Dear Esther is an interactive story told through a first person adventure setting. There's very little gameplay to speak of, just a deep mystery about the deserted island you're walking on, along with unanswered questions surrounding a horrific crash and a book written by a long-lost explorer. What happened in this dreary place? And, better yet, can you find a way out?
Talking too much about the plot of Dear Esther ruins half of the experience, so this article is going to remain delightfully spoiler-free. All you need to know is that the game follows a standard first person control layout, using [WASD] to march around and the mouse to look at things. You can't jump, you can't run, you can't pick up things and stash them in an inventory. All you need to do is walk around the island, investigate the sights, and breathe in the story.
Dear Esther began as a mod for Half-Life 2 back in 2008. It received almost universal praise for its design and atmosphere, sparking an overhaul that improved the graphics and tweaked the level layouts. The project continued to grow until early 2012 when the completed version, reviewed here, was released.
Analysis: Dear Esther is a slow game that doesn't try to satisfy your craving for action, high scores, achievements, or bacon collecting. It's an experimental, minimalist game that focuses on storytelling and light exploration, giving you the chance to settle down for an honestly intriguing tale. Everything from the writing, voice acting, and linear walking paths keep you focused on the story at hand. Dear Esther is an empty world, and because of that emptiness, you'll find it easier to step inside the protagonist's shoes and experience the game first hand.
Citing any faults in Dear Esther is tricky, as most of what players would consider drawbacks are intentional limitations imposed to keep the game (and the player) focused. The walking speed, for example, is barely faster than a crawl. Any faster, though, and you wouldn't notice the little details strewn about the land. The path you follow often feels like a simple walk from point A to point Z, but there's no puzzle to solve or task to complete, so you're not supposed to worry about things like that!
Dear Esther is an unusual experience, but it absolutely succeeds at what it sets out to do. Atmosphere, setting, emotion, and story are the pillars its world is built upon, and as soon as you start the game and see that flashing red light in the distance, you'll want to see it through to the end. There's only about two hours of play time, but if you kick back with the lights low and headphones on, it's better than any movie you could see.