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Video Game / Dear Esther

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"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."

For the proper reading experience, play the game's soundtrack while reading on.

Dear Esther is a mod created by The Chinese Room, built with the Source engine (the same used for Half-Life 2, among other games). While designed in the First-Person Shooter format, it is in reality more of a sparse, linear narrative with complete emphasis on the plot, and as such is probably the Trope Codifier for Environmental Narrative Games. 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); a further improved Landmark Edition was released on the original game's 10-year anniversary in 2017.

The 2012 version on Steam; the 2017 version on Steam; a download to the original version; and 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.

This game provides examples of:

  • Abandoned Area: The island was once inhabited by shepherds, but that was clearly a long time ago.
  • All Just a Dream / Or Was It a Dream?: In the director's commentary the creators said they wanted to leave it deliberately ambiguous whether the game is actually happening and whether the island is even a real place, or whether it's all in the protagonist's head.
  • 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.
    • The number of times the narrator drove the M5 motorway, looking for signs of the accident.
    • The number of days that passed before Donnelly's body was opened up by medical students.
    • It took twenty-one minutes for rescue vehicles to arrive at the scene.
    • It took twenty-one attempts to revive Paul.
    • The number of minutes the narrator watches the aircraft vapour trails.
    • The number of paper boats that split up into the ocean.
    • The Hebrew alphanumeric representation of the number 21 has been painted onto several walls all over the island.
    • Related to this, 22 seems to represent closure:
      • The narrator drove the motorway 21 times, meaning the 22nd journey would have been the journey back home (it's unclear whether he took it or whether he just never went home).
      • The 22nd letter — the one whose text the player implicitly hears — is the last one written, folded into an aeroplane instead of a boat.
      • Several references to the Biblical book of Acts, Chapter 22 are painted on walls all over the island. Acts 22 describes the famous "Road to Damascus" ephiphany of St Paul — an epiphany like the one the narrator craves, to the point of calling the island his own "Damascus".
  • Arc Symbol: Gulls, cans of paint, paper boats, circuits, molecules (particularly ethanol), car parts, sonogram pictures... Even stones manages to become one.
  • Arc Words: "Damascus". More subtly, "come back".
  • As the Good Book Says...: Fragments of the Biblical story of Paul on the Road to Damascus are painted on walls in the final area the player finds. Earlier, it is also possible to find painted references to the prophesied destruction of Damascus in the Book of Isaiah.
  • Beautiful Void: The island is haunting in its emptiness, juxtaposed against its Scenery Porn.
  • Border Patrol: "Come back. Come back. Come back."
  • Creepy Cave: The protagonist descends ever deeper into a series of increasingly dark, creepy caves, all meant to reflect his distraught emotional state.
  • 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: Seeking freedom from this world of guilt and grief while also hoping for a reunion with his beloved Esther, the protagonist jumps off the beacon at the end.
  • Empty Room Psych: If you're expecting traditional game mechanics, the game becomes a series of dozens of these.
  • Epistolary Novel: The unreliable narration consists of snippets of letters addressed to someone called Esther, voiced out by a male character as the player wanders around the island.
    "Dear Esther, I sometimes feel as if I've given birth to this island..."
  • Ethereal Choir:
    • The music in the caves is this. Interesting to note is that the song being sung is in English rather than Latin or whatever.
    • Can also be heard when jumping from the beacon tower.
  • 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.
  • Gainax Ending: The ending is as mysterious in its resolution as the island is in its exploration.
  • Hollywood Torches: All candles on the island are burning, no matter the amount wind they are exposed to.
  • Insurmountable Waist-High Fence: A few literal waist-high fences keep the player from plunging off the rocks into the ocean.
  • Lighthouse Point: You start out near one.
  • Madness Mantra: Not by a person, but by the game itself- the music that plays at the start of the final chapter upon emerging from the case contains a repeated rhythm that spells out "Esther" in Morse code, over and over again.
  • Melancholy Moon: The full moon in the last chapter adds to the gloomy atmosphere.
  • Mind Screw: What makes it even harder to tell what happens is that the basic events of the story change depending on the 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.
  • No Antagonist: The story concerns a single man's attempts to come to terms with a terrible event in his past. He is the only person on the island and even the event that drove him to solitude was just a tragic accident.
  • 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.
  • One-Woman Wail: Some of the music pieces, for example the one in the cave near the waterfalls.
  • 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 led to it. In others again, Paul was intoxicated, and the narrator comes to terms with Esther's death. And in yet others, it is implied that Esther was pregnant when she died.
  • Renaissance Man: The narrator appears to be very well-read in history, chemistry, biology, electronics, Biblical studies, and Hebrew numerology.
  • Room 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.
  • 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 Gorn: The abandoned lighthouse, the grounded ships, and the highway scene.
  • 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. Even the caverns —a setting normally associated with boring, repetitive scenery in video games— are visually mesmerizing here.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Title Drop: Several times during the narrator's readings, as it's implied he's reading letters written to Esther.
  • Unbroken First-Person Perspective: The game never seems to break from the perspective of the player character, although it gets a bit strange at the end of the game when he leaps off a high tower and then appears to turn into a bird, or something. It's pretty weird.
  • Unreliable Narrator: See Sanity Slippage above.
  • 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 odd 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."
      • Some playthroughs even have this line appear in a subtly different but even more gut-punching form: "He tells me that I 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."
  • Wham Shot: One that is twice as whammy for the fact that, like most of the things in the game, whether it even appears or not in any given playthrough is entirely up to chance: the ultrasound photo that reveals Esther was pregnant when she died.