Dear Esther is an experimental video game from developer The Chinese Room that employs epistolary narrative to convey a fragmented story. This story runs the gauntlet of the human condition, touching on themes of love, loss, depression, redemption, death, and the hereafter. There is no goal to the game in the sense that one neither wins nor loses. The intent of Dear Esther is to emote, and by referring to the story abstractly, to instill connections between the narrator’s plight and the player’s personal life.
The entirety of the work is experienced through a first-person perspective. This point of view coupled with the level of interactivity unique to video games, in the words of development team Hitbox, “communicates depth of narrative experientially.” Movement is mapped to the WASD keys and mouse, with a perspective zoom mapped to the right mouse button. The bare-boned control scheme conveys the key mechanic of the game which, according to project artist Robert Briscoe, is “telling a story through exploring the environment.” Player death is not possible in-game; if one suffers a long fall or is pulled underneath ocean waves, the game simply resets the player to their most recent checkpoint. Depending on the depth of inspection of the island, a run-through can range from two to three hours.
There are no set paths through the island; how one explores it and at what points it reveals its secrets are entirely up to the player. Little is revealed about the location of the sprawling atoll on which the game takes place besides the mention of it being a Hebridean isle, one of a cluster of islands off the coast of Scotland. The surface of the island is primarily desolate; the only life encountered throughout the course of the game is coastal shrubbery. A sense of decay permeates the landscape, described in-game as “sick to death: the water is too polluted for the fish, the sky is too thin for birds and the soil is cut with the bones of hermits and shepherds.” Vestiges of civilization lay scattered about the cliff sides and windswept caverns comprising the island in the form of shepherd bothys and weather-torn radio equipment. These set pieces do much to convey the age of the island and instill a sense of permanence and historical awareness. Here is the strange, the bizarre, the remote.
Observational experience is a large component of the overall theme of Dear Esther. The color palette of the game ranges from drab to crystalline. The surface of the island is colored to photorealistic detail, with dull greens and greys promoting the despondency characteristic of the isles off of mainland Britain. This color set changes instantly as the player progresses into the caverns that run through the length of the island where the walls are plastered with stalactites and stalagmites possessing hues of emerald and sapphire. Strange phosphorescent moss lines the cave walls and patterns reflected from underground pools dance upon the ceiling. A moonlit coastal line provides a canvas for the final events of the game, combining the desolation of the island’s peaks with the alien beauty found below.
The soundtrack accompanying Dear Esther (composed by Jessica Curry) provides emotional context to the scenery. The game opens with delicate piano that promotes a sense of unsettlement, of loss. This track accompanies you as you make your way across breaches strewn with debris and lowlands filled with standing stones that resemble forgotten bones poking out of the soil. The track evolves as the narrator reveals more about his past as well as the island’s history. The game might employ an uplifting violin accompaniment as one scales a pastured slope, or a harsh industrial tones as the narrator recalls pieces of his troubled past.
The story of Dear Esther is recounted primarily by the narrator in movement-triggered voiceovers accompanied by text boxes that appear on-screen. Narrative is randomly selected from a compiled list, lending to a story path unique to each visit of the game. This path does not follow causative correlation, as the narrator often alternates between personal anecdotes, historical facts about the island, and poetic asides. It is revealed over time that the narrator is the victim of a sort of intentional shipwreck after suffering through events surrounding the death of his wife.
Mentioned repeatedly in the narrative is the story of the Biblical Conversion of Paul, as the narrator states that the island has become his own “Damascus.” The allegory sidles the narrator’s own plight with a redemptive note: like Paul, the narrator is climbing literally and figuratively towards reconciliation as he journeys. Dear Esther explores the possibility of a personal purgatory on earth, an idea expressed when the narrator sees pieces of himself in the landscape: “Shot through me caves, my forehead a mount.” He is forced to confront his past guilt in the form of physical monuments, and his hope of redemption lies buried with a hatchet.
Dear Esther allows the player to make the story their own; the narrator’s struggle is unique to the reflection of the user seen in the work. It juxtaposes beauty and loneliness, guilt and redemption. Where the narrator may see a car tire or medical equipment, the player may imagine a shrine to his or her own unique brand of guilt. The exploratory element of the game gives the player a sense of discovery, making the whole of the experience more personal. Whether or not the narrator manages to escape his purgatory or the pain of his past and gain redemption similar to that of Paul’s hinges on the player’s own success to overcome past guilt.
External quotes taken from:
Lee, Terrence. "Designing Game Narrative." FeedBurner RSS. N.p., 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 02 July 2014.
Briscoe, Robert. "A Retrospective/Post-mortem on Dear Esther." Robert Briscoe Environment Artist and Indie Game Developer. Wordpress, 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 July 2014.