Dear Esther was originally a short mod built with Valve’s Source engine and released in July 2008 by thechineseroom, a developer connected to Portsmouth University (UK). It was primarily designed and written by Dan Pinchbeck, a lecturer and researcher at the university, who wanted to explore what was left when the normal game mechanics in a first-person shooter are removed, while still creating an engaging experience by focusing on story and atmosphere. The game sets the player on a Hebridean island journeying and exploring across it while a voice-over periodically reads parts of a letter addressed to an unknown 'Esther'. The experience is a melancholy one and is deliberately mysterious and ambiguous, an aspect enhanced by the randomization of which letter fragments get read out and when, although there remain some common interpretations that arise from assembling the scraps of information together.
In 2009, game developer Robert Briscoe, who had previously worked on a number of Source mods and then as a level designer on Mirror’s Edge, began work with Dan Pinchbeck’s approval on remaking Dear Esther with better visuals and level design. The art and detail behind the updated visuals are generally considered to be some of best that has been created with the Source engine and bears comparison with other contemporary big budget releases. The haunting music is likewise reworked by the original composer Jessica Curry. This remake is a full retail release, in contrast to the original mod that was released for free.
The player begins at the port of a lonesome Hebridean island. As the player begins to explore a broadly linear path throughout the island, narration occurs, from British voice actor, Nigel Carrington. The narrator begins reading a letter addressed to an 'Esther', hence the title, and as the player walks, details of the letter are explained, with a car crash seemingly at the center of what the letter and the whole of Dear Esther pertains to. The script is both long, and heavily symbolic.
While the island is for the most part quite bare and barren, the player finds scientific equations painted, or drawn, graffiti-like around set parts of the landscape in white chalk. These are mostly diagrams of circuitry or neuron cells. When the player is climbing the first cliff face, the player sees two parallel white lines in the mountain. This scene is accompanied by these symbolic words from the narrator:
When someone had died or was dying or was so ill they gave up what little hope they could sacrifice, they cut parallel lines into the cliff, exposing the white chalk beneath. With the right eyes you could see them from the mainland or the fishing boats and know to send aid or impose a cordon of protection, and wait a generation until whatever pestilence stalked the cliff paths died along with its hosts. My lines are just for this: to keep any would-be rescuers at bay. The infection is not simply of the flesh.
After more exploring, and taking in the landscape, the player is led into the bottom of the mountain, an open and wide cavern. The cavern leads to a series of caves and tunnels, containing phosphorescent symbols until eventually the player re-emerges on a shore elsewhere on the island and begins a final steady ascent to the top of the island. There is a beacon with a flashing red light on the island that the player can see from the beginning. This is the point that the winding path gradually guides the player to where the game concludes.