STAFF REVIEW of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition (Xbox One)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016.
by Cole Jackson

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Box art Dear Esther is a strange game. I'm really not sure I can call it a game, though maybe to not do so would be a disservice to the creators, as your participation in the game is what makes this more than just an audiobook. Dear Esther is more art than game. There is no gameplay besides walking around and listening to a voice over, no puzzles, and no enemies. You cannot interact with anything; in fact, every button besides the analog sticks just zooms you in so you can look at your surroundings. This game is best described as an experience; it's something you just follow along with and enjoy. If you are looking for something fun that has actual gameplay then this is not for you. If you want an experience within a video game; something that transcends classic gaming and has its own artistic merit, then Dear Esther is a perfect starting point.

I am going to keep this as spoiler free as possible, as the entire game just needs to be experienced to fully immerse yourself. In Dear Ester you walk around an island while listening to the narrator tell a story. As you hit certain areas on the island he will talk and you just look at the environment and listen. It's about 1.5-2 hours long in total, so it can easily be completed in one sitting. As you walk across the island the tale cryptically unfolds as you listen to the narrator tell his story. The developers specifically made it very ambiguous while keeping the game's path in focus as it is entirely linear.

You cannot stray off in any way, though you can look around at the environments. Things like a lighthouse, ships, and caves litter this island for you to walk past. You may have to play the game multiple times to hear every voice clip and get the whole story, as they are triggered when you go to certain points, and there's an achievement for listening to them all.

The beauty of the game lies in the art. The textures, music, ambiance, and sound effects are all incredible. From the wind howling in your ear to the caves and cliff faces of the island, everything is gorgeous and really immerses you in the story the narrator is telling. It is creepy and beautiful all at the same time. The night sky is the best I've seen in a game, and the view from any high point on the island is amazing. The Chinese Room really made the island and the narrator come alive; which is necessary for a game where that's all you do is walk, watch, and listen.

One of my favorite aspects of Dear Esther is that as you climb mountains and stairs, your character slows and you can feel the weight of having to trudge uphill. It makes every step feel like it's important and that you are actually achieving something. The beauty of the game is in the tale it tells, and every aspect of the design really enforces that feeling. The details are all there and really do a service to the story.

The Landmark Edition of Dear Ester includes a directors commentary, which I do not recommend listening to the first time you play. Play the game once, or even more, to understand it, and if the director's thoughts interest you then turn on the commentary. They discuss their reasoning for creating such an ambiguous storyline, but they don't explain what it actually means.

When I first heard about Dear Esther they told me it was a “walking simulator”. I assumed that was just a fancy genre title and that you would walk around, collect items, or solve puzzles, but no, you walk, you look, and you listen. You immerse yourself in a beautiful story and once it's done you Google the ending to try to actually understand it. It is an enjoyable experience for the 1-4 hours you may get out of it (depending how many times you play it through), but as I said, it's an experience, not a game, and it has to be viewed as such. If you can appreciate video games as art and want to enjoy a unique and interesting way to tell a story then definitely give Dear Esther: Landmark Edition a shot.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 9.0 / 10


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