Long Walks on the Beach: Dear Esther
I’m having a hard time pinning down Dear Esther. After reading a few other opinion pieces, reviews, and theories, I think the feeling is mutual. Which is fine, since I suspect that’s exactly what creator Dan Pinchbeck was going for.
So I’ll put it this way: what does a fatal car crash, a syphilitic goatherd, a blinking radio aerial, a navy of paper boats, and a stunning cave create when combined? Answer: I have no idea. But it’s interesting all the same.
First: that antenna. It’s not always visible—far from it, especially as a large portion of the game takes place underground—but it informs the entire experience. It’s the first thing you’re likely to notice each time it appears on the horizon. Which is saying a lot, given how pretty Dear Esther manages to be. When the game begins, fading from black, it’s there on the horizon. From that very first second, even before the narrator manages to bring it up, it’s the end of the journey. What else could be? If I am Point A, then it must be Point B, and everything in between is just waiting to get there.
That’s my theory. There are better and more interesting ones out there. As much as they fascinate me, I think Dear Esther is about the slow insanity of waiting for something ominous or magnificent. I’m not talking about waiting in line for the new star war; I’m talking about deathbed kind of stuff. Day before the wedding. The dentist’s waiting room at seven years old. Real dread. Or real longing. Terror? Hope? Who knows. It’s enough to know that at the end, at that antenna, is something that will alter you.
For me, it was a gradual realization that this steadily-blinking monolith managed to feel like the most living thing on the island, despite the surge of the surf and the breeze against the grass. That aerial is somehow more alive than even the half-visible shades that can occasionally be spotted. It is somehow more alive than me, the player, who stumbles half-dead over cracked paths, through grassy pastures, along chilly beaches, and up the side of the mountain.
There are a few saying that Dear Esther isn’t a game. It strikes me as odd that game-players and game-makers would be as exclusive as that, especially any who have recently engaged in arguments about whether or not games qualify as art, where they likely contended that certain defenders of art are too rigid with their definitions. At any rate, I could agree with those detractors if they would make the slightest modification: Dear Esther isn’t much of a game. From the instant you gain control, your activities will consist of slowly walking towards your destination, looking around, and—maybe twice—swimming. You can occasionally explore a bit, but these alternate routes soon either terminate or lead back to the main path. In one way (the not-very-interactive, barely-a-game way), Dear Esther reminded me of those dry historical tours that parents are convinced their children will love. You walk up to an exhibit, a bright light illuminates an unconvincing model of someone famous, and a tinny voice details the size of their estate. I know that’s a hard parallel, but Dear Esther only compares in terms of interactivity. While there isn’t much to do, it’s nothing short of fascinating. Anyway, the question of Dear Esther’s game status seems tedious to me; there are plenty of games out there that are exceptionally gamey and not very good. Here we find the antithesis: this isn’t much of a game, but it’s a great one.
The crux of the game is this: you explore (without choice regarding direction) the island. At key points you’ll cross an invisible wire and a (superb) narrator will deliver snippets of story. Sometimes he talks about life on the island; about the goatherds who lived there or the cartographer who failed to fully chart it. At first he talks mostly about his own presence there, though as you shamble closer to your destination he reveals more as his detached veneer chips to reveal a deeply troubled and emotional man. After a while, he talks about a car crash and the people involved. Something clicks, and suddenly the island’s mystery is doubled.
The result is that as the character transforms on his journey—or during his wait for the end, if I’m running with my theory—the island changes hand-in-hand with him. Where once it was unlikely, now it is improbable. Later it might be impossible. Are you really on the island, remembering past tragedies? Or is the place a metaphor, or imaginary? I might put money on coma dream, but the uncertainty of the experience leaves me hesitant.
I’d like to have been able to write a useful review, complete with a thumbs-up or -down, but I realized while playing that Dear Esther is the sort of game that no normal review could ever be cut to fit. Its world is thick, rich, and oppressive in the way those of S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Pathologic, or The Void were, minus the horror, depression, or dozens of hours of investment. It’s a prime example of something that videogames are uniquely capable of doing, but so rarely aspire to: it lets you directly experience despair, confusion, and anger, and then releases you back into your office, or den, or wherever you’ve been sitting for the last two hours. It may not be as interactive as games usually are, but it’s interactive enough to pull you in if you’ll let it. If you do, you’ll definitely feel something. If that sounds like it’s worth ten dollars and two hours to you, then it may well be.
Final Score: “When someone had died or was dying or was so ill they gave up what little hope they could sacrifice, they cut parallel lines into the cliff, exposing the white chalk beneath. With the right eyes you could see them from the mainland or the fishing boats and know to send aid or impose a cordon of protection, and wait a generation until whatever pestilence stalked the cliffs died along with its hosts. My lines are just for this: to keep any would-be rescuers at bay. The infection is not simply of the flesh.”
If these lines appeal to you, buy Dear Esther. If not, don’t. Game reviewed.