It’s weird to think that Dear Esther is eight years old. I can still remember the debates when the then-Source mod burst onto the scene and the term “walking simulator” was coined. Was a game in which all you did was walk really a game? Was the term ‘game still’ an adequate way to describe the breadth of experiences that modern gaming has to offer? Did it really matter?
After taking the trip from steam mod to full blown title in 2012 on PC, Dear Esther finally stumbles onto consoles with Dear Esther: Landmark Edition.
Though walking sims have become fairly common on consoles, with the likes of Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and the Chinese Room’s own follow up to Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, there’s still something about Dear Esther that remains special even after all these years. The tale of a remorseful man wandering a remote Scottish island, ruminating on the previous inhabitants, and the series of events that brought him to be freezing his knackers off somewhere in the Outer Hebrides as he dictates a letter to the titular Esther remains a simple, but powerful one.
Despite there being nothing barring your progress — no puzzles, no enemies, barely any wildlife and only a couple of ramshackle structures to explore — there’s something about wandering the lonely cliffs, windswept heath land, and bio luminescent caves that is surprisingly compelling. Though you merely trudge through the environment, the world of Esther is so well constructed, and the narrative so skilfully revealed that it sticks with you, and keeps you guessing even after the final credits have rolled.
Although it’s only an hour long, those that take their time to explore every inch of the island and go off the beaten path will find all kinds of procedurally generated items, as well as additional soundbites that add a little extra context and further flesh out the narrative with each additional play through, encouraging a small amount of replayability. If you’re interested in how games are made, I would recommend playing through it at least once with the director’s commentary on, as it provides many interesting insights into the games development and design.
Although it isn’t the prettiest game on the PS4, despite being rebuilt in Unity, we are still talking about a game that is four years old in its current state. Stylistically, Esther retains an ethereal and haunting quality, as the dreary drizzle and winds across the brush that you’re presented with in the game’s opening slowly make way for the neon glow of caves and moonlight dancing on the water at its close.
The game’s narrator is the real star of the show though, as he guides players through Esther’s non-linear a tale of love, loss and remorse on an island where nothing is quite what it seems, and it all could just be a particularly mad dream anyway.
Though Dear Esther; Landmark Edition isn’t for everybody, if the thought of playing a game where you can’t shoot anything within two minutes of it booting up sounds like the dullest thing ever, you should probably check out Doom instead. However, if you like a good wander and don’t mind your narratives to be open to interpretation, I’d recommend taking a trip to the Chinese Room’s haunted Scottish isle. Just remember to take a coat — it’s bloody freezing.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.
Publisher: The Chinese Room | Developer: The Chinese Room | Genre: Walking Sim | Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 7+/T | Release Date: September 20,2016