It would be impossible to discuss Dear Esther without first acknowledging the gorgeous graphical and environmental design. With a logical scale, precision audio, and just the right amount of shading, Dear Esther does a fantastic job of making the player feel like they are on the island. Especially detailed is the hillside paths that are covered in photo-realistic foliage and artwork of the cave system under the island. In addition to outstanding land design, the skybox is incredibly detailed as well. The player is presented with a day and night cycle that corresponds to the shadows of objects, creating a recognizable reactionary response that adds to the immersion of gameplay. Other than the parts where a glaringly white text box pops up and covers the bottom third of the screen, I felt highly immersed in the game.
I started out exploring the abandoned buts that were on the cliff side under the impression that I was supposed to learn something about who the inhabitants of the island were. I was surprised, however, when I realized that my character was unable to interact with the environmental objects and pick things up. Certainly, the inside of the houses were dirty, but there seemed not to be evidence that anyone had lived in them recently.
I then proceeded down to the beach to look around. Again, I must stress how nicely the water texture was layered over the sand. It is also here that the soundbox plays it’s part perfectly. With headphones the sounds of the ocean crashing onto the sand to my left and the echo of the canyon to my right, I actually felt my presence on that beach.
The most interesting part was the caverns under the island. It is here that the thoughtful lighting became most apparent. There are few cases where the lighting failed to illuminate crucial details and the light was designed to be felt in the air as shown by the screenshot above. The cave sequence seemed important because it combines both a sense of discovery and claustrophobia, which utilizes a real player fear to represent the narrator’s state of mind. The effect is interesting because, of course, I wasn’t there, but I received a very present feeling as I was exploring the cave.
After finishing the game, I realized that Dear Esther is a combination of a dreamlike world and internalization. From the notes, it seems that the island is a physical manifestation of a person’s mental state, perhaps signifying either hallucinations or some disorder. Certainly, from the way the game path places the player at the lowest point of an island (a beach) and guides to the player to the very top (the radio station), we are experiencing a journey of self discovery for the narrator. Whether or not this journey ends for the narrator and he is delivered to peace, however, remains to be seen beyond the abrupt ending.
Edit: On the note of the island as “a physical manifestation of a person’s mental state”, there seems to be a connection between the surface of the island, a very plain, grassy landscape that could be reflective of the outward appearance of a certain personality. However, on the inside, perhaps literally “under the surface” as represented by the vibrant caverns, there is a more troubling mental situation reflected by the use of bright colors and jagged spires. The use of neon colors in the cave in contrast to the grayish green surface of the island suggests a discrepancy that can be interpreted as the inner mind either affect by the use of narcotics or the result of some mental disorder.