It's been eight years since Dear Esther started as an ambitious indie mod, and presented us with the term "walking simulator". We didn't get to share our opinion of this genre-defining game back then, but with the release of the Landmark Edition we've decided to change that.
The concept of Dear Esther is quite simple. You walk around on very linear paths on a Hebridean island as the game's narrator reads different sections of his diary. It is here that he talks about someone called Esther and what happened on the island. Nigel Carrington's soothing voice does a great job of giving us a vague references as to what happened on the island, and who Esther is. His delivery subtly changes as you progress through the story, which helps build up the tension. Some of you may not like some of the more heavy-handed literary style, but we found its vagueness intriguing after getting used to it. The diary entries will give you just enough information to make some details clear, while also giving room for your own interpretation of others. As some of the environmental details will change in different playthroughs you might end up with different feelings about the story each time. This is clearly a one to two hour experience, best served with subsequent discussion with others, sharing experiences, opinions, and interpretations.
This vagueness is also represented in the environments. You'll find ship carcasses across the coastline, weird rock formations, lush hillsides, and caverns decorated with stalactites lit by an otherworldly glow that makes the island feel mysterious, while also real. Every environment reflects a mood, and helps build atmosphere. That's why it's so disappointing to see foggy textures when you get close to inspect the minor details. It then becomes especially clear that the original game is four years old. Fair enough, the lighting left us very impressed, but the graphical fidelity doesn't quite live up to today's standards. The mysterious wall paintings, pictures and books are often impossible to read, which lessens the otherwise great sense of immersion.
Audio-wise the game is minimalistic, yet mostly effective. Music is often absent, leaving you with the soothing sound of the waves and wind. You'll usually hear deep strings and piano when going into new environments, or when encountering moments of narrative significance. As with the narration, the music is generally beautiful, but will at times get a bit too symbolic with obscure narrative-linked sound effects.
Dear Esther: Landmark Edition also includes an all-new developers commentary with Jessica Curry, Rob Briscoe and Dan Pinchbeck. Spread across the island are small indicators that will activate when walked over. Here you'll learn more about the game's development, how they feel about the term "walking simulator", design decisions and more. This might be interesting if you're a giant fan of the game, but it's not worth the new purchase alone. They mostly talk about obvious design choices, with a few snippets of interesting details in-between.
We definitely understand why Dear Esther has inspired so many games after it, but also why it's so controversial. The very restrictive gameplay makes it almost movie-like, but the little influence you have enhances the experience. Exploring the mystical island and learning more about the story at your own pace gives a sense of immersion you wouldn't get from a movie. But let's make it clear: Dear Esther isn't suited for every gamer. The heavy-handed symbolism will throw a lot of people off, however, if you're willing to look past this and the lack of varied interactivity, it's definitely worth it for the low price tag.