There is a constant repetition of falling in Dear Esther, an action that becomes more pointed as the plot progresses. Initially, you start off walking up the mountain, generally keeping an upward momentum though you may sometimes find yourself falling a short distance. During this time, the narrative focuses largely on the history of the island. Esther and the narrator are briefly mentioned in the letters the narrator reads during this stage, but it isn’t until the end of this section just before we enter the caves that we learned Esther was “rendered opaque by the truck of a drunk.” At this point, the environment switches from the airy and verdant cliffsides to a series of claustrophobic caves, accentuated by a series of pitfalls that aren’t always graphically obvious.
There is already a sense of inevitability in Dear Esther. You can’t jump or interact with the environment, you can only, almost helplessly, follow the path in front of you. Yet, the constant downward motion, especially when considered with the ending, creates a sense of being trapped. The narrow nature of the cave system emboldens this feeling.
This seems to suggest the character is trapped in this story and unable to escape his past. The journey is not about destiny, for it is done in retrospect, nor is it about death, because though the ending is dressed in the trappings of suicide it doesn’t end with the player character’s death – it ends with his liberation. So the fall instead is indicative of the character’s strict adherence to his own suffering, regret and fears that do not let him forget about the events that led to this point. It is also indicative of the damage focusing on those regrets cause. He tries to move forward, but is always pulled back down by the inevitably.
Again, it is only after we learn of Esther’s death or severe injury that we make our first fall into the caves happens. It is possible to fall into a hole before this, but this action only results in the player’s death with a ghostly voice begging him to come back. Until the narrator’s thoughts turn to Esther, he cannot fall. The fall, and the caves that represent it, are intrinsically tied to Esther’s fate. Or, more specifically, they are tied to the narrator’s obsession with Esther’s fate.
The game seems to tie meaning between player action, such as it is, and the narration by this connection. True, the player seemingly has no choice in where to go, but he can choose whether or not to go at all. Should the player retreat to the coast in the beginning or simply quit, the narrator will never be trapped in his past in the way it is presented to us. So, limited as it is, moving forward is a choice that decides the fate of the narrator. It sets him along the path that many have already traveled before and none have seemingly survived.
Notionally, we are always traveling to the tower at the end. We are always intending to reach that point, and so it’s natural our initial movement is upward. It is interesting that the impediment to our goal is always a fall, always the narrator falling deeper into dismal thoughts of his past, once animated by his memories while underwater. But the player and the narrator both chose to continue on this path, to dwell on Esther and the pain of her loss. Whatever that end point represents – release, freedom, understanding – it is clear that his suffering over Esther is preventing him from that goal. The same impetus is placed upon a player, to know and understand the story of Esther, and so both player and narrator are dragged along into her story.
But the narrator, if not the player, comes to a revelation at the end. Death isn’t the answer, but acceptance is. At this point the game takes control of the final section. It is no accident the machine, not the player, is the one that guides the narrator to jump and, eventually, fly free. It is the machine, almost a god-act, that steps in to save the narrator. The player was unable to solve this problem for the narrator, because the problem was completely internal. So how could the player have saved the narrator in the same way as the machine? By never choosing to fall in the first place, by never choosing to follow the debris of loss into the watery caves. In this way, Dear Esther creates this idea that regret is almost impossible to deal with while one remains focused on that regret, and only when one accepts their lack of significant control can they free themselves from regret.