Dear Esther is a remarkable, haunting game. This walking simulator is rife with intertext and biblical references – a layer cake of potential meanings. Set at an abandoned Hebridean island, the player explores a dark island. Dear Esther can be interpreted as a modern ghost story. Its melancholic atmosphere and attention for haunted landscapes, rife with past memories, quickly allow us to associate it with classic gothic fiction. The identity of this narrator and the player-character remain ambiguous throughout the game. Do we control Esther? Are we her husband, or even a sea gull traversing the land? It’s hard to give closure to rich virtual poem, but let’s pick up on some of the key themes!
Dear Esther is a walking simulator in which we can interact very little with our environment. As an experience, the game owes a great deal to its narration. The voice-actor, Nigel Carrington, speaks in a solemn voice that suits the dense letters to Esther. His monologues focus on four characters, additionally to the unidentified narrator and the unidentified player-character. There’s a) the titular Esther, b) the cartographer Donnelly who charted the island; c) the eighteenth-century shepherd and hermit Jakobson and finally, d) Paul, the drunk driver who killed Esther. This character, in particular, is a source of biblical references as he is compared to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.
Paul, by the roadside, by the exit for Damascus, all ticking and cooled, all feathers and remorse, all of these signals routed like traffic through the circuit diagrams of our guts, those badly written boats torn bottomless in the swells, washing us forever ashore.
It remains unsure whether these characters are imagined or real. As the game proceeds, these different characters blend.
What does the island represent?
For any interpretation of Dear Esther, the island itself is a promising start. The player-character arrives there, but it is unclear what the island is. Should we take this literally or is it an allegory -a memory landscape or dream? It’s hard to see the island as a “real” setting. There are ghosts in the new version. Also, when the player drowns himself or falls of the cliffs, a short cut scene shows blurry, gray visuals and whispers “come back”.
The overall consensus in most reviews on Steam, for instance, is that the island is a subconscious representation of traumatic events (the husband might be envisioning this in this hospital) or represents the after-life of the characters (Both Paul and Esther died in the car crash). I have read theories which suggested all of this, but I want to argue that the island is a metaphor for Esther’s body. In one of the openings of the game, this corporality is emphasized.
Dear Esther. The morning after I was washed ashore, salt in my ears, sand in my mouth and the waves always at my ankles, I felt as though everything had conspired to this one last shipwreck. I remembered nothing but water, stones in my belly and my shoes threatening to drag me under to where only the most listless of creatures swim.
This theme of embodiment is prominent throughout the game, most evoked through the “kidney stones”. The narrator constantly refers to the burden of living. He speaks of his paint often, thus drawing attention to his felt body. The pain is leg, for instance, becomes ever more troublesome.
The infection in my leg is an oilrig that dredges black muck up from deep inside my bones. I swallow fistfuls of diazepam and paracetamol to stay conscious. The pain flows through me like an underground sea.
In this fragment, the pain is compared to the underground sea that the player has yet to discover in the cave. At other points, the narrator mention his kidney stones, which again emphasize his hurt. These stones are framed further as an extension of his body, as the rocks of the island.
I had kidney stones, and you visited me in the hospital. After the operation, when I was still half submerged in anaesthetic, your outline and your speech both blurred. Now my stones have grown into an island and made their escape and you have been rendered opaque by the car of a drunk.
This burden is disconnected from time and place. The kidney stones, for instance, are a point of comparison between him and Donnelly, the cartographer:
The syphilis had torn through his guts like a drunk driver, scrambling his organs like eggs on a plate. But enough definition remained for a cursory examination and, as I suspected, they found clear evidence of kidney stones.
The motives of sickness connects most characters in the game and lumps them together. In a way, these burdens ground the island. In a different scene, Esther’s body is observed when hospitalized:
Your hair had not been brushed yet, your make-up not reapplied. You were all the world like a beach to me, laid out for investigation, your geography telling one story, but hinting at the geology hidden behind the cuts and bruises.
Note that the narrator depicts her body as a geography that tells a story, which mirrors it to the game environment itself. These monologues express the idea that the player is not traversing a landscape, but a metaphor for the broken bodies of the two protagonists. He is travelling to the core of this body, or even bodies, “deeper into veins of the island, where the signals are blocked altogether”. These visceral metaphors are pressed further in lines, such as: ‘I’ve rowed to this island in a heart without a bottom; all the bacteria of my gut rising up to sing to me’.
The narrator muses that the island might emerged during the car crash, “ formed during the moment of impact”. Again, we do not have to look far when we interpret Dear Esther- to critically interpret the game, we just need to listen carefully, and observe.
What about the biblical references, then, and the memories?
Good that you picked up on this! To fully understand Dear Esther, we also need to understand that the game is rather self-reflexive/meta. It’s a story about stories, and more specifically, about writing as a medium that helps us store memories. Dear Esther consists of letters that represent a past trauma. The letters can be found on the beach and elsewhere during the game, as flat papers or folded into tiny boats.
The letters are intimately connected to the existence of the island. Writing has become an active deed to remember the past and come to terms with it. The narrator states: ‘They [the letters] will fossilize over the centuries to follow; an uneasy time capsule from a lost island’. The time capsule and fossil are clear references to memory and the past being actualized in the present. The game can be interpreted as an archeology of sorts, motivated by a desire to connect with the past. In this case, the point of view may also simply be interpreted as that of the player himself, and may be largely disconnected from the narrator and other protagonists.
The idea that the player walks through a memory landscape and recollects past events, is emphasized through biblical references as well. The narrator contrasts Esther and himself to Lot and his wife, for instance, and Paul to the apostle. In a most striking quote, the island is referred to as a bible, where every stone has a particular meaning:
They were godfearing people those shepherds. There was no love in the relationship. Donnelly tells me that they had one bible that was passed around in strict rotation. It was stolen by a visiting monk in 1776, two years before the island was abandoned altogether. In the interim, I wonder, did they assign chapter and verse to the stones and grasses, marking the geography with a superimposed significance; that they could actually walk the bible and inhabit its contradictions?
Parallelism is essential to understand this game. The driver, Paul, is compared to the apostle Paul. The journey of the player is compared to the road to Damascus. The road to Damascus is compared to the road on which Esther was killed (?). Particularly act 9:3-9 from the bible is referenced on the rocks: ‘And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven’. The site of the car crash – the M5 highway – is also related to Damascus. The drunk driver Paul, who killed Esther, is seen as being on this road. Deep in the cave, the letters spell on the rocks that ‘Damascus is taken’. These references to a ruined city and death give an additional meaning to the game space and story.
The climax of the game takes place in “the cave”, when the player ventures into the heart of the island, it seems, his own subconscious. In an underground lake, the player discovers a car wreck which clearly refers to Esther’s death. During the final scene of the game, this memory clearly structures the landscape. On the beach, the player finds the letters that the narrator send to Esther which are folded into tiny boats. He can uncover medical equipment that suggests Esther’s hospitalization and eventual death, as well as old photographs. This place is part of Esther – an analogy of her body and quite possibly her soul.
Who is the narrator then?
The narrator is perhaps best understood in relation to the another writer in the game: the cartographer Donnelly. The narrator claims that because of his sickness, Donnelly’s account of the island is unreliable.
He is not to be trusted – many of his claims are unsubstantiated and although he does paint a colourful picture, much of what he says may have been derived directly from his fever. But I have been here and I know, as Donnelly did, that this place is always half-imagined.
Since Donnelly and the narrator are similar – both are sick (e.g. kidney stones) and crippled – the narrator draws attention to his own unreliability and artificiality. Like I stressed earlier, this game is metafiction, part of what it does is reflect on its status as fiction – its status as imagined or told. Parallelism is one way in which Dear Esther constantly develops its meta-themes (its characters and themes blend from one storyline and character to another), but its reflections on writing and narration are another device. The sheer purpose of Dear Esther is to be open to interpretation, and open to reflection.
Several messages during the final scene and monologues of the game suggest that Esther Donnelly and Paul Jakobson are the only characters that we have learned about. The others were just there to support their tale. ‘We will send a letter to Esther Donnelly and demand her answer’, is a clear example of this. While the game can be understood in many ways, this reading suggests that Paul Jakobson was her husband and the drunk driver who killed her. These final remarks add meaning to other fragments in the game, such as:
Dear Esther. I find each step harder and heavier. I drag Donnelly’s corpse on my back across these rocks, and all I hear are his whispers of guilt, his reminders, his burnt letters, his neatly folded clothes. He tells me I was not drunk at all.
Particularly the last sentence and the words “I was not drunk at all” align the narrator with the driver. At this point, Jakobson, Paul and the narrator have already been connected at various instances, and can be understood as the same body. Similarly, an interpretation of Esther as Esther Donnelly (only symbolically “a cartographer”) augments the idea that her body is the island’s geography. This is the body that Paul Jakobson tries to commemorate when he needs to cope with her death. Esther is the island, but this is not just any island, it is a gothic landscape where guilt is visualized and re-enacted.
In other words, there are only two characters in this game – Paul Jakobson and Esther Donnelly.
- The island in Dear Esther is not an after-life or imagination, but it’s an allegory of her body (The island is Esther)
- The island reminds us of gothic fiction -it is a place of memory and guilt. We have to cope with loosing Esther after the car crash
- There are only two characters in the game: Esther Donnely (represented as the island) and Paul Jakobson (the tormented narrator and most likely also the player-character)