And who is Donnelly?
Dear Esther is a visceral, haunting experience that is as horriffic and suffocating as some of the scariest games on the PC. Released by thechineseroom, Dear Esther is a mod-turned-indie project, which could previously be found on Desura, playable as a mod for Source. Keeping with Source, thechineseroom spent years along side Jessica Curry who scored one of the most beautiful soundtracks in video-game history, and Nigel Carrington, who provides exquisite narration through the entire experience.
Part of the sub-genre of Indie games known as ‘interactive storytelling’, Dear Esther is a ghost story that takes place on the coast line of the English countryside. You appear at a dock-yard and slowly make your way across the old, run down and desolate greens and purples around you, entering buildings and noting information and drawings as the narrator provides an emotionally evocative contextual understanding of everything you see.
For the most part, the narrator is as confused as you are – and with relatively no traditional game mechanics, you feel lost as you make your way through the breathtaking scenery.
As the story goes on, you discover more and more about the narrator as he yearns to discover and question things about his past, and some mention of an accident that drove him to the island. Starting considerably underwhelming, the initial steps on the English country-side consist of trailing through featureless albeit beautifully rendered grassy verges, initiating you into the theme of the game.
For around 20 minutes, I found myself trailing along to cello’s and stringed instruments as the eloquently written narrator digs further into introspection. The feeling of helplessness and utter disillusionment acts as a vehicle within which to immerse you into an otherwise sparse and uneventful journey. The deeper you get, however, the more you notice that things aren’t quite what they seem.
In increasing numbers, pots of florescent paint are laid around the caves and buildings with the chemical formula for Ethanol manically written all over the caverns and sides of structures. With increasing intensity, the narration takes a more intense, somber tone, and the music reflects this nervous change in dynamic. Soon, you’re falling free-fall into a pit, only to enter in a cavern.
Looking up into the caves was one of the most surprising and breathtaking moments I’ve ever had in a video-game, this juxtaposed beauty was – from a technically perspective – totally unexpected from the Source engine, and from a story perspective: relatively jaw dropping.
It becomes quite clear that this ghost story isn’t without its ghouls. Although there’s no combat in Dear Esther, you are being watched. The vocals in the music and – throughout the game – 5 opportunities to spot robed individuals works incredibly well with the tone of the dim and darkening English country-side, with a 1970′s horror feel that is genuinely chilling. If immersed, Dear Esther will play with your cogency and reveal a gaming experience that as far as I’m concerned is entirely unique to the blend of music, narration and theme that thechineseroom delivered.
Dear Esther is purposefully incoherent, but it does have a story… at least… whatever you can make of one. There are chemical elements, books, and story relevant tid-bits that all merit their own contextual narration all plastered around the country-side. Some players will hear different things to others, with some parts of the narration jumbled to different points and relying on different triggers. What I understood from the story is that you had lost someone – who I shan’t name for fear of ruining it – in a car accident, and you’re unable to come to terms with the loss, forever bound to the area, piecing the story together, working out who caused it – unable to forgive them.
In all, Dear Esther comes in short at about an hour long – but the experience will stay with you forever. Dear Esther, with its easter-eggs of Ethanol, Dopamine and cell circuitry, which increase in frequency the further you get, and the intensity of the music and narrative, is an incredible gaming experience that really shouldn’t be missed.
It is a depressing, emotional, evocative foray into the mind of someone completely and utterly lost – and Nigel Carrington with the score by Jessica Curry, fronted by thechineseroom, have created something that will suck you into his world – choke you, suffocate you and confine you to the confusion and angst of the narrator. Like the truest Empath, should you subject yourself, you will feel just as the narrator feels – and like the most haunting novels, you’ll not forget the experience.
Buy the soundtrack, buy the game. Dear Esther is easily digested conceptual artistry, played out like a well truncated novelette, with an aftertaste that’ll stay with you for as long as you remember.