This review contains spoilers for the end of the game.
I normally don’t rush over to review a game once I beat it. It usually takes me time to find the words to bring my thoughts to life; but, this game just gave me the words after I was done. I was compelled to start writing. So, here we are.
I bought Dear Esther awhile back, with the intention of streaming it this month. I knew very little about the plot. Typically, I like to dive in blind on games and just experience everything first hand. I don’t know what drew me to this game either, except that it looked interesting. I wasn’t expecting anything really spectacular, but, this game opened my eyes to how little I knew about grief and loss.
When I first played the game, I assumed the role of an anonymous narrator who came to the uninhabited island of Hebridean. As I explored the island, the narrator would read a series of letter fragments dedicated to a woman named Esther. The letters suggest that Esther was his wife and as the plot unfolds I found out that she was killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. As I progressed through the island different letters are given, revealing different aspects of the story and weaving a tale of both history and pain. These bursts of insight added a lot of depth to the story and made the journey all the more heartbreaking as I eventually reached the final destination atop the island’s peak.
The game has several locations that all add a sense of peace and wonder. I guided the narrator through the remains of buildings with various graffiti, a shipwreck, and even a cave system whose walls were adorned with images and bacteria. The various locations are beautiful but also give a strong sense of isolation felt by those who lived on this island before or were stranded there. There are times when all you hear are the ocean waves crashing against rocks before the music picks up with a melancholy tune that just fits well with the story. I would just listen to the waves crash, for a while, before moving on to the next area.
The more I played this game, the more I started to understand the journey that the narrator took and I gained a deep understanding of the final outcome. Like the narrator, I lost my dad in a car accident, right before Christmas. I felt a sense of numbness for the first year where I would just get in my car and drive without a destination. I would find myself drawn to locations that hold powerful memories – like Fort Phoenix State Reservation where I would sit and watch the waves crash while remembering the history lessons my dad would teach me – or I would drive along Cape Cod just remembering our long talks about everything before we hit Mashpee to swim at the resort.
The narrator’s outlet for his grief was his letters to Esther. These letters really gave a sense of how important she was to him and how her tragic death brought him to the island. The letters opened up his world to me as I played and I hung on every word. His words made me feel close to him; when he would speak I would feel his pain when talking about Esther or find myself thinking of my dad when his letters would switch to a history lesson of a lone farmer. It made me think about how many discussions my dad and I would have after watching the History Channel.
I understood his grief – which was strangely similar to my own, yet different. All of his emotions were familiar and they made me tear up as memories of my dad were present. I felt like this character was an old friend sharing his love for someone who died tragically to me in such a beautiful manner. Yet I also felt like an intruder spying on him as he journeyed, dealing with his grief.
I felt that when he described holding her ashes and grinding them into his palms it was similar to how I hold a photograph of my dad and just use my eyes to look at everything until my eyes get sore from staring. I try to absorb his image into my mind as I picture the narrator doing when he would hold her ashes.
The closer we got to the radio mast at the Island’s peak, the more his grief transformed into a rage. As the game took over and he climbed to the top of the radio tower I found myself wanting to stop him, somehow, from jumping – yet I was powerless to do so. I just became a spectator watching someone I had become close to choose death over life. I felt that, for him, there was no choice. He knew he was going to die from an injury on the island that had become infected. He admitted that he left no trace for any searchers to locate him because this decision was made long before the island became a factor.
As the narrator falls to his death, he is transformed into a crow, his letters to Esther soaring everywhere. His last word is hers. I felt this was a fitting end, even though I wanted to reach out and hold him close – let him know that she would want him to live, just like my dad wants me to live. Yet, the end was what it had to be. It stood out for me in my own transformation upon dealing with the loss of my father. Like the narrator, I had a choice to make on how I was going to deal with my own grief. I had two roads to take where they would be equally hard and I had to make my own decision.
Grief is a powerful mistress who tugs at the very fabric of your soul; and, once she sinks her teeth into you, it’s extremely hard to break free. However, grief can also turn into something positive – once you find your way to defeat the pain, you become stronger than you were. I was finally able to let my own grief go last year, grief that was buried for so long, and I had some great friends who were there as I finally said my good-bye so I could begin the healing process.
I felt a close connection to this man as we had a bond that was different from any other game I experienced. I would say the second character I felt was similar was Terra from Final Fantasy 6. I was able to see things not just in his eyes but my own. It felt like I took a journey with him and we were both transformed together for the better. Even though I never saw his face, he felt like an old friend and I had to help him with his journey as he helped me with mine.
Dear Esther is a journey that I’ll never forget. It’s a game that lets you move at your own pace with a gripping story that is relatable for anyone who is experiencing grief or a loss of a loved one. While I found myself often lost in the scenery or even the music, the game’s pace was a welcome break because it allowed me to just be content with watching the ocean’s spray or exploring every nook and cranny in my own time, not the game’s. I really enjoyed just looking around and finding odd things, like a paper sailboat floating past on the stream in the caves with no reason as to why. I didn’t really need a reason, either, as it just felt right to have it there without any explanation.
Dear Esther is a game I strongly recommend to anyone looking for a break from other games. It’s different from any game I have ever played, and it’s the only game that has really touched me. It’s a breathtaking story that fully engulfed me from the very start and didn’t let go until I did. While the pacing may be a turn off for some, I really felt it added to the overall game flow.
Dear Esther was a game that I knew nothing about but left with a deeper understanding of my own loss – and for that, I’m eternally grateful. I hope if you do decide to try this game it will hold a special meaning for you as well.