Video Game: Dear Esther

"I have lost track of how long I have been here, and how many visits I have made overall."

If the subject matter is obscure, the writer's literary style is even more so, it is not the text of a stable or trustworthy reporter.

Dear Esther is a mod built with the Source engine (the same used for Half-Life 2, among other games). While designed in First-Person Shooter format, it is in reality more of a sparse, linear narrative with complete emphasis on the plot. The player is placed on an uninhabited, Hebridean island, and while exploring the picturesque landscape an unidentified narrator regularly intervenes with bits of voiced-over letters addressed to a woman named Esther. This is a story that you quite literally walk through: nothing is trying to kill you, and there are no puzzles that you must solve to progress. Unless, of course, you count the plot.

A remake was released in 2012 featuring vastly improved graphics, remastered audio, and a much more intuitive level design for the environments (one common criticism of the original mod).

The remake with improved graphics is available on Steam. The old version can be found here.

The official website.

WARNING: Due to the nature of its narrative, it is all but impossible to describe the tropes in Dear Esther without spoiling the crap out of it. If you have not experienced it yet, do not read any further.

Dear Esther contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Arc Number: 21. "There are twenty-one connections in the circuit diagram of the anti-lock brakes, there are twenty-one species of gull inhabiting these islands , it is twenty-one miles between the Sandford junction and the turn off for home. All these things cannot, will not, be a co-incidence!"
  • Arc Symbol: Gulls, cans of paint, paper boats, circuits, molecules, car parts, sonogram pictures...
  • Arc Words: Damascus.
  • Beautiful Void: The island is haunting in its emptiness, juxtaposed against its Scenery Porn.
  • Border Patrol: "Come back. Come back. Come back."
  • Determinator: The narrator forces himself to continue his journey despite fracturing his leg and having it become infected, using willpower and a lot of painkillers.
  • Driven to Suicide
  • Empty Room Psych: If you're expecting traditional game mechanics, the game becomes a series of dozens of these.
  • Everyone Is Related: Several lines refer to Esther Donnelly and Paul Jakobsen. However much like with everything in the game, it can't definitively be said if this is the case.
  • Ethereal Choir / One-Woman Wail: The music in the caves is this. Interesting to note is that the song being sung is in English rather than Latin or whatever.
  • Gainax Ending: The ending is as mysterious in its resolution as the island is in its exploration.
  • Hearing Voices: The whole story is told via a faceless narrator reading letters to the eponymous Esther.
  • Insurmountable Waist High Fence
  • Island Full of Crazy: Just what do the bizarre symbols all over the caves and rock faces mean?
    • One of the tunnels in the caves is particularly dense with luminescent scrawlings, making it somewhat unnerving to walk through.
  • Mind Screw: What makes it even harder to tell what happens is that the basic events of the story change depending on playthrough. Even with such simple matters as how the narrator reached the island; sometimes he is a willing hermit, seeking solace, where in others he is a sailor who has been marooned. And at times, the line between the player character and the narrator blurs - are you someone tracing the footsteps of that hermit, or are you rambling as you go on?
  • Mysterious Watcher: Occasionally, off in the distance, you will see dark figures observing you, or walking the path themselves.
  • Narrator: "Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I've given birth to this island..."
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Not exactly a horror game, but the lack of enemies and activity serve to make the island very haunting. The creepy music in the caves doesn't help much.
  • Ontological Mystery: Why are you visiting this island? Who is the narrator? Who is Esther? Who built the mast? Who painted all these molecules and messages on these surfaces? Is the island real or is it a dream? The game constantly prompts all these questions, and never quite gives concrete answers.
  • Purple Prose: The narrator does tend to speak in rather flowery language. Some critics pointed this out in reviews.
  • Randomly Generated Levels: Subtly done. In every new playthrough, some objects and elements will appear in different locations and bits of the narration will change.
    • The biggest change from playthrough to playthrough is how Esther died. In some tellings, the narrator himself was the drunk, and Paul an innocent bystander, making the narrator filled with self loathing. In others, Paul was not intoxicated, and the narrator bemoans fate and the happenstance that lead to it. In others again, Paul was intoxicated, and the narrator comes to terms with Esther's death.
  • Sanity Slippage: The narrator's memories begin to blur together as he walks through the island.
    • "The moon over the Sandford junction, headlights in your retinas. Donnelly drove a grey hatchback without a bottom, all the creatures of the tarmac rose to sing to him." note 
  • Scenery Porn: The landscapes are exceptionally well-done, and considering there is nothing but the visuals and the narrator's voice along the way, it's something you're bound to notice.
  • Silent Protagonist: He does have very noisy shoes though. It's not entirely clear if the Narrator is the same person as the protagonist too, but if they are, then he's quite chatty.
  • Sinister Silhouettes: Every now and then you'll see a shadowy figure standing or walking around in the distance. If you're quick enough, you can run right up to them, but they won't respond to you and will sometimes even vanish instantly.
  • Soft Water: It's not like there's any way to take damage in the first place, but the tiny pools at the bottom of certain chasms would not protect against the falls they are meant to break.
  • Super Drowning Skills: Dip your head below the ocean's surface for too long, you drown. Later inverted when you can stay underwater in the cave pools for as long as you want.
  • Story Breadcrumbs: A deliberate choice for the game structure, related through sporadic and semi-random narration. The developers said later in presentations that they felt being sparse with specifics and only giving them sporadically helped make Dear Esther a much more engaging narrative, teasing the player's speculation to get them to invest more of themselves in what story they do parse.
  • Story-to-Gameplay Ratio: On the highest end of the story side of the scale, near the Visual Novel genre. There are several important factors that could not be incorporated in a film, however, such as semi-randomized dialogue and the ability for every player to pace themselves at their own rate.
  • Title Drop: Several times during the narrator's readings.
  • Violation of Common Sense: There are a couple points in the game that require jumps (or falls, rather, in the absence of actual jumping) no reasonable person would ever make.
    • Especially considering a couple of these happen shortly after the player is informed his leg is broken.
  • Visual Novel: The game is somewhat similar to a Visual Novel in terms of gameplay density, as stated above.
  • Wham Line: "He tells me that he was not drunk at all."
    • "I will look to my left and see Esther Donnelly, flying beside me. I will look to my right and see Paul Jakobsen, flying beside me."
    • "And you were rendered opaque by the car of a drunk."
    • "It can only be a dead shepherd who has come to drunk drive you home."
  • Unreliable Narrator: See Sanity Slippage above.