In 2009 I reviewed Dear Esther, the free modification for Half-Life 2.
It’s 2013 and I’ve finally played the commercial version available on Steam released in 2012.
Both versions are a first person walking tour of an island where the player listens to narration of letters written to Esther.
2012’s Esther is fairly similar to the mod. So lets quote the TimeDoctor of 2009 and remove anything that isn’t relevant to this 2012 commercial release:
I just finished my first walk-through of Dear Esther.
When I say “walk-through” I mean, walking through the narrative of this incredible mod on top of Half Life 2‘s Source Engine by Dan Pinchbeck.
You’re guided through it by a narrator who tells you about an island, its inhabitants, and a few events in their lives.
The narration is randomized, so each play through may tell a different story.
It might be a bit pretentious, but that is OK. If you give it a shot, I think you will like it. It is about the closest I’ve ever seen a game come to approaching the narrative elements of interactive fiction. Unfortunately this is mostly at the expense of the interaction. You walk through the island on foot at a snail’s pace and gain some knowledge of the story through a beautifully perfect vocal narration.
Games as art? Fuck that. Games as narrative. We’re half way to the finish line, and Dear Esther is the best runner in that race. I hope that the confines of an engine and resources of a mod will not hold back the next narrative from thechineseroom.
So now we’re in 2013 again — hello there! — and Dear Esther is a mod no-longer. They’ve cleaned up just about everything that was unpolished in the original and this is almost perfect.
I say almost because as a game released in 2012 it still doesn’t look right for the modern era. The vegetation in particular is unappealing and at worst takes you out of the experience as you see 2D sprites always turn to face you at the edge of your view. You’ll still see the occasionally strangely polygonal natural feature. Otherwise, Esther is a pretty game featuring some stunning scenes as you navigate the island. To say too much about them might spoil your enjoyment.
The narrative as read to you and soundtrack are still amazing. What other game is excellent at a walking pace? Your view of it and the way the narrative unfolds through the changing aspects of the island are unique. Nobody else has made anything like it and I doubt anyone ever will.
We are spoiled beasts by some great narratives with games attached; Dear Esther, Digital: A Love Story, and The Walking Dead. Two of which were released commercially in 2012. Though Esther is the least game-like of any I’ve experienced, I can’t recommend it enough. There are no puzzles or action sequences. Your only input is to move around in the world. Your only objective is to look and listen until you can’t anymore. You’ve never played anything like it.
Dear Esther is a bargain at $10 USD on Steam.
5 out of 5 Narratives