Dear Esther

Dear Esther isn't a game. I'm not even really sure what it is - it's fairly hard to describe. There's no real gameplay or rules. You can't interact with the world at all. The only thing I can say for certain is that it's an engaging experience.

Dear Esther is a mod for Half Life 2 which puts the player in the shoes of a man who is currently stranded on an island. The nature of the incident which left him stranded is vague. Strange markings line the walls. A narrator starts describing your journey as you walk along, but it quickly becomes about more than your travels. A sense of regret and loneliness fills the level. Moving forward brings a sense of psychological dread I had rarely experienced in a game.

The game layers a mysterious narrative and level design into a different type of experience. The level weaves in and out of the story in exciting ways. They meld into this experience full of psychological terror and palpable dread. The narration is the level is the story.

Why You Should Check This Out: A sense of encroaching dread stalks you while you slowly uncover the secrets behind the story. If you're into the more cerebral brand of horror, Dear Esther won't disappoint. It's level design informs the narrative, which intertwine in interesting ways.

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Comments

For once I'm ahead of you! You can't see me, but I'm strutting around proudly like a c*ck male hen with his chest stuck out...

I downloaded this a week or so ago. I'm glad you put it on the front page, it deserves all the attention it gets. Very atmospheric, and while it's not a traditional game, it's very much worth experiencing.

I loved this thing, whatever it is. Maybe you're right that it isn't a game, though with the breadth of what is called a game I always have trouble ruling things out of that category. It certainly isn't about achieving an objective or overcoming any sort of challenge. For me, though, a big part of gaming is just being in the places that games build, and this excels at that.

The music and the voice acting are also really unexpectedly amazing, getting better and better as the story progresses.

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]As far as why he was stranded on the island, it is all vague and confused, but what I got from it was that this was a place he had visited often, and that he moved there permanently after Esther died in a car accident with "Paul" (maybe the guy's name, maybe a reference to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus - it's all confusing) in order to live as a hermit.[/color]

I loved this thing, whatever it is. Maybe you're right that it isn't a game, though with the breadth of what is called a game I always have trouble ruling things out of that category. It certainly isn't about achieving an objective or overcoming any sort of challenge. For me, though, a big part of gaming is just being in the places that games build, and this excels at that.

I think generally tying the definition of video game too much to "video" or "game" is a little limiting. It's become a different thing. Does that mean Dear Esther is a video game? I don't know.

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]That's most likely the literal interpretation of the story, but with all the various ghosts you see on the island I wonder if it's maybe a little more metaphorical than that. It could also be him just going crazy.[/color]

Never mind. . .

Should I assume that you need a full, purchased copy of Half-Life 2 to run this?

Correct.

Rallick wrote:

Correct.

I don't have HL2 installed and the Half Life 2 SDK was enough to run this. Do we need to buy HL2 to get the SDK?

Really? Interesting. I do have the SDK, but I only got that with HL2, so I don't honestly know.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Should I assume that you need a full, purchased copy of Half-Life 2 to run this?

I actually have an extra copy of HL2 on my steam account that I can't get rid of (even my sister already owns the game.) If you don't own it, send me your Steam ID and I'll give it to you.

Ugh, can't get to FileFront to download the damn thing, but Fileplanet has it here:

http://www.fileplanet.com/196430/190...

Are there puzzles to solve?

peacensunshine wrote:

Are there puzzles to solve?

Nope.

Dysplastic wrote:
spoiler wrote:

[color=white]I don't think the island is literal at all - I think the island is the main character (Paul?)'s mind. He's filled the island with strange writings, drawings, and objects that are all representative of this major event (The Accident) and his life aftewards. This theory clicked for me when I saw the cars sunk in the water when you're in the caves. There's no way those cars got there - so it strikes me as a dream/coma thing.

[/color]

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]I think the island functions on both levels. There was one very telling quote (and here is where it gets odd, because due to the randomization I have no idea what quotes you might have heard while playing it), where he says "Just as Donnelly became his syphilis, I have become this island." There's also "I feel I have given birth to this island," and the way that the white lines in the rock represent the way shepherds would historically carve white lines into the cliff faces to either call ships for rescue or to warn them away. I think the narrator is incorporating the real place into himself and forming a metaphor out of it. The talk about historical people on the island like Donnelly and the other hermits that had lived there before him don't really fit into the idea of it being entirely internal - they speak more to him joining a long line of ghosts and tragedies that haunt that place. Being incorporated into the island at the same time that he incorporates it into himself.[/color]

Dysplastic wrote:
spoiler wrote:

[color=white]You walk up the long mountain path with all the "Damascus" writing on the walls, you get to the top and the radio antenna is right in front of you, with some kind of stationary dark figure ahead of you. I crashed right there

[/color]

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]You really were right at the end. After that, there is a cutscene and some narration (which, I assume, is also randomized so that each person would hear something different), and I'm not sure but I think he jumped to his death.[/color]

WALL OF WHITE!

Switchbreak wrote:

WALL OF WHITE!

Yeah, it's about time to break that and just go without spoiler tags. At which point I will avoid this thread like the plague until I can play through it. Dysplastic is counting on me!

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Yeah, it's about time to break that and just go without spoiler tags. At which point I will avoid this thread like the plague until I can play through it.

I think a good rule for FB threads would be to use spoiler tags on the first page and abandon them after.

adam.greenbrier wrote:

Dysplastic is counting on me! ;)

Pff. Whatever, I don't need you to write my thoughts for me anymore - Switchbreak is doing a great job of it

Which is to say, I did hear the quotes you mentioned Switch, and I agree with your analysis.

EDIT: One thing I forgot to mention, if you're thinking of playing this - it's a buggy thing, and if you move to quickly the audio can sometimes trigger over itself, leading you to miss what's being said (which is 50% of the point of the game). When you hear the dialogue start, move slowly, lest you miss something.

I played it almost to completion, but it crashed before I could see the ending and for some reason quicksaves weren't working - so I had no saved game and didn't want to go through it again. Can someone tell me what happens after:

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]You walk up the long mountain path with all the "Damascus" writing on the walls, you get to the top and the radio antenna is right in front of you, with some kind of stationary dark figure ahead of you. I crashed right there

[/color]

I'm not sure if it's a game, but it's a wonderful experience. I think it captured the atmosphere of a really dark, damp, foggy day to perfection - I felt miserable just wandering around that island. The way the backstory was revealed was also excellent.
I think where this piece succeeds is by showing that even the limited amount of interactivity provided through the movement mechanics and a first person perspective can make a certain type of story much more engaging than it would have been otherwise. I wouldn't have had the same kind of emotional response to this piece had I been watching a video of it, had it been in third person, or had I been reading it. It's basically a short story in video-game form, but one that could only have been told well in that medium.

Right?

Anyways, onto theories!

spoiler wrote:

[color=white]I don't think the island is literal at all - I think the island is the main character (Paul?)'s mind. He's filled the island with strange writings, drawings, and objects that are all representative of this major event (The Accident) and his life aftewards. This theory clicked for me when I saw the cars sunk in the water when you're in the caves. There's no way those cars got there - so it strikes me as a dream/coma thing.

[/color]

Dysplastic wrote:
adam.greenbrier wrote:

Yeah, it's about time to break that and just go without spoiler tags. At which point I will avoid this thread like the plague until I can play through it.

I think a good rule for FB threads would be to use spoiler tags on the first page and abandon them after.

I usually go by how many posts are white. I probably called it too early in this one, but whether you're on the first page or not, when the last few posts are all white it seems silly. But you're right that there should be a bit of breathing room for people wanting to post questions about the game before discussing its content.

Dysplastic wrote:

Pff. Whatever, I don't need you to write my thoughts for me anymore - Switchbreak is doing a great job of it :)

I've been replaced!

There are no puzzles, you cannot interact with the world at all. The use key is essentially useless.

I did not know there were random elements to the quotes. I'll have to try it again and see if I hear anything new.

***SPOILER***

Can I nerd out? Thanks.

So, I'm in my second walk-through of this game and something just hits me in the face: That's the chemical formula for alcohol and the other formula (the Benzene ring with the 2 OH molecules and the NH2 molecule) is the molecular structure of dopamine. Also, the orange cell-looking things are actually neurons.

In-game, the narrator mentions electrical signals and circuits.

So, I get online and search for circuitry symbols and find these:

http://www.kpsec.freeuk.com/symbol.htm

These are all over the island. The most common symbols I see is the symbol for a transistor and the symbols for capacitors.

Here's what I think is going on:

The narrator is this Jacobson guy. His real name is Paul. He's in love with Esther. They were in a car together and this Donnely guy hits them in a car accident on a road named Demascus. Esther is in a coma or she's barely alive (this is why he keeps saying, "Come back, Esther!")for some time and eventually dies. Later, creamated.

He often mentions how he tries to go back to the place of the accident, but there's no marker. He believes the accident was caused because Donnely was drunk, but he's starting to realize that it could have just been a bad road to be on. He does all he can to remember Esther, but it's not enough.

He mentions that she came to visit him when he had kidney stones. Her speech and presence was replaced with opaqueness by a drunk (Donnely). This led to his kidney stones being replaced by the island (so, his pain was from his stones but is now the island).

The island is real but symbolizes his pain/suffering. Paul retreated to the island because he lost Esther. He slowly comes to realize that we are just dust and ash and that our existence is just a bunch of electrical signals. He begins to lose his mind and doesn't want anyone to help him, so he carves the 2 lines into the rock. He begins to realize that the only way to see the light as Esther did (Acts 22:6) is to kill himself. So, he writes his story on the island, literally and then acends to the highest point to kill himself to find his Esther.

I'm going to play through it again to iron out the details. I could be (and probably am) completely wrong.

This game is like the bastard child of Myst (the solitude and setting) and The Dark Eye (narration and imagery). I like it.

That's a really good analysis. While we're nerding out, though, let me poke some holes in it. First off, I think Paul is the drunk, not Donnelly, and the Narrator is someone different. He mentions having tea with Paul at one point to talk about the accident. Paul may not actually be the guy's name, because the narrator often seems to get confused between the symbols in his head (the apostle Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus) and reality.

Donnelly is never mentioned in the context of the crash, just in the context of the island - from what I can tell he was a previous hermit who lived there, and wrote a history of tragedies that happened to people previous to him. He also had syphilis and went insane from it, foreshadowing what happens to the narrator.

I think you're onto something with the electrical circuits having meaning - I remember the first symbol you see is a diode (which only allows current through in one direction) just before passing a spot that once you cross it you can't get back up. It seemed like they were trying to introduce you to the concept of the circuits and tell you to pay attention to them - though later on they get way too complicated to possibly have a simple, direct meaning like that diode.

I remember the Narrator saying Paul Jacobsen and Esther Donnelly (I have no idea if those are actually their last names, or if it was another bout of craziness, but that's how he said it). So yeah, I think the Narrator is someone different.

Then again, I'm definitely mostly confused by the game.

I never really got the Myst connection but you're right, that's an excellent analog to the isolation and tone of the setting here.

I can't remember the names, but here's the characters I remember

Narrator
Esther
Drunk Driver
Syphilis ridden author of book about island
Middle Ages-era shepherd

One thing chronologically that I wondered about was the broken leg. You actually experience the broken leg, but I heard him talking about it before you enter the cave. Are you hearing a diary written after he gets to the top? Or is he writing it during?

Warning, I have a bit to say, summary at bottom if you don't want to read it all.
I almost totally agree with Camnipotent. A thing I would like to add, is that in the final cinematic the speaker seems to make reference to preventing similar things in future. I presume he is referencing drunk driving, kinda saying, through his example (as a testimony) he hopes to prevent further drunk driving deaths. And also, I believe that it was the drugs rep, (the other car) who was the drunk, simply due to the amount of emphasis put on the other man, and the speaker appeared to reference him in a manner of disdain.

In terms of the literal/ symbolic existence of the island, I think that after his wife/ girlfriend/ sister w/e died, he adopted erratic tenancies, stole the book from the library as he saw a hermit as someone he could relate to; as the speaker was a recluse in an urban environment, effectively a hermit. And a fascination grew for this Island, as he felt that it would be a place that he could live in peace. And travelled to the island to live a life inspired by the hermit, which in turn was inspired by the Shepard. Whilst I believe it to be literal, it could also be symbolic of his pain and suffering. And as afore mentioned, the loneliness that is associated with the Island is not alien to him, it is part of his life already, so the loneliness appears to not scare him. A similar idea to this is explored in the poem, Desert Places by Robert Frost. http://tinyurl.com/2yfvwn

And I am not a physics/ chemistry boff, so I have no clue about the symbols and chemical structures etc.

An interesting concept that the speaker explored was when he was talking about his diseased leg, saying that he wanted to cut the infection out and hurl it into the sea. A very similar idea to Mark 9 43-44
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out.

And considering he was arguably about to end his life, this may have some relevance/ significance.

Sorry for my rambling. In terms of how I feel about 'Dear Esther,' I feel that it is a fantastically crafted poem and everyone who has source SDK should experience this.

JamieWil wrote:

I feel that it is a fantastically crafted poem and everyone who has source SDK should experience this.

I think this is probably the best summary of Dear Esther that I have seen so far. If you're the type of person who isn't terribly into impressionist art, or poetry, you're not likely to get a lot from the experience. Sadly, when it comes to art, I'm simply out of my element. I really doubt the thoughts the creators were trying to evoke in the finale were "Damn, that crazy Brit really vandalized the hell out of this pretty island!"

I'm certainly glad I spent some time wandering through this little multimedia poem. Even if I fail to truly appreciate the feeling they were trying to evoke, I do find it fascinating to observe people attempting to develop a new medium.

PyromanFO wrote:

One thing chronologically that I wondered about was the broken leg. You actually experience the broken leg, but I heard him talking about it before you enter the cave. Are you hearing a diary written after he gets to the top? Or is he writing it during?

That's what makes me believe that you are the narrator or at least 'doing' what the narrator experienced.

There are a couple parallels with the broken leg metaphor:

1. The infection from the broken leg is really going to kill him if he doesn't end his life first. His journey to the top of the island is a means to his end, but the leg is slowing him down.

2. You are the infection. You are there when the leg break happens and you're 'climbing through the body and veins' of the island to reach the inevitable. The twisty paths are the paths of the infection and the paths will eventually lead to death.

3. The car accident is the infected wound. It happens suddenly and it makes the journey through life difficult, but to top it all off, the infection to the wound (his pain and suffering) is becoming a severe problem. His heart won't be able to take it as the infection continues to worsen and there's only one way to end it.

JamieWil wrote:

And I am not a physics/ chemistry boff, so I have no clue about the symbols and chemical structures etc.

The first chemical diagram you see is in the first house. That's the alcohol molecule. The narrator is definitely blaming the alcohol for the accident. The other molecule structure is that of dopamine. Dopamine controls a lot of a person's feelings and emotional states. It acts as a reward mechanism for a lot of things (food, drugs, sex). It's believed that a high concentration of it can lead to schizophrenia and social withdrawal.

I don't know how this guy knows about the formulas or structure of the molecules. I think he's just reducing things down further. Like with the eletrical signals, the causes to his problems are just an arrangement of atoms.

Tell me when someone posts a runthrough on YouTube. I don't have HL2.

camnipotent wrote:

The narrator is this Jacobson guy.

I thought Jacobson was the shepherd?

One thing that cropped up twice in my playthrough was a reference to boats with holes in the bottom being the only way to reach the island. When I approached one of the sunken fishing boats he said something like "there must be a hole in the bottom. How else could the hermit have made his way here?" Later, the narrator said something about how he should have torn the bottom off his boat and sailed over the freeways to the island. No idea what it means.

One thought that occurred to me is that the circuit diagrams and neurons could have been some reference to the injuries Esther suffered in the crash, if she suffered some sort of neurological damage. Of course, the diagrams are also heavily linked to Donnelly so who knows.
Also in my playthrough there was one quote that may link Donnelly to the crash. When talking about the accident the narrator said something like "he should not have been there, with his chemical and electrical symbols." No mention of him by name, but the diagrams were generally only mentioned when talking about Donnelly.

muttonchop wrote:
camnipotent wrote:

The narrator is this Jacobson guy.

I thought Jacobson was the shepherd?

Yeah, I'm still not sure if that's right. I think the last 'Paul Jacobson/Esther Donnely' thing may be a link to my reasoning. I'm giving it a third playthrough tonight. Let's hope that clears something up!

FenixStryk wrote:

Tell me when someone posts a runthrough on YouTube. I don't have HL2.

FenixStryk wrote:

Tell me when someone posts a runthrough on YouTube. I don't have HL2.

I would say that it may not be the same experience at all if you simply watch it, as the exploration elements, and how you discover the environment is a key element to the experience. It's worth maybe borrowing a friend's copy or something.

FenixStryk wrote:

Tell me when someone posts a runthrough on YouTube. I don't have HL2.

It won't be the same at all watching it as playing it, as JamieWil said.

You don't need HL2 to play it, just the Source SDK. That pretty much means any source game, if i'm not mistaken - a bunch of which can be played for 10$.

Besides - the Orange box can be had for $30 at this point - an absolute steal. Just do it.

Quite the experience, I was genuinely freaked out by the time I started climbing the grassy hill toward the house, beyond that, it was disturbing as only few games have been for me before.
Sadly, the narration was a bit hard to hear/understand, and the fact that it was poetic in nature made it harder somehow. It could benefit from close captioning, but other than that, more that worth the download.