Released: February 14 2012 (current version)
Dear Esther seems to be about a man whose wife (Esther) died in a car crash, and who is reminiscing on the letters he wrote to her and the things he wanted to say to her as he is dying on a desolate island.
At least, I think so.
I'm not one hundred percent certain.
Dear Esther received an average review score of 77% on Metacritic. There was some argument as to whether it actually counts as a video game, but reviews tend to agree that it's a thoughtful and moving experience. Some critics thought it would have been better presented as a book or short film, but others thought that even the limited degree of interactivity adds atmosphere to the pacing.
There have been several minor updates to fix bugs and issues with the game.
The current version is actually an extended remake of the original mod released in 2008.
Slow and Thoughtful
Initially (as in the first five minutes) I was disappointed at how slow I moved - I just wanted to get to the next thing. But Dear Esther doesn't push you to get to the next thing, and the environment is so peaceful that I relaxed pretty quickly and just explored at my own pace. It's a quiet reflection more than it is a direct narrative.
The island is completely devoid of any life save for some meager vegetation - grasses, weeds, and shrubs. There are signs that the island used to be inhabited - very old abandoned buildings, like a lighthouse and shepherd's home, as well as shipwrecks - but it's clear that no one has been around for a very long time. The environments are beautiful in an empty sort of way, and give you a sense of age and isolation.
There are little touches here and there that seem to add meaning to the island, but they aren't really explained. A single gravestone hidden behind an outbuilding; an abandoned suitcase and clothes; the occasional lit candle - they all give a sense that there's something going on (or that went on in the past) which isn't being told to you by the narrator. The strangest bits are the painted molecular structures and lines of text which are only briefly explained near the end of the game, but that allusion only confuses things more - it throws into doubt the very reality of what you're experiencing.
Dear Esther's music plays a strong role in establishing the desolate and surreal mood. It's slow and quiet like the game, but as you progress it occasionally gets louder or dissonant. It works very well with the narrator, who does an excellent job of conveying a thoughtful sadness.
Not Really A Game
Dear Esther is not a "video game" in the normal sense. You simply wander around an island and hear snippets from a narrator. There are no goals, no definitive answers, no real structured story, no choices to be made. In fact it's barely even interactive - all you really do is hold the W key and move the mouse.
It took me one hour to play through. As usual, this isn't good or bad, just something to be aware of.
You have a flashlight that automatically turns on when it gets dark enough. What bothers me, though, is that it's never dark enough to actually need a flashlight, as there are no details or sights that can't be seen without it. It's basically just a distraction.
Recommendation: play it.
Dear Esther is a different kind of thing and very unlike what you'd consider to be a normal video game. It's slow-paced, desolate, and kind of surreal, and thus is not for everyone. But if you're interested in a meandering and thoughtful story accompanied by some great landscapes, give it a shot. It's short and easily playable in a single session if you've got an hour to an hour and a half. Dear Esther is an interesting experience that explores some emotions that video games typically don't favour.