After looking into the next game in Frictional Games’ Amnesia series, A Machine for Pigs, I found that a company called TheChineseRoom are designing it. So naturally my inquisitive mind told me to go in search of TheChineseRoom and see what games they’ve released in the past, their only title being an interactive story call Dear Esther.
Dear Esther started out as a project at the University of Portsmouth led, directed and written by Dan Pinchbeck. Former DICE employee Robert Briscoe had later joined the team and aided in completely remaking the game with the support of Pinchbeck and the rest of the crew at TheChineseRoom, the support of Nigel Carrington came for the voice of the lost man, and the musical talents of Jessica Curry were used to create the thrilling soundtrack.
Dear Esther is an interactive story of an explorer, trapped on a desert island after surviving a ship wreck, all alone with nothing but memories of a car accident and why you’re on the island. The game focuses on nothing but exploration and storytelling, which part of the story you hear is dependent on where you go during your exploration, there are many paths you can take which make up many parts of the story.
So you start out on a jetty ramp next to an abandoned light house with the ocean lapping at your feet, this is where we first hear our invisible protagonist read aloud from his letters to Esther, at this point your exploration starts. There are a few limits to where you can explore, for instance when you swim into the ocean you will begin to sink under the tide, when this happens you are met with blackness and flashing images of structures that can be seen around the island. Your best bet is to follow what tracks you can find and explore the caves and houses whenever you find them, doing this unlocks parts of the story that will automatically play more often than not with music to accompany them.
While exploring the island you will get to experience probably some of the most beautiful environments in gaming, with huge landscapes covered in foliage, even rubbish washed up in the surf that can be seen when you’re walking along the beaches. The Island is believed to have been abandoned for many years, yet while exploring you find possible lit candles and items scattered around, these could indicate that you’re not alone on the island or that you’re simply retracing your steps, heading toward a desolate radio tower that seems to still be active.
The beauty isn’t just in the land, but in the underground cavern which you explore later on in the game, with caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites, beautiful waterfalls, rivers and lakes.
The beauty of Dear Esther is unmatched in my opinion, Dan Pinchbeck and his team at TheChineseRoom are really showing up all other world designers with how creatively designed and decorated they have made this island. Aside from the world which Dear Esther is based in, there is beauty in how the lost man has wound up trapped on this desolate island. As the story begins to unfold you begin to hear about characters such as Jakobson who is believed to be a shepherd from the eighteenth century, and a fellow named Donnelly who had chartered the island long before your arrival. Later on in the game you begin learning of Paul and a trip to Damascus, this helps explain some of the paintings in the caves and on the cliff faces. One character we have missed out is Esther, the Lady who is intended to be in receipt of the letters that are being read. Throughout the story you begin to learn that Esther is perhaps the wife of the lost man, how you came to meet Esther many years ago, and how she came to meet her demise through being involved in a car crash.
The ending to the game shows the lost man approaching the radio tower and climbing to the top of it, here he takes a moment to survey his surrounding before jumping to his death, though before hitting the ground, turns into a bird which flies around the island and then out to see. Could this mean that you are already dead and that your spirit is retracing its last steps before moving on? Or is it to show that he has moved on to a new life before he meets a very painful and bloody end?
When I first heard of Dear Esther I didn’t see its appeal, it sounded like a game with nothing to do but walking around, no action, nothing. Something made me want it, something was drawing me in, that and I had Hannah asking for me to get it, funny thing is that she hasn’t played it yet because she’s had her face in Fallout 3, that and I won’t get off Dear Esther to let her play it either. I have fully played through it three times now and each time I’ve heard something new or different to the last play throughs, I am to play through it a few more times in an attempt to hear every bit of dialogue the game has to offer, that and I intend to find sights I’ve yet to see.
If I had to recommend Dear Esther to a friend I would give them some advice before playing it, if you only play for the sake of playing then don’t bother, Dear Esther is more than a game, it is a story and you need to take time and really explore the island to really understand everything.