Dear Esther is a game, but you have to bend to its will to enjoy the experience
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that this story is going to explore the game and the game’s ending, and we strongly suggest you play the game before you read any further. It’s worth your time and money. You have been warned.
Dear Esther is a $10 PC experience that toys with the concepts that make, or don’t make, a game. You are a man exploring a deserted island, and every so often you’ll trigger a voice over that helps to explain what you’re doing there and describes other characters you never see. It’s a desolate, lonely game that funnels you into one specific ending that’s impossible to escape. It takes around 90 minutes to finish, depending on how much of the island you choose to explore.
You can’t sprint, you can’t pick up any objects or open any doors. The island is a beautiful place, filled with beaches that hold wrecked ships that look like the bones of long-dead animals. The game forces you to move at a deliberate pace, and you must be willing to meet the game halfway to enjoy the things it has to show you. You have to surrender your will and take in the sights and sounds of the game as they come to you. The music is sparse, but effective. There were multiple times the landscape took my breath away. I felt impatient for the first 30 minutes I played the game, but once I let go and stopped trying to force my expectations onto the game it began to work on me. There is an emotional core to this game that you won’t find in many other releases, but it takes a little bit for it to sink its teeth into you.
You are given hints about what exactly happened to Esther, although it’s clear she died. You learn the island is not a place people go to get better. Every story you hear describes pain and death. This is the end, the terminal point of your journey. You’re not looking forward at how to fix things, you’re putting your thoughts and feelings into some kind of order before you reach your destination. You may be alive, but the entire game has the feeling of a elegy, and the lack of environmental interaction is important to maintain that tone.
“Early on in the remake I did toy with the idea of adding in more interactivity to the environment, even going so far as to experiment with adding simple puzzle type elements,” Robert Briscoe told the Penny Arcade Report. Briscoe took the work done by writer and producer Dan Pinchbeck and spent two years turning the Half-Life 2 mod into a standalone game with a much higher level of polish. “Ultimately, all it felt like I was doing was diluting the original concept Dan had created with the mod, this idea that you can use a first person gaming space for something more than shooting, puzzling or other traditionally accepted ideas of gameplay, and use it as a purely story driven experience.”
Briscoe tried to add things like jumping and the ability to manipulate objects but, as he watched people playtesting the game and trying to do goofy things with the game’s physics, he decided to remove those options once again. “The lack of physical connection isn’t there to disconnect the player from the experience, quite the opposite, it serves to concentrate it. Without any distractions the player is free to immerse themselves in the world and the story, if they so allow it.”
The lack of interactivity works as long as you are willing to give yourself to the game, and Pinchbeck stresses the importance of playing the game for yourself. The game still requires you to bring yourself to it, and you won’t get the same experience from watching a Youtube video or someone playing in front of you. “The thing about games, particularly first-person games, is that amazing sense of immersion you get, that real feeling of being there,” Pinchbeck said. “I think that changes the experience totally, you just don’t get that from any other medium, and that’s really central to how Dear Esther feels… I think your personal involvement, the fact you are pushing onwards across the island, it’s your decision about what you look at, how long you take, that’s really central. Particularly as it’s such a personal experience for so many players - they have a really deep emotional response to it that’s actually weirdly private.”
And then you lose even more control
The problem, and one of the most frustrating issues with the game, is that all control is taken away from you in the game’s penultimate moments. You reach your destination, the metal tower with the red blinking light, and you throw yourself off the top. You do not get to decide to do this, the game takes control and forces you to watch. Dear Esther ends with what amounts to a video, and this change may have stripped the ending moments of some of their power. You’re offered precious little free will throughout, but it’s made clear what’s expected of you at the end, and I would have loved to climb that tower by myself, enjoyed the wind in my face for a few moments, before making the decision to jump for myself. The game may be linear, but the fact that you can control your exploration and where you look gives you a sense of ownership over your journey, and that is taken away in the last moments.
The game gives you a very slight illusion of control, but the last few minutes refuse to continue that illusion. Even if you had no other choices in how to end your voyage, the choice to hit a button and jump to your death would have been an interesting moment. If suicide is the only way out, you can at least make the choice for yourself. By switching to a video, even that small amount of player agency is removed.
The decision to take control away from the player was partially technical, and partially artistic. The long climb up the tower’s ladder seemed to ruin the game’s carefully constructed pacing when they tested the sequence with players. “Then there’s Source’s flaky ladder system which makes the experience even worse, allowing for the player to fall off half way up this huge dull climb and have to start over again, further damaging the experience,” Briscoe said. “It was such a poignant moment in the game that I just couldn’t risk the chance that it could be damaged by some unpredictable element, and so we had to make the difficult decision to take control away from the player.”
Pinchbeck also said the decision was sound, even if the tech had worked correctly. “It kind of fits; the inevitability of that final act, and I like the idea that the narrator finds this release, he kind of sits back and lets it happen, is at peace with what has happened, and that’s kind of mirrored in the player,” he said. “You’ve trudged across this island, you’ve pushed onwards and onwards and now you can be passive, let things wash over and carry on. But ultimately, it’s like Rob said, there’s not really a better option, there’s no good way of making this work without taking a huge risk that the player could find their experience wrecked in the last moments through an accident or physics collision or something like that.”
I explained why the ending had frustrated me, and he admitted it wasn’t a cut and dried issue. “I do have a degree of sympathy for that argument,” he said. “It was a tough call.”
Then there’s the ending, complete with its ambiguity. You jump, and instead of hitting the ground, you level off and fly across the island. I’ve heard others who say the game “should have” ended with a slash-cut to black once you hit the ground, but you see the world through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. You do hit the ground. At the end of the game, you die. The last scene ends with a successful suicide attempt.
Still, when I saw the shadow of the sea gull and the view pulled up and I began to fly, I felt elation. A shudder of pleasure ran through my body. I’m not sure why you experience this sensation of flying in the game; it could be the afterlife, it could be God, or it could just be the last firing of your dying synapses. The game hints at so many things. This idea of freedom and beauty as your dying vision is powerful, no matter what is causing it.
You are not reunited with Esther. You do not gain any mystical knowledge of the others you describe in your travels. But you do fly. You shrug off the mortal coil and become something better, or at least something that’s free. The last moments don’t give you any conclusions to your story, but they do provide the idea that there is something else. Death is not the end. In an experience so drenched with sadness and regret, that may be enough to quality for a happy ending.