It was without much hype and while being completely overshadowed by typical Valentine’s Day insanity that “Dear Esther” was made available for purchase on Steam last month. This indie title delivers a powerful story and an atmosphere unrivaled in recent memory.

Dear Esther

PC
Thechineseroom


Initially created in 2008 by developer Thechineseroom, the original “Dear Esther” developed a large fanbase and was promoted at conventions worldwide. It garnered critical acclaim and won the Best World/Story award in 2009 from IndieCade, the international festival of independent games. The remake features a re-orchestrated soundtrack, extended and completely redone voice acting, a better script and much higher production values than the already polished original.

At its core, “Dear Esther” is a ghost story of sorts. The player awakens on an abandoned island, showing signs of having been previously inhabited, though great lengths have been taken to discourage any further exploration. As the player and the anonymous protagonist explore the island’s shores, cliffs and caves, bits of narrative are revealed in the form of disjointed thoughts and readings of journal entries. These plot revelations are occasionally location-based and random, giving each play-through a slightly different feel based on varying order and timing.

The pacing guarantees an engaging — if sometimes sluggish — experience, and the atmosphere and sound design create a vivid world alongside an acute sense of isolation. Much care was put into making the island come alive with the sounds such as the ocean and wind, and the haunting, subdued score highlights the drama and discord present in the character’s mind. The environments are well-designed and provide a gorgeous backdrop as the story and mind of the protagonist unravel. Sometimes bordering on the unsettling, the game’s quiet, unpopulated world marked by biblical and chemical graffiti and the carcasses of innumerable wreckages leaves a deep and serious impression on players.

As the player-character never directly interacts with the environment other than by physically walking through it, “Dear Esther” qualifies less as a game and more as a first-person immersion into a profoundly distressing tale of love and loss. The player’s identity is completely melded with that of the anonymous and depressed protagonist. The disordered recollections hint at a scarred and hollow past, and the island’s environment is mimetic of this.

The game doesn’t rely on an overt sense of helplessness in the face of an overwhelming threat to terrify players, nor does it use cheap shock tactics to elicit emotional responses. “Dear Esther” offers a gaming experience unlike most, and is best described as somewhere between brilliant and deeply unsettling. It’s a two-hour-long adventure that answers as many questions as it leaves burning in the minds of players.

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