Dear Esther (Interpretation)

I gave the mod a link in the previous post. I had played this mod a few years ago and I admit that I didn’t give the game much thought. I played it because it was arty, somber, and different and I really just wanted something to play through. Last night I played through Dear Esther again and this time I noticed and realized much more than I had previously.

Since the game is ambiguous and well, “artsy” it must have a theme that’s “open to interpretation.” I’ve enjoyed the mod so I suppose I’ll give into the trap and give what I took from the game. Beware, spoilers ahead!

First off, who’s who.  Throughout the game you hear references to 4 characters.  Esther, Donnelly, Jacobson, and the narrator.  At first I wasn’t sure what in the world the narrator was talking about.  The only thing obvious was that Esther was someone close to the narrator.  I assumed it was his wife or perhaps his daughter.  Later we learn that Jacobson was an ancestor of the narrator.  Jacobson had come to the island to build himself a home, thinking that if he owned property he would be able to find a wife.  He froze to death before he could complete it.  Donnelly was established to be a priest or a scholar of some sort, I can’t really remember.  He was apparently driven to this island, perhaps from embarrassment, judgement, or perhaps for scholarly study.  Donnelly is the source of information for quite a lot for the narrator

One phrase that you hear everytime you play through the game is this one: ”

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 is the first time you hear a hint of what the narrator is trying to talk about in his letters.  This is the first hint of who Esther is and what happened to her.  Esther was killed by a drunk in a car crash and the narrator is grieving for her through these letters.  The memory that the narrator spoke about also seems to imply Esther as his lover, wife, dearly beloved, or whatever you want to call her.  She was special to the narrator.

As you go through, you hear Jacobson’s history of the house that he had hoped to build and how he died before it was complete.  This just gave me a lot more information to try and analyze and it made it more difficult to understand what the story was about until the last level, which I’m sure was the intent.

Eventually I realized that Donnelly IS the narrator, or rather, was the narrator.  The narrator’s mind is obviously disturbed and fragile, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a traumatic enough event could alter one’s personality so much they look at their former self as a different person.  Donnelly is presented as a source of information, someone who told the narrator something.  Well, Donnelly told the narrator via his own thoughts, not by actually speaking with him.

The caves were an interesting section.  I never really found what the caves where supposed to mean while I was playing, although looking back I would say perhaps the caves were a dark path the narrator had to navigate before he could once again return to a path in the light.  For those who can’t read my horrible amazing writing style: The caves were dark moments in his life.  He couldn’t see where he was going or what he should do, he just continued on blind and in pain.

Before the cave section it’s mentioned the narrator broke his leg.  I’m suspecting that he was so distracted with the shock of Esther’s death he neglected to take care of himself.  I don’t think it was specifically a broken leg, but rather it’s a metaphor for failing health and neglecting to take care of it properly.  Instead he shoved painkillers and drugs down his throat to kill the pain and walk on in the dark.  This is not too different from the reaction that a mentally ill man would have reacting to extreme stress.

Upon leaving the cave I think Donnelly has become extremely delirious, due to both the drugs and the grief.  I think at this point he’s seen a little bit of hope for the future, although in a twisted way.  At some point in that map Donnelly (the narrator) made a comment about “Esther Donnelly” which furthered my suspicion of the narrator’s identity.  In this map, the whole point is to climb up to the blinking tower at the top of the hill.  As you climb Donnelly frequently makes cryptic comments of how Esther and Donnelly will finally be together and that there won’t be anything between them.  I suspect at this point grief has driven him to consider suicide.

Suicide is a sensitive matter for quite a few people.  Having been affected by it (someone close to me shot themselves), I can honestly say it’s much more difficult to deal with than regular death.  Being experienced with suicide before makes it easier to deal with future issues if they were to ever come up again, but you don’t ever look at it the same as you ever did before.

Sorry, I don’t mean to give a sour note to this post, but my experiences dealing with suicide was conjured from the back of my mind when I was playing these last few parts.  There’s a cliff ledge that sticks out over a beach.  As you approach it you see a dark female silhouette standing near the edge.  I naturally approached it because it looked interesting.  As I got closer, the woman disappeared and I was left standing there on the edge.  I looked around and realized how high up I was in the level and looked down.  This almost immediately conjured up feelings of horror and disgust.  Not disgust in a way a child might judge food flavors, but disgust of how tragic the situation was.  The ledge looked perfect for one to commit suicide off of and the feeling that I got by standing on it was unbelievable.  I don’t know if the designers meant for that to happen, nonetheless it was a strong experience for me.

Finally as you climb the cliff you reach the top and walk through to a power grid.  The closing remarks state how Donnelly and Esther will once again be together and make their marks on the island.  The music certainly fits this monologue and agrees with all my previous expectations and experiences.  Of course, I’m under the impression it’s “open to interpretation” so of course it would.  At the end, the music continues to play as you watch a cutscene of flying around the island.  Once you start flying away from the island, the piano playing starts playing an odd pattern and what sounds like a synth starts playing along with the piano.  The piano fades out and the synth is left beeping irregularly and then it stopped beeping and gave the flat tone of a heart monitor.  Donelly then quietly said “Come back!”

After hearing the end, I think that Donnelly suicided, but not by jumping off a cliff as the imagery before suggested, but by some other mean.  I’m not sure what it was, perhaps he burned himself.  I have a few more things I want to talk about before I move on, so expect more Dear Esther.

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One response to “Dear Esther (Interpretation)

  1. Great analysis of Dear Esther although I don’t agree on all the points..

    Having played the new commercial version I’m having a hard time seeing Donelly and the narrator as one and the same.
    One of the things that strikes me is the fact that in the first chapter the shepherds of the island are mentioned a lot, amongst other about a monk stealing a bible from the shepherds and about shepherding being a main source of income for the island.

    This indicates that shepherding was a way of life for the inhabitants of the island for at least a couple of generations before the island was abandoned altogether. Now Jacobsen was the first one who came to the island and Donnelly is described as having talked to the mainlanders who found Jacobsen’s dead body and threw his remains down a hole otu of superstition.

    The story taking place in present day, this would indicate that Donnelly lived at least a generation or two before the present day which is in conflict with him being the narrator.

    Secondly to me it just doesn’t make sense that they would be same. On the other hand I agree about the suicide at the end, and I also agree about the car crash and Esther’s role in the story.
    Whether the island is real or not, I haven’t decided. Both are valid interpretations, but personally I’m going with it being a real place.

    But great interpretation!

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