What do you think of when you hear the term “Walking Simulator”? As many of you know, it is a type of video game but one that lacks many of the traditional aspects of a game. The phrase basically implies that there is nothing to do in the game other than walk around. There is still an on-going argument on whether or not walking simulators should be considered a video game at all. This debate might not even exist if it hadn’t been for the game that I am reviewing right now. There have been plenty of walking simulator games since but Dear Esther is seen as the originator of the genre.
The “gameplay” in Dear Esther is minimal, the only object being to explore an uninhabited Hebridean island, listening to an anonymous man read a series of letter fragments to a woman named Esther.
As the player reaches a new location on the island, the game plays a new letter fragment relating to that area. Different fragments are played in each playthrough of the game, revealing different aspects of the story each time.
As the player explores the island, they find the derelict remains of buildings, a shipwreck, and a cave system. The cave walls are adorned with images resembling chemical diagrams, circuit diagrams, neurons and bacteria. At various points a figure is seen walking away from the player in the distance. The figure disappears before they can be reached.
The identities of the characters become even more blurred as the game progresses. The narration moves between topics which relate the characters in different ways. The ambiguity of the randomly played letter fragments forces the player to draw their own conclusions of the story.
Dear Esther is undoubtedly a video game but it certainly isn’t one in the traditional sense. You can do nothing more than walk around the island and listen to the tale unfold. I can see why many have compared the game and the genre to another genre, “visual novel”. The game has the feel of listening to an audio-book while having the ability to actually see what is being described.
The story itself isn’t anything original but the narration is so well delivered. It manages to be really effective with each new intriguing entry making the slow crawl feel worthwhile. A game such as this one needs to have a strong narrative. While I do think it is executed well, it isn’t anything particularly special overall.
The atmosphere, barren nature of the island and the isolation that comes with it can be effective in creating something very eerie. It feels like the game is lulling you into a false sense of security with the calming feeling it delivers. You’ll find yourself a little bit on edge like something could be right around the corner. Maybe everything isn’t quite how it seems.
Other than the story, a game like this needs strong visuals and in my opinion this is the strongest aspect of the game. Some areas look a little bit dated which is to be expected for a game that came out in 2009. Other areas like the luminescent caves look absolutely stunning, like seriously beautiful. Combine that with the haunting, atmospheric soundtrack and you have something truly memorable.
Still, I’m really split on my overall opinion of the game. The visuals are nice but take away the music and narration. It kind of feels like you’re playing a tech demo. The slow walking is annoying but necessary as you’d likely make it through the game in 10 minutes if you could run. Oh yeah, the game is short like really short.
It was a struggle to think of a rating for this game because it really isn’t much of a game at all. I will not deny that I enjoyed the story, visuals & music and feel it made enough impact to be memorable so how can I possibly rate it any lower? I cannot rate it higher due to its linearity, length and the fact that it usually isn’t cheap to buy. Also, I enjoyed the additional commentary on how the game was created which was added to the landmark edition.
Dear Esther - Landmark Edition