Dear Esther is very pretty.
So…that’s all? Not quite. While the visual artistry of the island that you visit as the unnamed protagonist is stunning, the goal of this game is to serve as an example that games can be more than just violence simulators. I feel that it would be more appropriate to call Dear Esther a work of interactive fiction. You traverse a mysterious island, and all you need to do is listen to the audio log like pieces of prose that the protagonist is speaking out loud.
There are invisible triggers in the environment that cause the next piece of story to be revealed to the player. This means that basically the movement of the player dictates the pacing of the story. So is it any good?
Well, I have mixed feelings. I adore the work done by the visual designers and audio designers. They work perfectly in tandem to create a haunting and captivating atmosphere of an abandoned island. But they are only there to serve the writing of the fiction. I personally am not that into poetry. The thing is that the story is presented by a protagonist who has personal issues. The bits and pieces of story aren’t easily understood. Who is Esther, Donelly and Jacobson? It isn’t clear, because no further exposition is provided by the game outside of the poetic ramblings of the protagonist.
I have checked out some discussions on forums about the meaning of the game, and opinions vary widely. Some think that the island itself is a metaphor, and its features (many many stones, shipwrecks and chemical diagrams painted on cave walls) as well. Some say that the protagonist is already dead and just traversing a sort of limbo on the island.
Whatever the meaning of the story, Dear Esther is only as enjoyable as you can find interest in the writing. Outside of that, it’s really just a pretty graphics demo. There is hardly any interactivity aside from movement, and therefore no meaningful choices can be made.
Personally, I don’t believe the strength of video games to be in the space that Dear Esther explores, but as an experiment in linear story telling it is definitely worthy of experiencing it once, if only for the amazing atmosphere it provides.