If ever there was an appropriate use of the phrase “hidden gem,” it is beyond a doubt in reference to the masterful remake of “Dear Esther” from indie developer thechineseroom & Robert Briscoe. “Dear Esther” is a bold departure from the very fundamentals of what we know to be video games and is arguably the greatest example to date of how video games are indeed a new form of artistic expression. The game abandons all notion of conflict, interaction and linear progression in favor of open-ended exploration punctuated by poignant storytelling and breathtaking visuals. Awakening on a rocky beach just before sunset at the foot of a towering lighthouse and a tower atop a cliff as the only indicator of where to go, the player begins the journey through “Dear Esther’s” narrative.
The story of “Dear Esther” is told through a monologue that plays at specific points in the journey across the deserted, very lonely island. Indeed, it seems as though the player is the only person alive on an island scattered with the debris of crashed ships, abandoned homes and other miscellaneous clutter. The narrator feels almost like a companion during the exploration and I found myself growing increasingly excited as my journey progressed to hear the next segment of dialogue. What is really intriguing is that the monologue clips apparently play out in random order, making each play through of the game a unique, yet cohesive way to experience a narrative that begins without answering any questions or making any effort to hook the player and ends with one of the most beautiful moments in any video game. The storytelling really ties the experience of “Dear Esther” together from beginning to end, but it is only a part of everything the game has to offer.
The visuals of “Dear Esther” are simply put: breathtaking. As I was exploring the island, I intended to snap a few screen shots to include in this review. After the game ended, I found I had snapped over one hundred stunning shots, of which I can only include a few here. The attention to detail, the layout of the island, the imaginative environments, the beautiful textures and the excellent lighting effects lead to many a jaw-dropping moment and are a testament to the amount of love and affection the developers had when they were making this game. The passion for their art shines through in every rippling wave, every spray of surf and every twinkling star in the sky. The majority of my play time during this game was spent simply marveling at the scenery, and wondering what I would find over the next peak. The game is ultimately broken up into four sections, each with a unique, almost mesmerizing atmosphere. If I had to pick my favorite, I don’t think I could.
Coupled with the captivating story and mesmerizing visuals is one of the most poignant, stunningly beautiful soundtracks I have ever had the privilege of experiencing in a video game. While the story and the visuals provide the meat of “Dear Esther,” the soundtrack provides the heart and the soul. The music gives “Dear Esther” the emotional resonance it needs to rise above the sum of its parts and become a true masterpiece of artistic storytelling. From the ominous notes of the piano to the haunting female voice that rings out from the depths of the island’s heart, the music is always spot on; always perfectly married to what you see.
At its core, “Dear Esther” is a daring, beautiful and beyond a doubt successful experiment in artistic storytelling. It is the definitive proof that video games are indeed a form of artistic expression and not simply mass produced providers of mindless competitive violence. It is also proof that developers have really only scratched the surface of what video games can be. What amazes me the most is that this game, in its original form, was a free modification to another game. “Dear Esther” will be a game I turn to over and over again when I feel like I want to experience something new and beautiful. Clocking in at an hour or two, “Dear Esther” is the kind of game you can sit down and enjoy in one sitting, much like a movie or a short story. I can’t wait to see more from this developer, and I can only hope that their next project is equally as imaginative, captivating and fundamentally beautiful as “Dear Esther.”