Game Review: Dear Esther

Simulated walking.

Developer: The Chinese Room
Publisher: The Chinese Room
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox One
Available on: Steam

I needed something smaller to play in between all these long games I’m currently playing through. And why not finally tackle Dear Esther after it had been gathering dust in my Steam library for over 3 years now? I’m not entirely against the idea of walking simulators. I even enjoyed some of them like Kholat and The Stanley Parable. And since Dear Ester is the granddaddy of these games light on gameplay, I assumed that I would similarly enjoy my time with it. This was not the case.

See, while The Stanley Parable was a brilliant exploration of choice and Kholat was at least a decent horror game with the added benefit of having to actually explore a place with nothing but a map and a compass, Dear Esther is basically devoid of any and all interactivity. Walking and looking around is not what I’d call the peak of interactivity. And as such, I believe that this game is one of those that can truly be filed under the term “walking simulator” in its purest form.

I simply didn’t find walking around this island and listening to a narrator go on about people I have no connection to very engaging. I mean, I understood what the story was, that ostensibly Esther is the narrator’s wife who died in a car crash and I even admit that it was a cool transition from the inside of the cave to a flashback of the highway – itself set under water – and the scene of the accident, but that’s just not enough for me to enjoy a game.

As I understand, the letter fragments being read to the player are randomized every time you play, but I honestly don’t see the point in doing this exercise a bunch of times simply to get a better grip on what the story is or isn’t. And I’m sure even during my playthrough I haven’t gotten to hear all of the possible pieces of narration, since the game always splits up into two or three paths that run alongside each other and end up at the same place. But I’ll be damned if I go backtracking through this island for even longer.

That is not to say that everything about this game is terrible. I really liked the music and the scenery is gorgeous, as long as you don’t look directly downwards and notice that all the foliage is 2-dimensional. And hell, the cave part was really intriguing, even though I feel all the scribbled bits on the walls weren’t really there to tell a story. I got that all the missing car parts like doors and wheels were there in order to give the player some more hints as to what actually happened according to the narrator, but outside of that, the game refuses to provide the player with anything to help him get the bigger picture.

What gets to me most about this game though is the reaction I’ve read by others who have played it. About giving those who didn’t like the game the tired old treatment of “You simply don’t get it” and yet, not one of those people managed to actually explain what’s there to get in this game. Most people seem to focus on the pretty aesthetic and the music and never go into why the story actually touched them in the way they claim it did. All this nonsense talk about this not being a game but an “experience” is the typical shallow argumentation people use to appear smarter than they are and a feeble attempt to justify liking something they deem profound but in reality is just done for its own sake.

So I guess you’ve already figured out what my central problem with this game is, and I’ll pose it as a question: What was the point of this? Because I honestly can’t find one. Sure, it’s a story about some people, but why was it important enough to tell while I was wandering a deserted island? What significance does the island hold in order for it to be that much intertwined with the story to serve as the setting? Because right now, I’m very much inclined to file this under “pretentious artsy-fartsy walking simulators”, alongside The Beginner’s Guide and Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist. And I can’t recommend it as a result.

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