The Caves is the third level that appears in Dear Esther. This level takes place deep inside the island, offering a unique and completely different environment than any of the other three levels. It is especially remarkable for its high-quality design and very detailed environment.
The caves are a combination of narrow passages and huge chambers. Natural features include a number of underground streams, waterfalls, stone bridges and sinkholes. Many parts are also littered with collections of stalactites and stalagmites. The area is lit by a combination of bioluminescent fungi and cave paintings. The cave paintings, produced by mixing regular cyan paint with the glowing fungi, depict chemical equations and circuit diagrams. Other human sightings include a number of origami paper boats, which have been left to float in one of the many streams. The area is fairly precarious, with long drops and narrow passages providing potential obstacles for the player.
As the narrator falls down into the caves, he realizes that 'there is no turning back'. At this point, you have to navigate inside the caves and climb up again. This might be a reflection of his major depression, followed by his 'ascent'. It is at this point the narrator made the conscious decision of taking his own life as shown at the aerial. "There is no other direction, no other exit from this motorway. Speeding past this junction, I saw you waiting at the roadside, a one last drink in your trembled hands. I’m traversing my own death throes."
This could seem to be the transition of sanity, where he leaves himself behind; finally realizing that he is "beyond redemption" (Whether Donnelly concludes the same at this point is left to wonder).
This plays as Chapter 3 opens.
- Donnelly did not pass through the caves. From here on in, his guidance, unreliable as it is, is gone from me. I understand now that it is between the two of us, and whatever correspondence can be drawn from the wet rocks.
- Did Jakobson crawl this far? Can I identify the scratches his nails ruined into the rocks? Am I following him cell for cell, inch for inch? Why did he turn back on himself and not carry through to the ascent?
- According to the the Narrator, Donnelly never entered the caves. He either never found them or quit before he reached them. It is possible that Jakobson did due to his raw fingernails containing traces of the phosphorescent moss that grows within the caves.
- The levels file in the maps folder is named 'Esther'.
- When standing on the stone bridge about halfway into the cave system, a small paper boat can be seen floating under with the stream. This corresponds to an event later in the game. The stream ends at a cave wall where a number of other paper boats have seemingly stopped as well.
- Curiously, stalactites and stalagmites are almost never aligned in couples on the same vertical axis, which is technically impossible, since stalactites are formed from water dripping from the ceiling, and stalagmites are formed from water dripping from these very stalactites. This is likely because the island is not real, as suggested numerous times in the monologues.