Thoughts on Dear Esther

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am and live with shadows tost.

In the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life nor joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest – that I loved the best –
Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smiled or wept;
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below – above the vaulted sky.

First and foremost, the game (well, game is probably not the most accurate term for what Dear Esther actually is but it should tell you a bit about where you can physically find and experience it – I played it having picked it up in the Steam Summer Sale) reminded me of the above poem, I Am by John Clare.

Dear Esther is a gorgeous experience – a kind of desolate psychological landscape with enough ambiguity and literary richness to repay both repeated playthroughs and the kind of contemplation I usually use for artwork (hence me covering it here – with SPOILERS).

From what I can make out (and the narrative takes pains to stay more than a little opaque) Dear Esther follows the dying thoughts of a man whose partner, Esther, died in a car crash involving a drunk driver. The other details are more hazy – I think perhaps he was also in the crash and survived, then attempted to make sense of the tragedy by researching the drunk driver – a man called Paul, but I wasn’t sure whether Paul was the same person as Donnelly –  who had written a nonsensical , or at least unreliable, description of the island.

One of the main things you notice as the narrative accumulates is that Dear Esther is replete with biblical or religious references. The most prominent being Paul the Apostle’s conversion on the road to Damascus. If you’re not familiar with the story, Paul had hitherto been known as Saul and had spent a fair amount of his time persecuting the early Christians, or at least keeping an eye on the coats of his friends so they could persecute early Christians (no, really). An encounter with Jesus during his journey to Damascus rendered him temporarily blind, permanently Christian and with an apparently unquenchable thirst for letter-writing.

Throughout Dear Esther you get references to the man named Paul and to Damascus – there are even verses from the Acts of the Apostles scrawled into the cliff face – “Light from heaven shone around him” (Acts 9:3) for example. There are also minor references peppering the dialogue – Lot’s wife, loaves and fishes, and I’m thinking that perhaps the titular Esther might also be a nod to the Jewish heroine of the Old Testament.

The theme of salvation and redemption comes through very clearly for me – the main character seems to have done a lot of travelling, retracing a particular road route, looking for an answer, looking for meaning that never comes. And as in life, so in this weird psychological islandscape. The route around the island allows for very little exploration, instead coaxing you along the dying man’s thought patterns as they become less and less coherent until finally you and he are perched atop a radio mast about to take a final flight. And in that moment you aren’t sure whether the end will come as a final thud or a freeing swoop.

A friend reviewed the game on and said that it took a vast amount of willpower to stop staring at the end screen and come back to the real world, which is exactly the experience I had. After the accumulation of more or less intelligible narrative snippets has built so well in tandem with the subtly changing environment and the wonderful score, the payoff is a sudden release of thoughts and emotions which bubble up against the blank final screen and writhe slowly into something approaching a conclusion.