Dear Esther: Critical Analysis

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Dear Esther’s meandering and ponderous narration has many valid interpretations, and the following is simply how I viewed the story.  I have strived to stay away from other analyses on the forums, and the only tool I’ve used other than my own insight and the game itself is a script of the possible monologues and a couple of wiki entries on the Bible.  It’s taken me longer than I anticipated to really get this together, so I apologize for the delay, but without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the story of Dear Esther.

Dear Esther, at its core, is a story about a man, the Narrator, who lost the woman he loves, Esther, and his struggle to come to terms with her death.  He had been drunk when the accident occurred, and he feels responsible.  The course of the game provides a metaphor for his psychological journey toward acceptance of his guilt, and his reunion with her through the only conclusion he can see: suicide.

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There are several characters mentioned throughout Dear Esther: Donnelly, Jacobson, Paul, the Hermit, and Esther herself.  With the exception of Esther, each of the characters represents a facet of the Narrator’s mind, fractured by the grief and guilt of Esther’s death.  The most important facets are Donnelly and Paul.  Donnelly represents the Narrator’s alcoholic, irrational side.  Again and again, the Narrator speaks of Donnelly as unreliable, even mad.  Speaking of Donnelly’s book, he says:

If the subject matter is obscure, the writer’s literary style is even more so, it is not the text of a stable or trustworthy reporter.

Several times, the Narrator compares Donnelly’s madness to drunk driving, and the Narrator even admits his own guilt in this passage:

What to make of Donnelly? The laudanum and the syphilis? It is clearly not how he began, but I have been unable to discover if the former was a result of his visiting the island or the force that drove him here. For the syphilis, a drunk driver smashing his insides into a pulp as he stumbled these paths, I can only offer my empathy. We are all victims of our age. My disease is the internal combustion engine and the cheap fermentation of yeast.

jakobson0001Donnelly’s book serves as a guide to the Narrator, because it is Donnelly who in fact created the island; the Narrator’s shattered psyche is a direct result of his drinking.  The Narrator wishes to be free of Donnelly, but this aspect of his mind cannot be shaken:

When the oil lamps ran out I didn’t pick up a torch but used the moonlight to read by. When I have pulled the last shreds of sense from it, I will throw Donnelly’s book from the cliffs and perhaps myself with it. Maybe it will wash back up through the caves and erupt from the spring when the rain comes, making its return to the hermits cave. Perhaps it will be back on the table when I wake. I think I may have thrown it into the sea several times before.

Even near the end, Donnelly is with him, making the excuses of an alcoholic, trying to pretend it wasn’t his fault:

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.

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donnelley0016Paul represents the part of the Narrator that is rational, remorseful, searching for answers.  The connections drawn to the biblical Paul are obvious; a man on a journey is transformed, his questions answered by divine revelation, the path of his life forever changed.  The Narrator is an electrical engineer by trade, and throughout the island, some of the repeated symbols are the electrical diagrams of a transformer and an LED.  The former’s implication is obvious, but the second may require a bit of explanation.  As well as referencing the biblical Paul’s experience:esther0003

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…

-Acts 9:3

it also underscores the finality of the change; a light-emitting diode can only pass an electrical current one way.

The Narrator feels disconnected from the accident, and that is why Paul is represented as the “other driver”, but is actually the Narrator’s sober self.  The Narrator says Paul is dead for 21 minutes in the crash, and is revived:

When Paul keeled over dead on the road to Damascus, they restarted his heart with the jump leads from a crumpled hatchback; it took twenty-one attempts to convince it to wake up.

But the 21 minutes mirror how long it took rescue vehicles to arrive at the scene, and the narrator mentions Paul here again, in a very disconnected way:

They had stopped the traffic back as far as the Sandford junction and come up the hard shoulder like radio signals from another star. It took twenty-one minutes for them to arrive. I watched Paul time it, to the second, on his watch.

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The island itself represents the landscape of the Narrator’s mind.  The south side, which the player travels through in the first two chapters, is dominated by narrative regarding Donnelly.  The Narrator mentions that Donnelly never found the caves, and never saw the north side:

Reading Donnelly by the weak afternoon sunlight. He landed on the south side of the island, followed the path to bay and climbed the mount. He did not find the caves and he did not chart the north side. I think this is why his understanding of the island is flawed, incomplete. He stood on the mount and only wondered momentarily how to descend. But then, he didn’t have my reasons.

Talk of sickness, death, and solitude are pervasive on the south side of the island, highlighted by Donnelly’s stories of an all-seeing hermit who hid within the island and refused to share his wisdom, and a shepherd named Jacobson who died alone and was unceremoniously thrown down a hole into the island.  Descending from the bothy toward the caves is dangerous, and Donnelly was content to never try.  The Paul aspect of the Narrator, however, is willing to face the trials, to let himself fall into the island in the hopes that he will find another way out.

The player’s willingness to fall into the caves is a leap of faith, and comes with an understanding that you cannot go back the way you came, again highlighting the one-way nature of this journey.  The system of caves represents the Narrator’s internal search for answers, and the scrawlings on the walls reflect his struggle to work it out logically.  We begin to see, however, more and more biblical scripture intertwined with the diagrams, and when we emerge onto the north side of the island, the Narrator is firmly Paul, on an inevitable path to Damascus and transformation.  The Narrator releases his paper armada, letting go of his attachment here, and begins the ascent to the aerial, which had guided him from the beginning, at first hazy, but now stark and clear against the night sky.  The aerial is Esther, calling to him from the afterlife; and his Damascus, the end of his journey through life after the revelation of her death.

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At the end, when the tower is reached, only one option remains: freedom from this world of guilt and grief; reunion with his beloved Esther.  As you ascend the tower, the Narrator gives this passage:

Dear Esther. I have burnt my belongings, my books, this death certificate. Mine will be written all across this island. Who was Jacobson, who remembers him? Donnelly has written of him, but who was Donnelly, who remembers him? I have painted, carved, hewn, scored into this space all that I could draw from him. There will be another to these shores to remember me. I will rise from the ocean like an island without bottom, come together like a stone, become an aerial, a beacon that they will not forget you. We have always been drawn here: one day the gulls will return and nest in our bones and our history. I will look to my left and see Esther Donnelly, flying beside me. I will look to my right and see Paul Jacobson, flying beside me. They will leave white lines carved into the air to reach the mainland, where help will be sent.

He speaks of relinquishing his earthly belongings, of his impending death, and of legacy.  The other he speaks of is the player, reliving his steps, piecing together what he left for us.  To his left, Esther Donnelly, a symbol of his emotional highs and lows, his darkness forever paired with his love.  To his right, Paul Jacobson, his journey both moving and sorrowful; transformative, but ultimately ending broken and alone.  And indeed, as he falls, he is transformed; soaring free on the wind as a bird.  Others will walk this path again, and know his pain; but for now, he is free from guilt, and pain, and suffering.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and as always, I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts.  Leave your opinions in the comments section below.

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29 thoughts on “Dear Esther: Critical Analysis

  1. I really liked this analysis and will pass this to any friend that eventually plays this game. But there’s one thing crossed my mind during the whole read: what about the other car that is shown on that famous passage when you go underwater? I thought that the narrator was one and the other person besides Esther that he keeps mentioning is the driver of the other car. Or did you think the other driver had nothing at all to do with the monologues?

    Anyway, great read, great game. Sorry if there’s any error, i’m Brazilian and therefore English isn’t my first language. Came here from the Steam forums btw 🙂 keep on writing, we all need some DEEP analysis besides professional reviews to label games as art.

    • Thanks so much for reading! I really appreciate the feedback. As for the other car in the underwater sequence, I think you have to remember that we view everything from the narrator’s perspective, and he fills in the blanks to fit the fiction he’s created. It’s also possible that while there was another car involved, it wasn’t necessarily driven by Paul, or anyone we care about. You’re absolutely right that the two cars are conspicuous. That’s part of what makes this game so great though, there’s so many ways to interpret it, and we each assign different value to the things we’re presented.

  2. Lovely analysis, thank you, it pretty much sums up exactly how I interpreted it. To add my own thoughts, the chemical symbols that are repeated regularly are for ethanol alcohol or CH3CH2OH. Also I get the feeling that the protagonist is in one of 2 conditions, either a form of locked in syndrome (he is still alive although with no hope of recovery) and the leap off the tower is his acceptance of death or giving up the futile fight, or maybe in a supernatural limbo after death where once he has made his peace with the events of his life he is able to continue into oblivion/whatever comes afterward via the leap. The island seems to be a real place from his memory and some of the narrative contains snippets about the history of it. From that I deduce that the story trajectory is simply a somber warning regarding alcoholism, drink driving, and the tragedy that it can bring. It can be interpreted in many ways indeed, and I do not think it is important to define exactly what occurred to leave him in this place, since (in my interpretation) he is brain damaged and the memories/thoughts he has are therefore fragmented and incomplete.

    I was directed here from your link in the steam forum.
    Regards, Sam.

    • You know, I thought about him being in a coma or something, though I feel like the leap from the tower at the end felt too deliberate to be him just slipping away like that. Very interesting thoughts.

      • This theory makes a lot of sense. He talks about how this event is one of his dreams while in the cave and he says things that dither haven’t happened yet or days things out of order which would hint that he knows what was going to happed. Additionally he states that the paper boats sunk, except they’re clearly floating. This would lead me to believe it was hisind keeping them afloat. I believe that he was driving the car with ester in it as they crashed. She died and he was in a coma, barely clinging to his life and this journey was the recollection of the events that unfolded along with a few added details by his mind to reflect the aftermath of the crash and other things he was searching for but never found outside of his dreams.

  3. A thoroughly enjoyable analysis.

    I’ve clocked 118 mins on this game now and couldn’t resist heading to the forums to see what conclusions others had come to.

    Whilst I had suspected that the three were the same man, I was ebbing towards a more worldly interpretation.I had begun to believe that Esther was pregnant (an ultrasound and the unhatched eggs?) and that his meeting with Paul was literal (his own dent) but I’d not considered the segmentation of the island in such a way.

    Thanks for the post, it’s given me something more to chew on! :3

    • I hadn’t thought about the eggs, good catch. As for the ultrasound, I’ve heard quite a few people talk about one showing a pregnancy, but all I’ve ever seen were ones of his kidney stones (which are common among alcoholics). A testament to the random nature of the game, I suppose. Interesting thoughts, and thanks for reading!

  4. Excellent analysis. Where does his neurosyphillis fit in? Some of the chemical structures written on the rocks did not look quite like ethanol and could have been benzyl-penicillin, treatment for syphillis.

    • I was wondering what the other diagram was. Perhaps the syphilis is an allegory for his grief. It is, after all, what drove Donnelly to madness, and eventually killed him. The penicillin diagrams mesh well with my understanding of the Narrator as a very practical, analytical person. He’s looking for a fix for his grief, something to make the pain go away.

  5. I think it’s likely that Esther was pregnant, the eggs are a hint as well as the thoughts of the narrator while he’s climbing up tot the signal station. He dreams about his life with Esther and with kids, while the person Paul is dying alone.
    Love your analysis, and as well this game!

  6. Hello, thanks for your text, it clears some things up, i found this interactive book (it cannot be called game, since there are no gameplay-mechanics) very mysterious and fascinating.
    Like “Pino” i think Esther was pregnant, another clue about it was a image of a scan i found in one of the houses..

  7. Just finished the game and greatly enjoyed this analysis. Excellent work and a very good read. Thank you so much.

  8. Just finished playing this game and greatly enjoyed this analysis. Very well written and interesting. Thank you so much.

  9. Hello! 🙂
    A wonderful analysis.
    I think he’s in coma because of the voice calling him back and the noise when the player accidentally kills the character.
    At the end he doesn’t come back but fades away into death knowing what he did.
    And when the screen turned black I could hardly see from all the tears.
    So beautiful and emotional.
    Loved it!

    Cheers from Sweden!
    Tomas

  10. Just finished the game..err amazing virtual story. I enjoyed your analysis as well. I agree with the pregnancy but one thing still stumps me. Throughout the game there are eight different ghosts. They are extreamly hard to spot but each one holds and wears different things. I’m not sure what they represent and was wondering if anyone could shed some light on it. Thanks!

  11. Lol, even though I played the game from the release date, my theory was pretty far away from this one. However, I’ve read along all types of conclusions, and this one seems to have hit the nail on the head for me.

    Very nice analysis, I couldn’t have done it any better!

  12. I don’t buy that “he was an electrical engineer by trade” as there are just as many symbols of chemistry as there are of circuits, and at one point the narrator explicitly says “…you were coming back from a pharmaceutical conference” or something like that, referring to either jacobsen or donnelly. So either he is referring to himself and he is both an ee and a pharmacist, unlikely, or there is at least one other person in this story besides narrator and esther.
    Also, it is not clear to me esther was in a car during the time of the crash. At one point the narrator says “I saw you at this junction that has only one way out, you on the side of the motorway with a drink in your trembling hands”
    Most importantly I disagree with your analysis on this point: if all the island and all the characters are rolled up into the narrator then somewhere deep down the narrator knows what happened, and yet he states on multiple occaisions that he returned to the site and mapped out all the accounts but never “made it ashore.” I believe that the narrator is truly and deeply frustrated in his failed attempts to find the truth of what happened and that truth is a mystery to him as well as to us. Perhaps, running on the “ashore” referance, the island as the landscape of his mind as you say, is both the bedrock of his guilt as well as the elusiveness of the truth.
    It is also important to remember that there need not be a single instance of these characters. There are at least two jacobsens. One in the 1700’s who goes to the real island and one who was in the/a car, possibly driving, during the accident. My guess is that there are at least 2 Donnelly’s as well. One is a reporter that wrote a book about this island and maybe covered the accident years later; another is a part of his mind; perhaps another happens to be his esther. Perhaps… Perhaps.. Perhaps…
    My guess is that there is no rational solution and the authors of this story did a purposefully good job of, in their own words, “creating a story that doesn’t make sense”.

  13. Sorry to bump the thread, but I just played this game for the first time and loved every minute of it. I am one to believe that the island was a dream of some sort while he is in a coma. I believe this would explain the bleeding in of some of the things from the car crash reality such as the bloody surgical implements found just outside the caves exit. Also, I wonder if the parallel lines can be representative of car wheel skid marks. The first thing I thought of when I saw the aerial after learning of the crash was that it was his heartbeat. I liked reading your analysis and look forward to convincing friends to play this game so that I can start more in depth discussions.

  14. Pingback: Searching for Words in Dear Esther | Games and Culture

  15. Just realized somethin pretty cool. Some of the chemical compounds have odd hebrew etchings. Letters and words in hebrew also correspond to numbers. You guessed it…. 21…

  16. oh yeah and on that point, ‘Esther’, according hebrew tradition, was the Jewish queen of Persia, originally born “Hadassah”. She led the jews to savior, although I am not sure in what way this is relevant to Dear Esther. I’m not jewish myself. The internet is just a miraculous thing.

    • Esther (אסתר) means hidden in Hebrew (a reference to that fact that her Uncle Mordechai had to hid her identity as a Jew) and in Persian it means star (don’t quote me on the Persian one though).The word “Hadassah” (הדסה) is a reference to a certain kind of tree that has a pleasant fragrance but bitter taste and in addition there is a similar sound word in Hebrew which is compassionate.

  17. good analysis, They story story simply put is his progression through the process of death after a car wreck after drunk driving. He’s in a lucid state both due to sustained medical injuries and medications that he is onhospital (pain medication, sedatives, diazepam), quite likely he’s in a coma. He does mention other family members that are there and speaks of his regret for putting them in that situation.

    Dont remember the verbage but he essentially states that island and its attributes are in the mind of the beholder. My suspicion is that the other people mentioned that were on the island are of no relation directly the man in the story other than esther (his wife?) but are there to describe other people that had gone through this process of death (one man due to infection)

    His final ascent he goes from the deepest caves up into the heavens by climbing the large tower, at which point he dies. His physical form had ceased to exist and his soul had been freed. The bird shadow (gull) i suppose could be left up to ones own interpretation, whether it was represent his physical form transcending and flying being or a multitude of other possible interpretations. If you wanted you could interpret this him as reincarnating directly into another physical body (that of the bird)

  18. I just finished this game/walking simulator, I don’t know what to call it. I had my interpretation but was still confused and I found your analysis which is pretty much close to what I thought about the story. Halfway around the game I realised few things such as either the island is not real, its in narrator’s head (or his head itself) or he is having psychosis while exploring the island and this a story about reconciliation with some past traumatic event. But after reading your analysis I also found out the new side, about guilt, about him being the cause of the accident, which I didn’t realise while playing. This, I think, adds more depth. This is such a great game/concept! And thanks for your critical analysis, it helped a lot to understand the story. I can imagine you must have enjoyed doing all the research and piecing it together. Thanks again and keep it up!

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