Horror works by unnerving its audience. By taking them out of their comfort zone and presenting them something just a bit off. It creates a tension between the normal and the out of place. For every appearance of a monster, psycho, or ghost, there is the threat of death and harm. The threat creates fear, and the fear creates the tension.
So what happens in a game when that creates an unnerving atmosphere, but no threat?
Dear Esther is a ghost story. You appear on an uninhabited Hebridean island off the mainland of Scotland. You hear a voice reading letters to a woman named Esther, passages from history, and meandering snippets of thoughts. Images of circuitry, neurons, chemical compounds, and finally, sentence fragments are painted everywhere across the island. And as you walk around the island, shadowy human like figures can be seen in the distance at random points that disappear when approached or when you lose line of sight. Are they really there or are they a play of pixels against the scenery?
While I’m sure many of you already know these facts about the game, I feel it necessary to write them to make this point. All of these elements, including the voiceover readings of the letters (a representation of the letters themselves found in the last section) were there before you arrived. The ghosts that inhabit the island are figments of the past. They are not really there. And after seeing some or hearing about them from others, you may even convince yourself to have seen some that weren’t even there as figments. All of this is important to the meaning of Dear Esther.
Much speculation has occurred concerning what the letters to Esther signify or mean. Many have replayed the game to hear new passages read aloud to try and glean some insight into who all the people mentioned in the letters are and how they are interconnected. Repeated motifs crop up in the letters, such as parallel lines, infected legs, bottomless boats, kidney stones, Damascus, and other things. Humans will find meaning in anything. We’re designed that way.
The player is the narrator who is Esther’s husband and who has lost a part of himself in her car crash. That much is obvious. But there is so much more to the story than that. Donnelly, Paul, Jakobson, and the hermit all may or may not all be the same people given they way that the narration weaves in and out of his thoughts. The player is already dead, forever circling the island. The ghost story is about a ghost and that ghost is us. The player is haunting an uninhabited island off the coast of Scotland forever running in circles, using both his feet and his mind.
Certain motifs can be connected to different elements of his tragedy. The parallel lines that come up several times could connect to the parallel lines in the center of the road that Paul violated and which caused the accident. They could, but the lines in the cliff side that warn away sailors by suggesting the danger of disease or the lines running up the narrator’s infected leg have no real connection to the tragedy outside of the man’s mind. He is making literary and thematic connections to what to him was a real world event. We as the audience do that because Dear Esther is a creative work, but when a character in the work does the same, such connections become suspect. It’s postmodern self-reflection in which the work becomes about itself rather than about something else. In doing this, Dear Esther becomes less about what those connections might mean in a symbolic sense and more about the meaning behind the work trying to make those connections.
Dear Esther is an unnerving work. It removes nearly all agency from the player save looking and moving. There are signs of life and the artifacts of someone who went to a great deal of effort to create paintings and shrines and broken phrases all over the island, yet there is no one but us. The narrator switches tenor and persona multiple times throughout the game, sometimes within the same short passage. At one point, he becomes Paul writing about being carried off by Donnelly, her husband, who was screaming that he wasn’t drunk as if it were a revelation. But of course even if it were true, it changes and signifies nothing. Throw in some crumbling, filthy buildings and items that switch locations in between playthroughs and you have a game that is very “off.” For much of it you can’t quite put your finger on what exactly is wrong, but were some quiet horror to rise from the depths or to descend from the hilltop, it wouldn’t feel out of place. It would relieve the tension of you know not what.
Dear Esther is about the search for meaning. The man, Esther’s husband, has lost his grip on the world because of her death. That was so senseless act as to break his entire sense of a world with meaning. He visits Paul in some hope of understanding why he did what he did. He drives up and down the small section of the M5 in hope of uncovering some clue or tidbit of information to reveal the hidden meaning behind the event, but he can’t even find the site of the accident. Desperate, he retreats to an uninhabited island and warns off all potential visitors in the time honored way of the place by cutting into the rock to create parallel white lines. He takes the history of the place and makes it his own. He leaves tribute to the hermit who may or may not have existed, but soon he becomes the hermit. He describes Jakobson’s death by infection and soon succumbs to the same fate. He creates maps like Donnelly, or is he Donnelly? Is any of what he said true or useful? In the end, it doesn’t matter. The island grants him no answers. It can’t; it’s just an island. And so he casts himself off the top of the radio tower.
Except, he begins his journey anew at the lighthouse. He haunts the island as he now begins his repeated journeys going over the same false, meaningless data he possessed in life. All the artifacts of his solitary existence are there, but he cannot interact with them. He cannot touch the letters, open the books, or move the furniture. He is a ghost forever wandering, his own quiet, subdued existential nightmare in search of meaning.
The quiet horror of Dear Esther is that it places the player in this man’s shoes (whomever he may be) and sends them off on the same journey that the narrator is going through and continues to go through. An industrious player may try to find connections and decipher the letters to uncover who is who and what is going on, but it is a fool’s errand. There is no meaning to it, and the information is so muddled that we can’t be sure that the narrator is remembering the stories accurately or even that he is recalling the letters to Esther accurately. There are two tragedies for this man. The first was losing his wife. The second is to be condemned to this eternal hell of his own making.
To me this is the horror of Dear Esther. Locked into a fate of eternal repetition and utter meaninglessness. It isn’t your traditional horror story because it isn’t within the work itself that the scares reside. It’s what you bring out of this ghost story into the real world that scares the most: the ceaseless doubt of one’s own actions and search for meaning. As the cold wind and moments of lonely contemplation leave their mark, we as the narrator haunt the island, and as a consequence, Dear Esther haunts us.