Dear Esther: Landmark Edition PS4 review
“Walking Simulator” is one of the most recent terms adopted by gamers used to describe games where the main goal is to tell a story more than provide a challenge. Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and Virginia meet such a classification. You might think these games would be harshly criticized due to their slow nature and lack of complex gameplay, but most of them have actually been met with a huge amount of critical praise.
The sudden popularity of the “walking simulator” can possibly be linked back to Dear Esther, originally a Half-Life 2 mod released in 2008 and then redeveloped on the Unity engine for a commercial release in 2012 on the PC under the studio name The Chinese Room. Now it is available on the PS4 and Xbox One via the Landmark Edition.
Upon my first playthrough, I began to question what kind of a game this would be. I was aware of The Chinese Room’s later works (Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) and while they’re also “walking simulators”, they had a more specific way of telling their story than Dear Esther does. You play as an unnamed man walking through a deserted island. All you’re doing as the player is walking through the island as you’re hearing the man narrate letters he wrote to a woman named Esther. It was tough for me to understand the story because it was intentionally ambiguous. It takes on average about an hour and a half to play through the entirety of the game and was still confused when it finally ended. However, I view the game in a whole new light now that I’ve listened to the director’s commentary, but more on that later.
The Chinese Room has not been a studio to disappoint when it comes to presentation, and Dear Esther is proof of that. The island is as beautiful as it is dark and depressing. You can’t help but feel a sense of dread and isolation as you’re navigating its narrow pathways, uncovering a shipwreck and a giant pit just laying in the middle of your trail. There are some small details in the form of painted letters and figures that are randomly generated through each playthrough. Sometimes you may even find background elements that weren’t there before, such as a picture on a desk in an abandoned house. One of the four levels features a gorgeous cave, filled with colorful reflections and pristine water that gives a break to all the unsaturated colors the island normally provides. All of this is aided by a wonderful soundtrack that left a huge impression on me, especially after I listened to the director’s commentary.
The in-game commentary is what helped me appreciate Dear Esther more, not only as a game but as a work of art. Three key members of The Chinese Room, creative director Dan Pinchbeck, artist Rob Briscoe, and composer Jessica Curry each give detailed and interesting stories on their experience working on the mod and game. I thought about starting it late at night at around 3 AM before going to bed and finishing it the next day, but I found myself engrossed to the point where I played through the entire game again to hear the rest of the commentary. These talented individuals gave me some “ah-ha” moments that ultimately changed how I feel about the game. My first playthrough left me dazed and confused, wondering why people like it so much. Now that I understand more about the game’s themes and its ambiguous story (that the trio still manages to keep a mystery), I might just have to play it again.
I’ve also come to the realization that video games can make an exclusive form of storytelling that can not be offered in a book, film, or television series. If Dear Esther was a film, it would not have the same impact on people as the game does.
Despite my praise, I can admit that Dear Esther is not for everyone. Coming in at $10 on the PlayStation Store and Xbox Marketplace it certainly isn’t expensive, but you would probably only play it once and forget it exists on your console. This game is for those who appreciate a unique way of storytelling, who have a larger amount of patience than others when it comes to piecing together an emotional story that doesn’t give you every detail. If you have the money to spare, give it a purchase. Who knows, you may come out a changed human being…
Rating: 4/5 Atoms