Ben Andrews (concept art)
|Release date(s)||Microsoft Windows
February 14, 2012
Mac OS X
May 15, 2012
Dear Esther is an experimental first-person adventure art video game developed by thechineseroom for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. First released in June 2008 as a free Source engine mod, the game was entirely remade between 2009 and 2011 for a commercial release in February 2012. The game does not follow traditional video game conventions, as it involves minimal interaction from the player and does not require choices to be made nor tasks to be completed. It instead places focus on its story, which is told through a fragmented, epistolary narrative as the player explores an unnamed island in the Hebrides.
The status of Dear Esther as a video game has been contested by reviewers, but the game nonetheless received a positive critical reception following its release on February 14, 2012.
Gameplay and plot 
In Dear Esther, the player explores an uninhabited Hebridean island, listening to a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther. The narrator's identity is not specified, but there are suggestions he is Esther's husband and that she is dead, killed in a car accident. The player hears these monologue fragments as they reach certain points on the island, and are chosen by the game semi-randomly; this means that different playthroughs generate slight differences in the story, as certain readings are played while others inevitably get omitted. In his letters, the narrator refers to several other unseen characters. One is a cartographer named Donnelly, who charted the island in the past. The narrator refers to Donnelly's book frequently in his letters. Another character, Paul, is suggested to have been the drunk driver in the car accident that killed Esther. The narrator also details the life of Jakobson, an eighteenth-century shepherd who lived on the island. The identities of the narrator, Esther, Paul, Donnelly and Jakobson become more blurred as the game progresses, as the narration moves between topics and relates the characters in different ways. The random selection of voice-over parts causes ambiguity and forces the player to draw their own conclusions of the story.
At the game's end, the player reaches the radio mast atop the island's peak and climbs a ladder to the top of the tower during a final monologue by the narrator. As the player jumps off and falls to the shore below, their shadow becomes that of a bird. The player soars through the island's bay before flying low over an array of paper boats in the water—the many letters the narrator had written to Esther.
The original rendition of Dear Esther was one of several mods developed by thechineseroom while the studio was still a research project at the University of Portsmouth. The project was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Dan Pinchbeck, a professor and lecturer at the university.
Former DICE employee Robert Briscoe began work on completely redeveloping Dear Esther in 2009, with the full support of Pinchbeck. Briscoe and thechineseroom worked in parallel on the game's remake, with much of the level design completed solely by Briscoe based on concept art done by Ben Andrews. In redesigning the island's landcape, Briscoe aimed to eliminate the confusion caused by the original game's layout, and to fill out the environment with "richer, visually interesting" features to improve on the barren landscape of the original mod. In March 2011, while the game was still in development, thechineseroom lost the financial backing of the University it had hitherto relied on. The studio had banked on the University to pay for the Source Engine license needed for a commercial release of the game, but the University's legal department were dissatisfied with the license agreement and refused to sign it. Thechineseroom turned to the Indie Fund for finances, who were hesitant at first but after playing a demo, agreed to fund the project. The Fund's Ron Carmel stated "As soon as people started playing it, the tone of the conversation just completely shifted, and people were very much in favor of supporting this project". Within six hours of the remastered release on Steam, over 16,000 units had been sold, allowing the developers to pay back the full Indie Fund investment. As of July 18, 2012, over 250,000 units had been sold, of which 118,000 occurred during Steam's Summer Sale.
The voice of Dear Esther's narrator was performed by Nigel Carrington, whose script was extended for the remake. The game's music was composed by Jessica Curry, a freelance music composer and co-director of thechineseroom. In the remake's development, Curry overhauled and re-orchestrated the score to be fuller and longer, featuring more instruments and reaching nearly double the length of the original soundtrack. The music of the original game was released for free on July 8, 2008, shortly after the mod itself was released, and the remastered soundtrack was released on February 14, 2012 via Amazon and iTunes and later on Bandcamp.
|Dear Esther Soundtrack|
|Soundtrack album by Jessica Curry|
|Length||24:04 (mod ver.)
47:43 (commercial ver.)
The original mod release of Dear Esther was selected for the Animation Exhibition at the 2008 Prix Ars Electronica and made the Top 100 of Mod DB's Mod of the Year 2008. In 2009, the game won the award for Best World/Story at the IndieCade Independent Game awards.
Reviewing the mod for Honest Gamers in 2009, Lewis Denby praised the game's original tone, saying that the game "taps into an emotion that few games dare to approach: unhappiness" and stated that Curry's soundtrack created "an impressively ethereal atmosphere". Despite commendations for its premise and story, the original mod release received complaints of poor level design and numerous glitches in moving about the terrain.
|PC Gamer (US)||84%|
|The Daily Telegraph|||
The 2012 remake of Dear Esther has garnered mainly positive reviews from critics, receiving an average score of 70.96% based on 27 reviews and 75/100 based on 37 reviews on review aggregators GameRankings and Metacritic. Despite questioning whether it truly constitutes a video game, reviewers praised the game's originality and commented favourably on the emphasis on the story; IGN stated that the game "will leave you feeling edified, contemplative, and possibly even emotionally moved." Strategy Informer awarded the game 9/10, calling it "one of the most haunting and well-executed titles of this or any other generation." However, critics were divided by the suitability of the video game medium for conveying the story of Dear Esther. Maxwell McGee of GameSpot claimed that "[the] story in Dear Esther works well in video game form--possibly more than as a book or movie." McGee went further to claim that "video games allow for pacing and discovery that would be impossible to reproduce elsewhere." Reviewing for Destructoid, Allistair Pinsof claimed the opposite, stating that the game "would be better as a short film", although doubted whether "if Dear Esther were a short film, if its vague plot and predictable conclusion would be effective." Eurogamer also offered criticism of the plot, calling the writing "purple in places and wantonly obscure in ways which will draw accusations of pretentiousness", and joked that "the [game's] tendency to deploy extended car metaphors occasionally steers the writing into oncoming traffic." However, the review commended the lasting impact of the story, stating that "its two-hour long chill will remain in your bones for a long while after."
The limited interactivity between the player and the narrative in Dear Esther also divided reviewers. Pinsof stated that "[the] ironic thing is that the most pedestrian of stories can be convincing when coupled with intelligently applied interaction -- something Dear Esther stubbornly stands against." PC Gamer did not find the basic gameplay to be a problem, stating that “the lack of puzzles is necessary: it’s crucial to the experience that you’re allowed to keep moving at your own pace. […] Without puzzles, the visuals and narrative are allowed to take precedence.”
The level of detail in Dear Esther's environment was given broad praise by critics. Reviewing for bit-tech, Joe Martin called the game "a graphical masterpiece", commenting that "what gives Dear Esther's visuals such a poignant edge is how masterfully it extends the sense of loneliness and isolation that's conveyed in the script". Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Tom Hoggins noted the effect of the game's more minor details, stating that "[the] broad strokes of Dear Esther's visuals are majestic, but the finer details on the landscape are the most revealing."
At the 2012 Independent Games Festival, Dear Esther received the prize for "Excellence in Visual Arts". In its 2012 Awards, Develop awarded Dear Esther the prize for "Best use of narrative". At the TIGA Games Industry Awards 2012, the game won the "Originality Award" along with the prizes for "Best Action/Adventure game", "Best Visual Design", "Best Audio Design" and "Best Debut Game". The game was nominated for five awards in the 9th British Academy Video Games Awards.
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- thechineseroom. Dear Esther. PC. (2012) "Narrator: I first saw him sat by the side of the road. I was waiting for you to be cut out of the wreckage. The car looked like it had been dropped from a great height. The guts of the engine spilled over the tarmac, like water underground."
- thechineseroom. Dear Esther. PC. (2012) "Narrator: [...] and you were rendered opaque by the car of a drunk."
- thechineseroom. Dear Esther. PC. (2012) "Narrator: Reading Donnelly by the weak afternoon sunlight. He landed on the south side of the island, followed the path to the bay and climbed the mount. He did not find the caves and he did not chart the north side. I think this is why his understanding of the island is flawed, incomplete. He stood on the mount and only wondered momentarily how to descend. But then, he didn’t have my reasons."
- thechineseroom. Dear Esther. PC. (2012) "Narrator: Is this what Paul saw through his windscreen? Not Lot’s wife, looking over her shoulder, but a scar in the hillside, falling away to black, forever."
- thechineseroom. Dear Esther. PC. (2012) "Narrator: The bothy was constructed originally in the early 1700s. By then, shepherding had formalised into a career. The first habitual shepherd was a man called Jakobson, from a lineage of migratory Scandinavians. He was not considered a man of breeding by the mainlanders. He came here every summer whilst building the bothy, hoping, eventually, that becoming a man of property would secure him a wife and a lineage."
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