I love games that tug at my imagination and challenge me to think about who my character is and why he or she does what they do. When Dear Esther first released on PC about four years ago, it was on the forefront of what would become known as 'Walking Simulators', and while the adventure sub-genre has its proponents, it has plenty of detractors as well. Back then people did not really know what to expect from a game like this as games with chilling visuals and a first person perspective usually involved guns, jumping and more traditional action elements. Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is a thoughtful game and to that end, I enjoyed it - though it is showing some age now as well.
I remember when this title first arrived on PC, though I did not experience it until some time later. I love a good ghost story, and that is exactly what Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is - a story. It is a very narrative driven title that wants you to experience something more than to play it. I recall when the game came out audience reaction was quite divided. Those looking for more to actually do decried the lack of actual gameplay, but many found the story focused presentation to be something unique and interesting.
The biggest problem I have with Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is that while it was a great trailblazer for the genre, there are better narratives told with more refined mechanics and a greater level of polish now. There are some nice bonus items included here, including a developer commentary, but this is otherwise the same game that many people have already played in the past. However, if you missed Dear Esther originally, this is a great opportunity to give the title a try if something with a slower pace and a greater emphasis on narrative appeals to you.
The biggest issues with this title are complaints that often show up in these types of titles. For one, movement is very slow. There are times where the sluggish pace makes a great deal of sense as it allows a scene to unfold, but for a game that has a small amount of backtracking tucked into an otherwise very linear adventure, the pace starts to feel a bit like padding by the end of the adventure. Also the lack of anything to actually do will undoubtedly rub some people wrong. There really is nothing to interact with - you walk about and see things unfold, but there are no puzzles, no trap doors, nothing.
However, once you get past those minor concerns, the tale of a man looking through a bunch of letters addressed to his wife is both emotional and a little chilling in all of the right ways. The visuals are dark and a little eerie, with high cliffs and watery beaches that make the location both beautiful and haunting in its isolation. While the visuals are solid even for a game this old (and let's be real for a moment - they succeed due to style and not technical proficiency. This is not a gloriously remastered title for the PlayStation 4), it is really the voice acting that sells the narrative as it unfolds. There is a weighty sense of emotion behind so many of the words here, and they bring the story to life one reading after another.
If you played the game originally, there might not be much reason to come back to Dear Esther, though the most loyal of fans may get enough mileage out of the Director's commentary I mentioned earlier. In this case, you play through the game with the narrator being swapped out with those of the artist, composer and writer as they discuss various decisions that went into the design. It is a nice touch for a game that has a lot of artistic value and it is interesting to see some of the thought that went into some of the game's more memorable moments and scenes. All in all Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is still an interesting experience, though its release around four years later does show the game's age a little. There are better examples of the genre out there now (including The Chinese Room's own later release Everybody's Gone to the Rapture), but Dear Esther still deserves a look if you haven't seen it yet.
The Chinese Room
The Chinese Room
Article by Nick