Review Summary: Although (like the game) it's not for everyone, Jessica Curry's soundtrack to "Dear Esther" is a gorgeous and rewarding listen.
The interactive nature of narrative-focused video games separates them from the often comparable audio/visual experiences offered by movies. We experience the settings of movies from a passive, observational distance, but in games we have an opportunity to actively interact with and explore these artificial locations. Tellingly, when developers The Chinese Room all but entirely stripped their experimental work and Half-Life 2
-mod Dear Esther
of the interactive elements typical of gaming, the result was largely cinematic. Jessica Curry’s score, thus, progresses much like a movie soundtrack – and a superb one at that. It brings the setting to life, embellishing the hazy yet grounded landscapes of the first half with an aura of mystery and accentuating the dreamlike terrain of the climactic segments with transcendent beauty.
Developed in a bare-bones, primitive form in 2008, Dear Esther
places the player on a deserted island. The gameplay only consists of ascending around the island from a dock to a beacon at the top of a summit while specific images and locations prompt flashbacks into the narrator’s past (which are randomized to an extent in order create to unique playthroughs). Ghosts occasionally drift by in the distance and as day turns to night, the island becomes increasingly dreamlike, leaving the player to question whether the gameplay represents a literal trek or a purely imagined or metaphorical experience. This ambiguous nature has prompted an array of interpretive theories, as well as criticism from gamers expecting some level of choice or challenge.
When The Chinese Room re-released Dear Esther
in 2012, Curry kept the score from the original version but re-recorded it with a professional pianist and a professional singer. The piano dominates, with vocals occasionally mixed into the backdrop and only featured extensively in the final track and the two lengthy mixes of “Always”. The piano-driven melodies of “Dear Esther” and “21” ground the opening passages of the journey, reinforcing the notion of the island as a real, tangible place within the world of the game but also implying that there may be something more to it than meets the eye. “21” and the snippets that form the brief “Remember” tracks add violin to the mix to create a more sweeping sound that help lay the foundation for the music’s more ethereal moments.
“This Godforsaken Aerial” and the elaborate “Always” mixes deliver on this setup. A gorgeous piano melody drives the former to create a stunning atmosphere of sorrow and contemplation. “Always” helps bring out the majesty of the massive caverns where the game’s penultimate segment takes place through a rich, spacious production. Album highlight “Ascension”, played during the game’s conclusion, is a stunning, deeply cathartic release of the tension built up by the many inexplicable images and Curry’s restrained music.
Curry is a film school graduate who has cited classical music as a far greater influence on her work than video game music, and that shows here. Her next major music project, the score for 2013’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
(which the Chinese Room also developed), is similarly cinematic but bares little resemblance outside of (arguably) again stealing the show from the rest of the game.
As far as video game music goes, the soundtrack to Dear Esther
holds up remarkably well when removed from its context. It makes for more than just a pleasant and contemplative listening experience as, like the game, it gradually builds up a unique and enthralling sense of awe and otherworldliness.