by Jed Pressgrove
In no way does Dear Esther’s mixture of first-person movement, voice-overs, and music justify the new arrogant subtitle “Landmark Edition.” Now available on PS4 and Xbox One, this game is more of a poorly written road map on how to convey emotion in a story of a man who writes letters to his dead wife. As you listen to the widow (played by Nigel Carrington) read his ostentatious thoughts, you might wonder whether Dear Esther intends to represent that most irritating type of academic, the one who can’t express himself in a concise, understandable, and honest manner.
In Dear Esther, you activate different readings by the protagonist based on where you walk on an island. While many gamers have sneered at Dear Esther’s lack of traditional video-game activities like solving puzzles, the problem here is not with intent but with execution. (This very point also eludes the game critics — some of whom probably identify with the snooze-worthy ramblings of the main character — who think Dear Esther is historically significant.) The majority of Carrington’s voice acting lacks passion and points to a person who likes stringing flowery words together. As such, it’s difficult to believe the character is even reading letters to his departed wife. This disconnect is more than noticeable when you consider Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of a letter, from a dying wife to a troubled husband, at the conclusion of Silent Hill 2. The vulnerability of Horgan’s character comes with the delivery of the lines. Without a better actor, Dan Pinchbeck’s script in Dear Esther struggles to remain engaging on a basic level.
Sometimes the limited appeal of Dear Esther has less to do with the academic language and tone and more to do with how elements of the game fail to play off each other in a compelling way. Jessica Curry’s score, for example, can tug at superficial feelings with a simple piano riff and suggest something deeper with violins, but this effect often clashes, for no apparent reason, with Carrington’s emotional opaqueness. On more than one occasion, I thought Dear Esther was shameful for wasting Curry’s compositions on wannabe humanistic commentary, but on the other hand, at least there was one thing in the game that felt consistently human.
The game design can prevent one from comprehending the messages of the husband. Depending on the path you walk in Dear Esther, you might activate voice-overs in an order that makes some musings indecipherable and thus meaninglessness to the story you are piecing together. This approach seems to suggest that developer The Chinese Room wants the player to go through Dear Esther more than once to get a proper understanding of the story. Replaying Dear Esther is far from an inspiring thought, as the pace of the character’s gait is slow.
Many have compared Dear Esther to Proteus, but the latter first-person game is full of life: you can inexplicably run up a hill, you can put animals in motion, and you experience the tones of the seasons before being lifted into the heavens, a suggestion of spiritual transcendence. Dear Esther merely revels in spiritual incoherence when you happen upon part of a dilapidated ship that looks like a cross or when you spot two books on the ground, one a religious text and the other a science book, with no comment from the protagonist. You will also see random white paintings and phrases, one of which alludes to the conversion of Saul from the Bible: “a light from heaven shone around him and he fell to the ground.” With these details, Dan Pinchbeck panders to the idea of being deep and spiritual, though he would probably not write a game called “Dear God” because, based on Dear Esther and the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, he is resigned to using the Lord’s name in vain.