Dear Esther is a poem, meant to be played. Or it’s a painting, waiting to be experienced. The achingly lovely melancholy of Dear Esther is something that haunts me, hanging just beyond the cliff walls of my conscious realization.
It’s a ghost story, but who exactly is the ghost? It’s a love story, but one inscribed on an armada of paper boats setting sail into a moonlit bay. It’s a puzzle that is never solved and a mystery that is never revealed.
You begin the game standing on a dock, you end it atop a mountain. Between one end and the other you will walk through beautifully-rendered locales and hear delicately-composed music , guided all the while by the narration of your own thoughts, which begin to sound like a man gone insane. Nothing hinders your progress other than the slow plod of your own footsteps and there are no choices to be made. In fact, you might say that the only thing left up to your choice is how many times you will choose to play.
The story can be finished in under an hour, and in repeating it you will begin to discern slight variations in the narrative. You’ve been to this island before. You know you have. It looks the same, but there are differences. What story doesn’t change with the telling? You’ll hear of different characters: a shepherd named Jacobson, a cartographer named Donnelly, even Paul the Apostle, on the road to Damascus, somehow figures in. Then of course, there’s Esther. You’ll hear of these; once or twice you may even hear them, but in the second go-round, and the third, once you’ve stopped trying to make it all make sense, you will begin to understand what Dear Esther is really about: being alone.
You are alone, nameless wanderer. Even “the gulls don’t land here anymore.” As you wander the island, the narration becomes increasingly blurred and jumbled. You begin to wonder if perhaps it’s just because there’s no one else to set the record straight. It’s only a matter of time before that terrible thought occurs: how many times have you made this journey before? How many times have you written to Esther? How many times have you watched the moon rise and prayed that your journey might symbolize some form of rebirth? In your isolation, the sun sets.
Sometimes it feels as though the sun sets in my life for a season. Sometimes I find myself in a place where I cannot sense the nearness of God. I cannot feel his comfort nor hear his voice. This is rarely activated by any specific event. Perhaps He simply answers me as I echo Paul’s prayer, I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. After all, one way Christ suffered is by feeling the absence of his father’s love. Yet in that suffering, something new is born, and something beautiful is taking place. I see glimpses of it, as I saw glimpses of clarity in Dear Esther, but if the night season lingers too long, I find myself muttering, like the wanderer, “There is nothing to do here but engage in contradictions whilst waiting for the fabric of life to unravel.”
The story is not long, it can be told in under an hour, and in repeating it I began to discern slight variations in the narrative. I’ve been through this situation before. I know I have. It feels the same, but there are differences. There are different characters: a friend, a brother, a sister, a pastor. Once or twice I may even hear from them directly, but as I let go of a desire for it to all make sense, I start to understand what Life is really all about: being alone.
There are some who would advocate embracing doubt and emptiness as a means of coping with life’s difficulties. After all, when you’ve become numb, any feeling is a good feeling. I tried adopting that mindset for a season and it nearly overwhelmed me, as it overwhelmed Dear Esther’s humble narrator. Certainly, I’ve not been through what he has, his wife killed by a drunken driver, his own disease tearing him apart. Yet I have somehow felt what he has felt, and it gives me hope to know that he is still gripped by love as he declares to Esther, “When the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle.”
In the end (and beginning, and all in between) Dear Esther is about being alone, and that can be a temporarily beautiful thing, but ultimately maddening. Go through it several times if you wish, but maybe just once is enough. Good came out of my night season: a deeper trust in God and a greater compassion for others. Good can come out of Dear Esther, however troubling it may be. Great beauty, craftsmanship, and thoughtfulness mark this enchanting game.