s been a while and I’ll be damned if I’m playing it again. You play as Someone, having sailed to an apparently unpopulated isle in the vicinity of Scotland for personal reasons that are alluded to by the game’s narrator, who occasionally interrupts the breezy silence of the island with extracts from a series of letters addressed to the eponymous Esther. Here’s where I’d tell you what Someone had come back for, or what the letters were about, but I can’t remember and I don’t really want to find out again. Let me save you a few quid and about two hours of your life right here, okay? Spoilers incoming. You’re welcome.

“Much as every good review must acknowledge flaws, every bad review must at least spare the rod for a line or two”

The objective of the game is to meander along the game’s loosely linear path towards a blinking red light atop a radio tower. Someone, our beloved and hitherto formless protagonist, eventually reaches the tower, and climbs it, before leaping from the top and turning into a bird. I paid eight pounds for this game. Much as every good review must acknowledge flaws, every bad review must at least spare the rod for a line or two. For a Half Life 2 mod - which Dear Esther very unmistakably is - the game is very pretty. One particular scene on a beach where hundreds of tiny paper boats float in the shallows is absolutely charming. But ultimately, this is just frustrating, because it makes me feel that with a bit of substance, a more open approach to the island exploration, and a more cohesive story, Dear Esther could have been something worthwhile, or at least worth the price tag.

But it didn’t do any of that. It didn’t take the time to expand on its story, it didn’t give us characters worth caring about, nor did it open up the island - the entire point of the fucking game - as something worth exploring. It ascended the radio tower of my optimistic hopes and jumped the fuck off. And it didn’t turn into any kind of god-damn bird before it hit the ground.

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