I never played any “walking simulator” before this game. Even though the original version of Dear Esther was released on PC about 4 years ago, I was intrigued, but not being a PC gamer, my curiosity was never satisfied until now. It is considered as being the title that paved the way to award-winning games like Firewatch, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Returning to the sources could have been a disaster, because it happens sometimes that great games come from just…bad origins. After playing and finishing it, it left me… stumped, confused, emotional, but still very happy with the experience.
First of all, let me go over what is a “walking simulator”. Basically, in terms of this game, I am talking about a first person view of a character (that you never see) that you control by walking in a world, exploring, not in a fully open-world, but a linear environment with some big open areas. In Dear Esther, it starts on a small island that seems deserted. Then you start exploring. As you walk around, a narrator tells you a story, that you follow all around the environment when you reach certain areas. In terms of gameplay, that’s it, there is nothing else. You cannot jump, move objects, or anything like that. You have the ability to temporarily zoom in what you see, which allows you to have a better closer at some elements of the environment (by holding any button), but nothing else. You cannot run, dodge, dive, etc. There are different moments of the day though, some happening during the day, some at night, and the effects are beautiful. You are sometimes also exploring caves that are located on the mountain at the center of the island. The environments are beautifully rendered and feels…authentic, and alive.
The dream state of the story is enforced by the tone of the narrator, which is soothing, but hypnotic, and you are grasping for every little moments where he talks. Also, a very key component is the music. It is one of the best orchestral videogame music I’ve listened to while playing. It fits the tone and the melancholy of the game perfectly, and its presence and volume are just adequate to emphasize what the narrator is saying. It is a perfect combination of visual and audio components. (You can have a taste of the soundtrack right here.)
At first, it is destabilizing to have so little to do, other than walk and hear a story. And talking about the details of this story would give too much spoilers, but at the same, nothing at all. With the way it is told, it is almost like you are in a dream world or in an hallucination. It looks like you are being told a series of small stories that a man wants to tell his wife before dying. Everything is based around the feeling of love, losing someone, and grief. It is not an experience to live to go to the end result, but go on a voyage. There are a lot of open points about the story, that you many people can interpret in different ways. You can see an example of that on this Steam conversation thread.
So I definitely recommend to experience this game if you want to experience something unique (for me), that defined a new genre, and that will stick with you. When the end credits rolled (after a little less than 2 hours), I was stumped, look at it for while without moving and talking, and I was speechless for a moment. Some people could argue that it is not a game, it is more of an interactive experience, but I can live with that. It stuck with me, and now, I’m even more curious to try other “walking simulators”.