The Dreaded Backlog: Dear Esther: Landmark Edition
Last time I played a famous walking simulator it did not end well. However, I have to say that I adored Dear Esther. Something I complained about in Virginia was that it had a story and set of implied events that were left open to interpretation, but executed without an understanding of how to do that effectively.
Thankfully this was not an issue in Dear Esther. It knew to leave the particulars of events and characters as open to interpretation, but the core story and themes are always consistent:
It’s about the depression and suicidal thoughts following the tragedy of a death caused by drink driving. It’s about loneliness and waiting to die. It’s about the various hermits that had retreated to this lonely island across time. It’s about ghosts of our past that both literally and figuratively haunt us in our darkest moments. It’s about exploring an island as you explore a soul. And it’s always about these things regardless of who your theory as to the player character is, or the particulars of who did what leading to the game’s events.
Unlike Virginia, Dear Esther understands that leaving things open to interpretation works best as a tool to allow your imagination to fill in the gaps and create the emotions subjectively yourself. Many people complain that walking simulators don’t allow you to form your own adventure like conventional video games, however in this case a walking sim does allow you to form your own heartfelt reactions. Virginia’s approach and others like it don’t achieve this because you’re so confused you don’t know what to react emotionally to.
Now we’ve got my gushing love of the story, emotions and themes of Dear Esther out of the way, let’s move onto the literal game. For an indie title it is pretty. I played the updated Landmark edition and it held up on a 42-inch HD TV. Admittedly there were some issues with textures constantly popping in front of you as you moved forward. It was distracting at first, but once I was hooked by the story I forgot all about it.
The sound design is excellent. I was raised by the sea and have been on many holidays to rural parts of Britain, including some truly isolated areas. The sound and the visuals combined really capture the feeling of being in that sort of remote windy seaside area. I was constantly reminded of the feeling one gets in these places: an appreciation of beauty, but with a tinge of bittersweet isolation.
On the writing side of things I clearly already showed Dear Esther a lot of love in this regard already. The writing says enough to give the player an understanding of events and holds back enough to allow imagination to thrive. The narration manages to be artful enough, but without tipping over into outright cheesy pretentiousness. I felt like I was experiencing a genuine existential crisis, not reading an inspirational poster with picture of a beach where there is some corporatised-faux-hippie-dippie bullshit quote written on it.
Dear Esther is the first game in a long time that I’ve not deleted from my Xbox One hard drive immediately after completion. It has a commentary track that I cannot wait to dive into. I absorb movie and TV commentary tracks at an alarming rate and this will be my first video game commentary track. I am very happy that it’s about an experience I loved. I cannot wait to get round to it.
What is a Dreaded Backlog?