Dear Esther: Never Judge an Island by its Narrator

Dear Esther by The Chinese Room (2012 “remake”)

        Laden with symbols and metaphors, Dear Esther’s tale of a shipwrecked narrator comes with a steep grade of complexity making for quite the cerebral experience. You walk in the shoes of a rather somber fellow who is intent on saying a whole lot while explaining very little. He talks of this island he’s washed upon as a familiar place, recounting its history of long departed shepherds and an old hermit named Jakobson. As he punctuates your exploration with short voice-overs, the border between reality and imagination blurs as strange markings light up cave walls and his words start to seem all but literal.

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Washed ashore

        At face value, the story is teeming with enigmatic phrasing, contradictions, and seemingly unrelated allegories, making it difficult to decipher. Over time however, if you are observant – or patient –  enough, you begin to notice recurring themes within his script directing you towards the key components of the story. Once you’ve pieced the puzzle together, you can then re-interpret the island and its relation to the narrator, with many possible explanations.

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         A major shortcoming in the presentation this mystery is that the player, with a small margin of error,  is provided with all of the major plot points a little over half-way through. This leaves the information gathered throughout the rest of the game to either solidify those preconceptions or introduce finer details. In these story-focused games, I expect the ending to be where all of the bomb-shell answers are dropped. What is this island really? Who is Esther and why is the narrator writing to her? What do these symbols mean? All of these answers can be conceived well before the finale of the game, leading to a somewhat lackluster, albeit up to interpretation, conclusion.

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The aerial that always seems so distant

      The craggy shoreline, with all of its low shrubbery and desolate beaches, was not a very welcoming sight at the start of journey. Trudging through the gloomy landscape, listening to confusing stories from the narrator, I grew somewhat weary with my seemingly endless pilgrimage to the aerial; especially with the poor level design that  leads the player to dead-ends, forcing them to retrace their steps to an easily unnoticed staircase going the opposite direction. All of this continued…until the caves.

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As if transported to a different planet, the caves are a sight to behold

       Walking in awe below the crowding stalactites where the earth itself fluoresced with life, a selfish excitement brewed within me. While the entire game is, undoubtedly, elegant in its style and atmosphere, these underground passageways were exceptionally remarkable. These feelings were due mostly to personal aesthetic  preferences and partially to the more concrete story points revealed there.

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Castle in the Ground

         The third point of the triangle of game quality – the first two being story and visuals, with flow enclosed within them – is fulfilled by a unique soundtrack that encapsulates the mystery and oddness surrounding the island. Contemplative most of the time, somewhat unsettling at others, piano, string quartets, and ominous voices fill the air with a certain sadness, blending well with the narrator’s short monologues.

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“This Godforsaken Aerial”

        Dear Esther is for those seeking a non-traditional storytelling experience who don’t mind taking things slow. Though only taking 90 minutes to finish one play-through, randomly generated alternate dialogue gives it valuable replay value. Winning awards such as “Excellence in Visual Arts”, “Best Audio Design”, and “Best use of Narrative”, Dear Esther  will leave you with a lasting impression that’s hard to describe.

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Dear Esther is available on Steam and on the Dear Esther website.

Visit the Developers: The Chinese Room

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 A BIRD’S EYE VIEW

Music – 7.5/10

Visuals – 8/10

Flow – 6/10

Story – 6.5/10

Final Score – 7/10

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