An "experimental first-person game" created by the University of Portsmouth, "Dear Esther" attempts to create an artistic experience using a deliberate lack of gameplay.
"Dear Esther" puts you in the shoes of an unnamed and un-shown British man wandering a similarly unnamed isle in the Hebrides region near Scotland. No direction is given to the player, and the player has no ability to influence their environment other than walking at a slow, deliberate pace. As the player explores, the "story" (such as it is) is told in the form of monologues; these monologues often take the form of letters to a woman named Esther, hence the game's title. The player's only real role in the game, apart from finding new routes to move forward in, is simply to piece the story together based on the fragmented information provided to them.
This sounds like a pretty straightforward synopsis, but the thing is, that's all the game is. There's nothing else to do in Dear Esther besides "walk around" and "listen to monologues". The monologues aren't even really connected with anything in the environment apart from a very small number of relevant items. There's no items to collect or find that would shed light on the situation, there's no notes or letters, there's no environmental clues. It's not just that there's a lack of basic gameplay features, there's a lack of anything for the player to do. Exploring the island, I found a cave with some weird symbols on the wall. Did they mean anything? Could I do anything with them? Nope, they were just weird symbols. There's no importance or value to the exploration aspect of the game other than "do you want to see a weird thing" and the weird things in question aren't really worth seeing on their own merits.
On the other hand, the game itself does look really nice. The environments are incredibly detailed and well-rendered, giving the actual feel of a small, scrub-covered island rather than simply a lump of earth with green bits on it. The rocky coast and sea caves are similarly well-rendered, glistening with dampness. However, the realism of the island environment is frequently overcome by invisible walls preventing you from going where the game doesn't want you to go. Given that there's no real sense of where to go in the first place, this is more of a problem than it is in most games.
The game's prose is its main "feature", if it can be called that, and it's really just not that great. It's a pleasant enough audio experience, sure, but I never felt really invested in the story or what's happening. It felt like the atmosphere alone was supposed to sell me on the experience, but I just couldn't get drawn in when there was nothing for me to do but walk around. The overwrought wording and accenting are meant to make the story seem more refined and elegant, but it's an illusion to cover a rather simplistic and, frankly, uninteresting narrative.
Overall, Dear Esther is not a game that should be bought. If it was like its earlier incarnation, a HL2 mod released for free, then I'd suggest that it should at least be checked out for an example of a well-rendered environment. As it stands, with a $10 price tag, there's no way I can suggest that it's worth even a penny of that.
Purchased through Steam with our own funds.