Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review
I never played the original Dear Esther for PC. It released in 2012, and I was too busy playing Legend of Grimrock, Diablo III, Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Katy Perry’s Sims 3: Showtime expansion. Oh, I also graduated college that year. I was ultimately too busy to play what I thought was just a “walking simulator.” I had read plenty of player reviews condemning it for being “boring,” “slow,” and “absolutely not a video game.” I was blinded by the negativity. I convinced myself I wasn’t interested in playing it.
Obviously, you know that changed. I’d love to blame it on the fact that a Dear Esther: Landmark Edition review code for the PS4 was the only thing I could swipe from my editor’s office before he came back. But it’s more than that. You see, normally, I would have just ransomed the code back for $200,000 cash. And I did do that. But when that failed, instead of setting off a rage fire in the trash can, I sat down to play the game. And there’s only one reason why.
Gone Home came out in 2013, and I went through the exact same thing. It was called the same things, and I avoided it as well. That all changed earlier this year when my Playstation Plus membership gave me a copy for free. I downloaded it and played it on the spot. My initial thinking was that I was going to write up a hilarious article about how much it blew. If you’d like, you can check my portfolio for that article now. Did you look for it? I bet you couldn’t find it, because it doesn’t exist. I loved Gone Home. It’s one of the best games I’ve played, hands down. I loved the exploration, the story, the atmosphere, the music, and pretty much everything else. So, I decided that Dear Esther deserved the same treatment.
First, for your viewing pleasure, I have included my Let’s Play of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, below. I’m quiet through a lot of it, especially at the beginning. It took me a bit to get into it. However, once I got up to grab a drink, I got a lot more talky. Check it out if you have the time. The video includes the entire playthrough.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition
If you’re unfamiliar with Dear Esther, you may be thinking, “that’s not right; he only played for an hour and twenty minutes.” I assure you, that is right. And to be honest, I got lost for a good 20 minutes of it. I even had to restart a chapter at one point. It’s an extremely short game. Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m honestly one of the first people to declare that a game’s length does not define its worth. Again, I absolutely love Gone Home.
To get started, let’s revisit a classic trope from old times: what I expected, what I wanted, and what I got.
What I Expected
Just a walking simulator with talking.
What I Wanted
Not just a walking simulator with talking.
What I Got
A walking simulator with an intriguing story and fairly pretty sights.
Full disclosure here, I wasn’t super thrilled with Dear Esther: Landmark Edition. The hardest part of this is that the game itself is pretty difficult to talk about. It’s best to start with the basics. The entire experience exists in first-person. There are three controls for the game. The left analog stick moves you. The right analog stick moves the camera. Every other button zooms in slightly. There is no interaction whatsoever with your surroundings. On the most simple level, that’s the entire thing. You move. You look. You zoom in (optional). However, the game doesn’t advertise itself as anything different. Gamers weren’t promised excitement, guns, explosions, or even the ability to see their own feet. Dear Esther was always clear with what it was. It’s an artistic game that focuses on the experience and the story. About those.
I understand a lot about art. I dated an artist for almost ten years. To qualify for such a position, you have to do some homework. I also write for a living, so there’s that. I can respect the fact that Dear Esther: Landmark Edition probably had a truckload of symbolism, metaphor, and subtlety. Just, for the life of me, I can’t pick out much of it. I consider myself pretty art-savvy, but I couldn’t bring myself to interpret the island as a metaphor for the protagonist’s isolation from society. Okay, maybe I could, but I felt pretentious as hell for doing so. That’s the biggest problem here. The artistry behind the game could very well be beautiful, but it feels utterly pretentious.
There were several moments where I felt that the game was trying to make a point I refused to acknowledge. It wasn’t out of spite. I simply had no motivation to piece things together. I never felt there was an opportunity for me to actually sit and think about what was happening. I wanted to. Sometimes, I’d stand at the edge of a cliff and try to let everything sink in. The scenery was often very pretty and pleasant, but the game itself just didn’t fully click with me. Maybe I am just an uncultured heathen, but perhaps a game shouldn’t make me question that in the first place.
The gameplay is so little, but there’s so much to say about it. All you can do is move and look. Okay, I accept that. That’s fine. That’s what the whole game is about. But here’s a little tip. If you have extremely limited functionality in a game, you better make those function absolutely perfect. The movement is clunky and godawfully slow. And I know it’s because the game is short as it is. Having someone sprint through at Quake-speeds would be downright criminal. Unfortunately, though, I constantly felt like I was a 400 pound slob on a segway. I couldn’t step on small stones, and every incline slowed my roll to a snail’s pace. Every inch felt like I was straining that poor segway to the last screw. Oddly enough, moving so slowly still looked like I was traveling at light speed. The visuals would bleed into a strange, blur effect that felt like my eyes simply couldn’t handle the blinding speed of 0.2 miles per hour. The camera itself was pretty solid though. A+.
Now, I have a bit of a bone to pick. In the video above, right at 21:47, I hit a bit of a snag. Just from casually walking on the beach, I got completely stuck between a few rocks. No matter what I did (with the three controls I had), I couldn’t do anything. There was no getting out. I tried for a few minutes before ultimately resigning. Even then, there’s no, “go back 3 minutes” or “go back to the start of the chapter.” I had to quit to the main menu and start the chapter all over again. At least I was still near the start of that chapter. If I had been even ten minutes deep into a cave, I would have uninstalled the damn thing. I’m petty like that. It didn’t happen after that one occasion. However, I can’t be sure if that’s because it was a fluke, or because I gained a new phobia for rock formations.
The Graphics and Music
This is what we’re here for, right? Most of the game is what you see. I made sure to stop and take a good look at the environment from time to time. I looked at the coast. I looked at the caves. I looked at the grass. Considering all I had seen, I decided that I would have been moved to tears if I had seen it all in 2012. I mean that in the best possible way. Honest.
The game has aged well in the last four years. That’s easy to accomplish with so little functionality involved. There will always have to be a trade off for graphics, though. The game is pretty. Very pretty. I enjoyed what I say. I just wasn’t blown away by it. That’s not the game’s fault. It’s four years old. Unfortunately, the graphics weren’t the only thing that fell short.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the score. That was painful to admit, because I have an unnatural love for the piano. Each time the music would kick on, I didn’t feel any real emotion about it. It filled the silence and sounded nice, but that was it. Maybe I’m biased. I just came off of a fresh playthrough of Undertale, so maybe that spoiled me. That soundtrack is absolute genius. But anyway, when your game focuses so much on artistry, you should make sure that music is really something special.
If the visuals are the bread of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, then the story is the butter. And in this case, it’s more like margarine. Keep in mind, a lot of people prefer margarine. It’s just not butter. It’s trying to be, but it isn’t. I say this because the story is comprised of snippets of inner monologue that dance around the whole point. I won’t give away any spoilers, because I’m not entirely sure I even know any. This goes hand-in-hand with what I said about the artistry above. I consider myself a fairly artistic person, but I struggled to find any meaning besides a tragic accident and full disclosure about medical problems. At some points. it seems the narrator interrupts the plot to mention a legend he’s heard about. But later, I can swear he speaks about those legends as if he knows the people involved. Perhaps that’s a way to symbolize the narrator’s transition from mortal being to a mere memory and story to be told to others. Dammit! I was worried this was going to happen!
Remember when I talked about pretentiousness earlier? This is what I meant. Any moment spent breaking down the game into deeper meaning makes me feel like a pretentious jerk. That’s because it’s so vague and open by design. Hell, you don’t even know who you are or what you’re doing on the island in the first place. Maybe I was supposed to figure it out. I didn’t, though. Not even close. Even at the end, I couldn’t figure out if I was the narrator or if I had simply found his letters after the fact. That’s not a spoiler, because the game is called Dear Esther.
What makes Gone Home so successful is that it has direction and purpose. It has nearly as little functionality as Dear Esther, but has a clear and apparent purpose from the start. Doing so did nothing to damage the mystique of the game and it’s story. What it did was get me invested. That’s the biggest thing Dear Esther: Landmark Edition failed to do. I played the game. I saw the sights. I heard the story. But no matter what, I never felt invested.
By this point, you should know what Dear Esther is. If the idea of it is attractive to you, then you probably already own it. If so, then Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is available for free to you right now. Go at it. Hear the commentary. Go hog wild. If it doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe avoid it. If it’s not the kind of game you want to play, it won’t change your mind. If you’re curious, though, it’s only $10 on the Playstation Store and the Xbox Marketplace. You could definitely do much worse with your money, because regardless of everything I said against the game, I’m not sorry that I played it. And who knows, maybe I’ll be analyzing the game in my mind over the next few weeks.
As a side note, if you’re now interested in seeing me do a hugely belated review of Gone Home, let me know in the comments below. By this point, I’m pretty much just waiting on an excuse.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: Playstation 4 (reviewed) and Xbox One; Publisher: Curve Digital Entertainment ; Developer: The Chinese Room; Players: 1; Released: September 20, 2016 ; ESRB: E ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Dear Esther: Landmark Edition given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.