I’ve played my fair share of walking simulators, but despite first emerging on the scene back in 2008 as a Half-Life 2 mod and then a full release in 2012, Dear Esther wasn’t one of them. Well, that’s about to change as the genre pioneer is finally hitting consoles with Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, which adds director commentary and gussies up the visuals. Let’s get walking…
…and then continue walking because that’s essentially all you do. Your only other function is the ability to focus your vision (read: zoom in). At no point does the game ask or allow you to interact with the environment, not even to open a door, and that makes the whole thing a one-note experience where there’s no opportunity to supplement the storyline via exploration.
Taking place entirely on an island, Dear Esther made me feel like I was traveling through some desolate area of Skyrim. It all looks pretty good, and there are some subtle details if you’re willing to stray from the beaten path and take a look. The caves are particularly interesting with all the symbols painted onto the walls, while the fact that the island is uninhabited leads to a unique sense of isolation.
Probably the game’s best aspect is its soundtrack, which hits you with brief, sorrowful piano chords that are made all the more effective since so much of the game takes place in silence. There’s a deliberate skew toward giving the player time to contemplate the nature of the island, or whatever else is on their mind, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the frequent overuse of music.
If, like me, your experience with walking simulators comes from titles like Gone Home or SOMA, odds are you’ll find Dear Esther to be a little archaic. Here, the entirety of the story is told via someone reading a series of letters he has written, presumably to his wife, Esther.
Chunks of the narrative are revealed as you wander the island, and though the game is almost entirely linear, it is possible to miss some if you stick exclusively the obvious path forward. It’s unclear whether you’re meant to be the writer of these letters, someone who found the letters, or if everything you’re encountering is simply some kind of dream.
This is a deliberate piece of ambiguity on the part of the developers, allowing individuals to read into the storyline whatever they like. What appears clear is that Esther was killed in a car accident, and that the driver of the other vehicle was likely drunk. Still, the game’s refusal to allow you to get to know anyone involved in the story it’s telling hurts the narrative.
And ultimately, that’s all there is. The world can be interesting and thought provoking, but not only is Dear Esther devoid of even the most rudimentary of challenges; it never manages to connect you, the gamer, to its world as anything more than a passive observer.
While this might’ve been revolutionary eight years ago, many games have come along since then and expanded on the formula, adding layers of intrigue and mystery to uncover while offering players a reason to rummage around for bits of info that deepen the narrative.
Dear Esther helped build the framework of walking simulators, but the games that followed have left those humble beginnings in their wake. While not without its merit, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is best left to those that truly embrace the genre it helped pioneer.