My first experience with Dear Esther came in October 2010, in my first published article on Gaming Daily. I approached the encounter blindly, having a vague list of expectations in mind based on the knowledge that it was a Source Mod. It took around an hour for those expectations to be whittled away, one by one, until I was left with nothing but questions. ‘Who is Esther?’, ‘Who did I play as?’, ‘What was I just playing?’ ‘Did that even qualify as a game?’
Now, almost a year and a half later, most of the questions I was asking myself at the end of Dear Esther still linger in my brain but I find that quite endearing. I look back on my confusion with fondness because I knew that I experienced something that dared to be different and dared to challenge narrative conventions.
My opinion was shared by quite a few other critics as well as hundreds of other gamers who formed a sort of cult following for Dear Esther. Among those ranks was Robert Briscoe, formerly of DICE, who did something potentially very dangerous with one of my favourite mods; remaking it for a wider audience.
For the uninitiated; Dear Esther is not a typical game. Many standard requirements to fulfill meaningful play aren’t present. There is no interface, no combat, you are an invisible protagonist who remains unnamed and the narrator gives you chunks of the story in the wrong order as you make your way around an unknown island. It sounds more like the recipe for an apocalyptic mindfuck, but these are all things that made Dear Esther so brilliant in the first place and now there was a chance that some of it had been lost between original and remake.
So when I first booted up the new Dear Esther, I did so with a degree of trepidation. Happily, I very quickly discovered that every effort had been taken to ensure that this Dear Esther is almost exactly the same as the original, with some minor enhancements here and there plus one blatantly obvious improvement.
When I say ‘minor enhancements’, I really am talking about miniscule differences. In the original Dear Esther, which, aesthetically speaking, was very obviously a Source mod, you could bunnyhop around the island as you might do in Half Life 2. Briscoe’s taken the very small but noticeable step of taking jumping out of the remake, which is good because to try and speed through the experience of Dear Esther was to ruin the reverence of it. However, that doesn’t necessarily go too well with a similar change, which is lowering your walking speed. It feels like, at several points on the island, there’s a fork in the road. You’re not sure which path to take, so you can go and explore this shipwreck, or go and see what those strange lights are by that cave. Sometimes you’ll find nothing at your chosen path and have to go all the way back at a tediously slow pace. This is a change that, whenever I’m presented with potential detours and vistas, makes me reluctant to explore them.
This is a real shame because there are some magnificent views in this new Dear Esther. This is entirely down to the graphical overhaul it’s received. I thought that Portal 2 looked good under Source but Dear Esther is now the most beautiful game to use the engine so far. I could throw around more words like ‘gorgeous’ and ‘stunning’, but I think Dear Esther’s newfound attractiveness is best summed up by this fact; in a game that lasted me exactly one hour, I took 203 screenshots. Most of those were in the caves, which have to be seen for yourself in order to be fully appreciated.
With more visual oomph, the narrative of Dear Esther does become slightly clearer at times. As you go through your journey on the island you find little set pieces that coincide with some parts of narration, to explain them in any detail would spoil them for when they happen to you, and they were a pleasant surprise to me, someone who still had the original mod fresh in the memory.
But that’s it. That’s the extent of the changes between the original Dear Esther and this remake. For paying £7 you get the same story, same voice actor, same soundtrack, all experienced at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace with super enhanced visuals. It feels like the only thing even remotely worth paying for there are the upgraded graphics. Otherwise, Briscoe’s Dear Esther carries the same cocktail of emotions and confusion that made the original so potent, but with the original being a free mod, why should you pay for a remake that basically just has better graphics? If you’re someone who likes throwing money at indie projects to support them, you won’t find many more worthy causes than this and I love Pinchbeck and Briscoe and everybody else at The Chinese Room for bringing such a brilliant experience to the attention of a much broader audience. Yet as I played through Dear Esther this time around, I just couldn’t find enough reasons to justify spending money on it. I still love it, but if it’s the experience you’re after then you may as well download the original mod.