Dear Esther was first released in June 2008 as a free single player Source Engine mod developed by indie game developer TheChineseRoom and was later remade for a commercial release on Steam in February 2012. The story is written by Dan Pinchbeck.
The player progresses through the plot of Dear Esther via a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther. It is not directly specified who the Narrator is, but it is generally believed that he is Esther's husband and that she is dead, killed in an automobile accident. These monologue fragments are triggered as the player reaches certain locations in the game; each one is either semi-random, or specific to the area the player is currently exploring. This semi-random selection of voice-over parts causes a lack of coherency, and forces the player to draw their own conclusions as well as making the game replayable. It can take up to 6-8 full runs in order to have seen every object and/or event at least once. As the game progresses, other unseen characters are referred to: Jakobson (an eighteenth-century shepherd and hermit) and Donnelly (who charted the island some time in the past). Later in the game, the readings begin to allude to the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, which is also the subject of some of the painted texts on the cliff walls.
At the game's end, the player reaches the radio mast/beacon atop the island's peak. The player's character climbs a ladder to the top of the tower after a final monologue from the narrator, then jumps off and falls to the shore below. Before reaching the bottom, the player becomes a bird and flies through the bay as the game ends, fading to black.
Geographical location Edit
The game follows a somewhat linear path on an uninhabited Hebridean island. A series of obscure visual symbols are painted along the rocks of the island, most of which are biological, chemical or electrical diagrams. These refer to two possible causes of the accident that took Esther's life, a drunk driver and a brake system failure.
There have been discussions about the island being a real island in the world, as well as the car accident being on an existing motorway. This picture resembles a somewhat unique scene in the 2012 remake of the game. At a certain point before the end of the 3rd level in the caves, you will be teleported to the location where the car accident took place (southbound junction 19 of the M5 motorway in the UK). The motorway reference numbers are the same in both pictures.
Dear Esther was developed and coded by TheChineseRoom, a modding project initially based at the University of Portsmouth and led by Dan Pinchbeck. The overall development was directed by Pinchbeck (who also wrote the story). The game's soundtrack was written by composer Jessica Curry, and the voice of the narrator was performed by Nigel Carrington. Former DICE employee Robert Briscoe has completely remade the game, with the full support of Pinchbeck. Briscoe and thechineseroom worked in parallel on the game's remake, with much of the level design completed solely by Briscoe based on concept art produced by Ben Andrews. Carrington again provided voice acting for the script, which was extended for the remake, and the re-orchestration of the soundtrack was again composed by Curry. Funding for the redevelopment was provided by an investment from the Indie Fund. Within six hours of the remade release on Steam, over 16,000 units had been sold, allowing the developers to pay back the full Indie Fund investment. Within the first week, 50,000 units had been sold.
There is a big debate whether Dear Esther truly is a game or just a project of art, making it a difficult task for critics to review the game. Writing for Honest Gamers, reviewer Lewis Denby praised the game's original tone, saying "Dear Esther taps into an emotion that few games dare to approach: unhappiness" and stated that Curry's soundtrack created "an impressively ethereal atmosphere". Despite commendations for its premise and story, the original mod (free version) release of Dear Esther received complaints of poor level design and numerous glitches in moving about the terrain.
Dear Esther was selected for the Animation Exhibition at the 2008 Prix Ars Electronica and made the Top 100 of Mod DB's Mod of the Year 2008. In 2009, the game won the award for Best World/Story at the IndieCade Independent Game awards.
The 2012 remake of Dear Esther has garnered mainly positive reviews from critics, receiving an average score of 80% on review aggregator Metacritic based on 23 reviews. Reviewers praised the game's originality and commented favourably on the emphasis on the story; IGN stated that the game "will leave you feeling edified, contemplative, and possibly even emotionally moved". Strategy Informer awarded the game 9/10, calling it "one of the most haunting and well-executed titles of this or any other generation".
On the forums for Dear Esther, there is a high amount of personal experiences by players who sometimes provide their own interpretation of the story. There are also a lot of players either giving their compliments as well as players expressing their disappointment.