Getting lost in ‘Dear Esther’

| Video Game Editor

“Dear Esther” is an art game. It’s lavish, polished and beautiful, but for all of its prettiness, there is no traditional gameplay to speak of: The sole purpose of the game is to wander around on a desolate island and listen to the occasional bits of narration that flesh out the story. It seems destined to join the crowd of art games that are inevitably labeled as either pretentious or experimental, depending on who you ask. If you ask me, I’ll pause, stroke my chin, and then tell you that I think it’s worth experiencing.

The game opens with the player waking up on an empty island with no context or explanation besides a short voice-over from the narrator. It begins, as expected, with the words “Dear Esther.” As you wander around, you’ll be treated to some of the most beautiful environments in any game. The levels were crafted by Robert Briscoe, who worked on the stunning cityscapes in “Mirror’s Edge.” Much like his previous work, “Dear Esther” is pure visual splendor.

When you reach the right points, you’ll trigger more cryptic narration, which becomes increasingly deranged as you head deeper into the island. Oftentimes the narration will tie into whatever landmark you might be looking at, giving you the unique sense of retracing the narrator’s descent into madness.

The story, or at least the fragments of it that are presented, is constantly engaging, if not always easy to follow. Between the narrator jumping around in perspective and the odd biblical references, the plot of “Dear Esther” might almost be too enigmatic for its own good. Part of that is a result of the rather flowery writing, but, given how artsy the rest of the game is, it seems like a natural fit.

It’s clear that story, sights and sound are the focus of “Dear Esther,” and you’ll be able to figure that out just by playing the game for one minute. There are no controls besides “move” and “look.” No jumping, no sprinting, no interacting. And did I mention that movement is locked at the speed of molasses in January?

I suppose it all sounds rather miserable. When I first began playing, it kind of was. I chafed at the painfully slow pace of the game, and I wished the narration would come together and finally start to make some sense. I thought “Dear Esther” was too artsy, even for me. But I kept on playing. I plugged in my headphones, as it seemed like the isolated setting somehow called for me to be isolated from my surroundings. Somewhere along the line, it clicked.

I “got into” the game. With the melancholy violin soundtrack whispering in my ears, I eventually became unaware that I was moving at a snail’s pace. I took in the fragmented narration, but I didn’t try to comprehend it. I lost myself to the breathtaking environments, and I didn’t look back. The underground cave is one of the most visually arresting scenes I’ve seen in a game. It’s full of hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites lit with a soft turquoise glow. The next area, another underground cavern with its own waterfall and fluorescent fungus, is possibly even more gorgeous.

Then it was over. I finished “Dear Esther” in a little over an hour. At its price of ten dollars, it’s certainly on the lower side of the content-to-price ratio. The developers say that the narration bits are random, making every playthrough different, but I don’t see that convincing potential buyers. I believe “Dear Esther” is worth experiencing at least once, but not necessarily for its current price. If and when it goes on sale, though, it’ll be well worth it to lose yourself in its bleak atmosphere.