Dear Esther: a narrative about gamers

I’ve always had a soft spot for Dear Esther, the landmark “walking simulator” that had humble beginnings as a free-to-download Half Life mod and eventually saw a full release. In fact it even warranted itself a “Landmark Edition” some years after that release, featuring small but pleasantly updated graphics, director commentary and some additional audio.

While many did – and continue to – question the game’s validity as a video game at all, due to the lack of interacting with pretty much anything in the game, I’ve always felt that Dear Esther did two things incredibly well. The first: it stood to prove that a “walking simulator” is still just as valid a piece of media as any other average game, and can still offer an experience to the people playing it without needing to rely on the usual trappings of most games. The second, and more important: it was a fantastic narrative on video gamers, the very people playing all of these many thousands of games.

What is Dear Esther’s story?

Ask a hundred different people that have actually played the game from start to finish at least once, and you’ll probably get a minimum of twenty answers. They’ll all feature the same basic staples – such as there being a woman called Esther involved and the player character being a male, and there being a tragic car accident in which Esther died – but that will be where many similarities end.

Even today, nobody can quite decide on what sort of story Dear Esther is trying to tell. And there are people who have put hours into multiple, continuous playthroughs of this game to try and unravel the mystery that the developers have always kept secret. Personally, I think it’s nothing short of genius, because honestly the story of Dear Esther is in fact not important.

The game’s narrative isn’t actually related to the story at all. The story doesn’t matter in Dear Esther, because I don’t think that the game is trying to tell you a complete story of Esther Donnelly in the first place. The characters have only the barest bones applied to them, and it stays that way. While the purple prose of the game can be both alluring in some instances and thoroughly frustrating in others, it all serves to act as a clever veil to the fact that there is no deeper story present in terms of the characters.

What there is, however, is commentary on you as a gamer.

To understand this commentary, we do need to understand the most important part of Dear Esther’s vague story: you’re playing a dead man. Fundamentally, Dear Esther is a ghost story in which you play the part of a restless spirit haunting a long abandoned island and, ironically, haunted by his own past. Trapped in a looping cycle, and even featuring the promise of escape only to wind up back at where he started, the long-dead partner of Esther Donnelly is unable to escape a prison of his own making.

It’s very likely that he was partly responsible for the crash that killed Esther. It’s also likely theorised Esther was pregnant with child. There might have been a second person involved in the accident, but the level of their guilt as to what happened is never fully laid out to bear. All three characters are victims of the tragedy. All three are likely dead.

In the wake of such tragedy, our “protagonist” (if you can call him that) has spent the rest of his life searching for a reason to explain what happened. Any reason at all, any rationale as to why his partner was robbed from him. The reasons wildly vary as you play the story – from the other driver being drunk to seagulls flying low over the motorway and causing them to swerve, to our protagonist himself not being entirely sober. The game never answers any questions you have about this story. The game never answers any questions the character has about his own tragedy.

And therein lies the commentary, not on the story, but on video gamers.

Because, you see, how many times have you replayed a game to find all the information you might have missed? How many times have you turned on a game you have completed before, only to make sure that you find all the details? To see if there was a different ending? A resolution to your questions and problems?

Dear Esther is frankly genius, because it presents you with an unending mystery that is quite literally impossible to solve. There are no answers, there is no reason. You could almost call it a commentary on the human condition when it comes to tragedy in that same way, I suppose, grim as such a thought is. Tragedy and accidents just happen. What happened to our protagonist in this story was sad, and perhaps somebody is to blame, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter.

Yet, to him, it does. To our long-since-dead character, now haunting an abandoned island and searching his own hallucinations for a reason that doesn’t exist, it matters. He has to know why Esther Donnelly died in that car accident. Why that car accident happened at all. And, enraptured in the mystery, so do many players. What clue can you find to unravel the mystery? Is there a piece of audio you missed before that you might hear this time, that leads you to an answer? What if?

There is, of course, no if. There is no hidden piece of audio that gives you an actual answer. There isn’t a scribble on the wall in luminescent paint that tells you something the others don’t. The answer is right in front of your face the entire time: Esther died in a car accident where everybody was likely somewhat at fault, but nothing was intentional. No rhyme. No reason. No rationale. It just happened. Only when you accept this as a player, and put the game down, does our protagonist also find his absolution.

The game fittingly ends with our character, our ghostly apparition, throwing himself off the radio tower to what was perhaps originally his death. He becomes a seagull, becomes “as free as a bird” and he flies away, over the last level of the island. He reaches the letters he wrote to Esther, drifting aimlessly on unmoving tides in the shore, not even that far off the coast. He hears the ghostly voice of himself speak to him. “Come back…” The game fades away to black.

He wakes up at the start of the island once more, on the docks. He has a recollection of coming to this island before, but no recollection of the fact he’s made this same journey a hundred times. He talks through all the pieces of the puzzle again, trapped in his own personal prison as if there was something he missed the first time. And the second time. And the third.

Only when the player ends the game does our protagonist get to leave the island. Until you close the game, until you admit to yourself that there is no greater mystery about Dear Esther, the character is stuck in a cycle that never ends. The game acts as a perfect commentary on the very nature of gamers themselves, digging through countless hours of the same content to try and find a hidden clue they feel they missed. Hoping for new dialogue. Searching for the vague hidden meanings that might be etched into the scrawls on cave walls. The fact they don’t actually exist could almost be accused of mocking the gamers for this pursuit, but I think that’s a rather cynical outlook. Rather I think they just stand to prove that sometimes, nothing really is nothing. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t warrant a second look, or another inspection, but eventually you need to move on. Ultimately, everything has an end, and it can be a bad thing to keep expecting a hidden detail because sometimes it’s your imagination playing a trick on you.

In summary, Dear Esther is a fantastic game. It has a haunting soundtrack, and I love walking through the simulated island of solace and loneliness. As a British person with some experience travelling to many areas, the game captures the essence of British countryside remarkably well, and I genuinely find it easy to get rather lost in the eerie beauty. The game does have a few hidden secrets, in the form of various other ghosts appearing across the island, to give a nod to those with an eye for detail. But ultimately the game speaks volumes about humans and especially gamers, searching for reasons and stories in places where sometimes there is nothing extra to be found at all. It’s cleverly written and purposefully vague, eluding to a greater mystery that isn’t there at all, and I won’t pretend I didn’t play the game multiple times trying to figure everything out.

I did. I played through the landmark edition twice and the original version several times, always wondering if there was an extra clue. It was only on my latest playthrough I realised I was searching for something that wasn’t there – and in so doing, I was keeping the main character locked in his prison. Every time I re-open Dear Esther in the future, if I re-open it, I’m forcibly dragging him back to his isle of solitude, to relive his painful memories, to haunt an empty island alongside other apparitions of his past and make him wonder if he could have done anything differently. But there’s something remarkably freeing in knowing, myself, that there is no better ending to get.

There’s something eerily beautiful in knowing that if I play through the game again, and exit immediately upon the main character throwing himself off that radio tower, he’s getting the absolution that he finally deserves. The realisation that it might be time to move on, and that just sometimes, it’s better to just experience something and accept it for the experience it was than to linger on it with the false belief it had a hidden meaning we just haven’t seen.