Survivor’s Guilt in Dear Esther

My interpretation of Dear Esther is that the narrator is overwhelmed by his guilt from the fateful car crash that took the life of his wife, Esther. The letters that he writes to Esther show how he has been constantly searching for answers or absolution from her death. A lot of metaphors are used to symbolize his guilt and his thoughts.

In level 2, the narrator says that he has “driven the stretch of the M5 between Exeter and Bristol over twenty-one times, but although I have all the reports and all the witnesses and have cross-referenced them within a millimeter using my ordnance survey maps, I simply cannot find the location. You’d think there would be marks, to serve as some evidence. It’s somewhere between the turn off for Sandford and the Welcome Break services. But although I can always see it in my rear view mirror, I have as yet been unable to pull ashore.” This quote shows how his guilt has compelled him to find the location of the wreck, hoping that would reveal something about the crash. But it also is a metaphor for the guilt inside his mind. While he can always see the crash in his memory (the rear view mirror), he is unable to come to terms with it (unable to pull ashore).

Looking at the Dear Esther script, it is clear that the number 21 shows up in many of the letters. I like to think that this is a reference to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons where a man inadvertently kills 21 pilots due to knowingly shipping out faulty airplane parts. The play deals with a few different types of guilt, but one specific type is “survivor’s guilt”. This is where one feels guilty because they survived a traumatic event while others did not. This fits right in with the narrator since he walked away from the car crash and Esther did not.

Anytime the number 21 is brought up in a letter, it is always dealing with some sort of guilt, mostly the narrator’s. For example, the narrator made 21 paper boats out of his letters and set them to sail. Here he is trying to move on from the traumatic event. He says that there are 21 connections in the circuit diagram of the anti-lock brakes. What if he put on the brakes faster? What if the brakes weren’t working properly? The brakes play a part in his guilt since they could have either prevented or partly caused the crash.

Through the gameplay, the player can actually experience the narrators looming feelings of guilt and remorse. In certain places, ghostly figures that ominously stand in the distance can be seen. They creepily watch the player as if they were the narrator and serve as a reminder of all the blame he feels. In my own play through, I was looking at a little shrine on the beach and when I turned around, on the horizon was one of the ghost’s silhouettes. I jumped and immediately felt the impact of being watched as if I was guilty like the narrator.

 Ghost_Cliff

Ultimately, Dear Esther presents the story of a man who has been deeply affected by a traumatic event and is dealing with the psychological and physical toll. It then evokes these feelings of guilt and remorse in the player to not only enhance the experience of the game, but to also provide a glimpse into what it is like to feel overwhelmed by something like survivor’s guilt.

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3 Responses to Survivor’s Guilt in Dear Esther

  1. zucconi says:

    Here is a better version of the picture:

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  2. theterribles says:

    It’s interesting to see others’ interpretations – I took the stance of the player being Esther, but you make a valid argument. I certainly like that you brought in the aspect of guilt, which could make on read the ending as a true suicide. A sense of “survivor’s guilt” could be read throughout the game.

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  3. cjc112 says:

    I had a similar interpretation of the game to you. I thought the main character was the one driving the car drunk when Esther was killed and his journey on the island was his way to overcome the extreme guilt he felt. Just the way the setting was presented gave me the feeling that the island was a manifestation of his mind to come to terms with his demons. The crashing of the waves gave a sense of solitude. Where our interpretations diverge however is in this being survivor guilt. I thought that the main character died in the car crash too and this was his personal purgatory to deal with his problems before he could move on. There’s many different theories, but I do think the setting and narrative make it obvious that the main character is coming to terms with some sort of guilt.

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