Throughout Dear Esther, there are numerous illustrations and eventually lines of writing put up on every conceivable (and several inconceivable) surface in luminous premium paint. What are they for? They’re not there to inform a player in the slightest. In most cases, they do not advance or inform the narrative. They’re props to help in setting the mood. But for Dear Esther, that is not an issue, it is the goal. The game is not about driving or even experiencing a narrative, the game’s whole purpose is to elicit an emotional response in players, through its gameplay, through the narration, through its various sounds, and through all the set pieces of decaying abandoned buildings, rusting ships, and writing on the walls.
The first you can find is in the shack immediately up the ramp. In the room furthest to the right, there is a diagram of ethanol drawn on one wall. If you don’t know what it means, it’s the creepy scrawlings of a madman. If you realize that it is a depiction of ethanol, it feels more like the ramblings of someone who has become mad. In any case, it tells you nothing about the narrative, who the character or narrator are, or why either of them are on the island. It’s merely a foreboding mystery.
In a cave further along, you find several more drawings, starting with the first of two neurons.
Then there is an image of an ethanol molecule superimposed over a neuron, taking the place of the cell body.
The other images include something which appears to be a kidney, a second neuron, and a branching configuration which could just as easily be approximating a tree as it could a set of neuronal projections. Every single one is sitting alone on a patch of rock, a demonstration of knowledge with no possible usefulness to the creator or anyone else. The player can’t learn anything from the drawings, and neither can the character. But it certainly sets a tone, and furthers the theme of isolation, as if the lone resident of the island was desperately trying to remember anything of the rest of the world, anything other than the barrenness of the island.
Throughout the rest of the game, similar paintings appear continuously, joined by circuit diagrams, and eventually text, mostly of biblical quotations. They continue to reinforce a feeling of crippling isolation; whoever made the paintings, almost certainly the narrator, did absolutely nothing but think about Esther and fingerpaint. But one particular area of the cave system connects them directly to the narrative and changes the tone.
This cave is absolutely covered the ramblings of someone who has totally lost their grip on reality. Circuit diagrams connect to neurons, capacitors are replaced by chemical structures, huge, imagined and contradictory neural networks flow across the walls and ceiling without regard for their connections or what they overlap. The painting has transformed from being a distraction to being an absolute obsession – the narrator(?) is out of his mind, and you might be commanding the narrator to explore a world that may or may not be real. The rest of the game becomes more ethereal, less grounded, and even more of an emotional experience.
You eventually get out of the caves full of floating, ghostly mushrooms, only to find yourself on a beach with hundreds of inexplicably lit candles surrounding detritus as if each were a small shrine to corroded machinery. Each of the letters to Esther are already folded into paper boats and floating away as you approach, the ever-expanding size of biblical verses make them difficult to read and impossible to have been painted. Then your character climbs the tallest tower and leaps, turning into a bird.
It may be a tale of a man’s descent into total insanity, a journey through purgatory and eventual revitalization, or merely gangrenous fever-inspired hallucinations at the end of a lonely man’s life. The precise truth of the narrative is irrelevant to the story, because they all perform the same work in generating an emotional tone, for the goal of eliciting emotional reactions. Narrative isn’t the objective here – the mystery of it cannot be solved. Everything is a tool for making players feel, whether it be solemnity, loneliness, pity, empathy for guilt and lost love. The paintings on the walls are just another one of the levers to use in causing those reactions.