Atmospheric, visually stunning, and incredibly immersive. These few words are enough to describe Dear Esther. What remains to be answered though, and what many will argue about is whether or not Dear Esther, in fact, constitutes a game.
To answer that question, we can simply say this: although it does come close, it would be more appropriate to describe Dear Esther as an experience rather than a game. With that being said, it presents a unique challenge in terms of reviewing, critiquing and trying to assess a score that accurately reflects a game that doesn't quite fit with what we would normally consider a game.
You begin the journey of Dear Esther by walking up the shore to a seemingly deserted island. As you explore the incredibly detailed but lifeless island, a narrator begins to tell you the tale of various people and events. These segments provide background, but do not culminate in a coherent and linear story, leaving you as the player to interpret the events as you see fit. To try and explain the story would be a disservice, as the journey is yours to make, and what you take away from the game will vary from person to person.
The journey you do take won't be focused on your arsenal of weapons, or puzzles you have to decipher, but rather the atmospheric trek through the empty island, as you are immersed in the environment, the sounds and the narration. This is what Dear Esther relies on, and what makes it such an impressive feat considering it lacks nearly any interactivity.
If a slow paced experience that relies on immersion rather than fast paced action isn't what you're looking for, you likely won't get much out of Dear Esther. If on the other hand you want to see what's possible when a game relies on not so typical facets of gaming, you will thoroughly enjoy what this experience has to offer.
Dear Esther has fantastic visually, especially when you consider it's built upon the Source engine, technology that's nearly a decade old. Combined with extremely realistic sounds and complimentary musical scores and cues, these aspects help pull you onto the island, making it easy to imagine that you yourself are there in person.
Dear Esther isn't your typical video game, and that's why it may not be suited for everyone. It has beautiful visuals and a powerful ability to suck you in, but it lacks normal features that most games rely on. With that said, you should consider Dear Esther if you want to see how powerful and emotional invoking a video game can be, but be sure to understand that the experience within is what you make of it. There is no action, there are no enemies and the experience is rather short, but should you get lost on the island, you'll likely be impressed with what you see.