I finished Dear Esther a couple of minutes before writing this, having played straight through, and I found myself itching to talk about it. Dear Esther is the second game to come out of the venerable Indie Fund, which was reason enough for me to play it. It's unlikely that the game could have been made without this sort of progressive backing. It's just too... different. And that's the very reason why I want other game designers to experience it too.
Dear Esther is not a happy game. It begins in mystery and curiosity, progresses to ambiguity, and eventually descends into obscurity and madness. Occasionally, a pinch of horror is thrown in for spice. I don't mean to say that any of this is bad; the game (if, indeed, you can call it a game) knows exactly what it is, and it has an odd sort of coherence in its refusal to provide clarity.
The gameplay consists of a mostly linear tour of a remote island in the Hebrides, with a few opportunities for independent exploration or investigation. The journey that takes place in your head will be far less straightforward. As you explore, you hear snippets of letters, erudite and esoteric, written to a woman named Esther. Other names are mentioned, interweaving with bits of backstory, history, and allusions. Who is the speaker? Who are you? Who made the island... like this? Some answers present themselves, but never one at a time, and never with confirmation. You must fend for yourself in making sense of it, and this made me feel vulnerable in a way I rarely experience. Small, haunting details in the game world exacerbated this feeling. At times, I was certain that the game was deliberately messing with my mind. (Or was that just my own echoing anxiety?) Yet at the end I did not feel frustrated but instead satisfied, saddened, and, appropriately, at peace with the game's narrative (or at least my own interpretation of it).
If it's not obvious, this description is meant as high praise. But, of course, I'm a certain type of gamer, and Dear Esther has (predictably) polarized the gaming community already in its reviews. To appreciate it, you should approach it as you would any abstract artwork. Don't approach it with demands; it will not accomodate you. Take it for what it is, and you might find value in it, as I did.