FBT vs The Great Outdoors. The Great Outdoors wins.
Dear Esther is basically a flashback to when your mum would make you turn off the computer and go outside to play, because it was better somehow. Well, it isn’t. Deposited in a windswept, deserted island in the Hebrides, we’re an unnamed man who wanders the island, recalling memories and composing a letter to Esther.
And that’s it. It’s like getting lost in google maps street level. There’s no direction, hints or clues. On the plus side, there’s no infuriating puzzles; on the negative side, there’s no infuriating puzzles. It’s just this bleak island which triggers our character’s internal monologue as he formulates a letter to Esther. There’s not even a Slaughtered Lamb you can duck into for an ale and game of darts.
But then, that's the point. Walking Sims are all about taking in the sights, being an observer and delving into a story that's already happened - I loved Gone Home, and one of the reasons for that was I became invested in the family, concerned for them. But Dear Esther just takes it too far. It's too disconnected, distant, desolate, like the location.
A lot of critics raved about DE at the time, spouting about feeling ‘contemplative’ afterwards and moved by the experience, but... no. It’s just a critic’s darling, one of those games they rave about because they can spew superlatives and be all intellectual. Bottom line is, you can have the same experience in Skyrim with the mission marker turned off.
The dreamlike, disconnected narrative absolutely has its moments – what is the significance of this place? Why do this here? Is he here to find her, is he hiding from her? Why mention the hermit that lived here, what are the strange markings, and what is the letter for? Am I really here? What is his plan? The problem is, the game leaves it up to you decide, and really all I want to do is leave. Without some mystery, some curiosity, there's no momentum so eventually you lose interest.
Once you get over the beautiful island, there's not much else to hold you here. The island might be a metaphor for his life, but meandering through a metaphor for hours means you drop the meta and wonder what it's all phor. At one point I commit suicide just to liven things up; he hears a voice telling him not to wade out to sea, so I do, but he just washes up again.
You’re just walking and waiting for the guy to pipe up – and, it’s fair to say, the dialogue is often over-wrought rather than gripping. If I’m supposed to want to understand this man or Esther, then it fails, partly because the story becomes confused and partly because WTF are you on about.
It does provoke some interesting thoughts about gaming; open world games subtly push you forward; you think you’re left to your own adventures, but you’re not really – they’re crammed with stuff the devs want you to be doing. And now, I understand why. All I ended up considering, as I stood on some windswept hill, was why is this a game?
It’s just too abstract; I get how unique this is, that its an interactive novel, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that, well, it’s boring. Unless you’re a huge fan of the Hebrides. And at times, I am. The battered coastline, fields, valleys and cliffs, the sounds of the wind and sea, it is an incredibly real and haunting place, but not for long. Another frustrating thing is there’s no save option. You have to find all the fragments and cremation urns to unlock a chapter, and since you have zero clues, notes or suggestions, you end up like some Metal Detectorist staring at every blade of grass hoping it’ll trigger a chapter unlock. When Auto Save is your only encouragement, you’re in for a slog.
Basically, it’s like being conned by a rambler friend to take a hike but then they spent the entire miserable, wind-swept afternoon banging on about their ex - I grew up in Devon and once, a friend and I got lost on Dartmoor. It was two long hours before we found the car again, and the only thing that kept us going was arguing over who’s fault it was. This reminded me of that, and this time I don’t have anyone to argue with. And it was his fault.
There is something undeniably beautiful and brave about Dear Esther, and I was annoyed that I couldn’t get on with it. I understand those who found it affecting, but for me, that's what the movies and books are for. Games involve us. I played the app version during my commutes - a perfect situation to just wander a beautifully rendered island and get lost in a story of regret and loss, but I kept just staring out the window instead; least that journey felt like it was getting somewhere.