I'm a proponent for expanding our limited and stagnant definition of what constitutes a "video game;" that games like Dear Esther exist is a good thing for the medium. The more we challenge the status quo through the creation and the experience of such games, the more we do to progress video games as a medium of artistic worth. I'm glad that Dear Esther has been as well-received as it has been; it's a modest landmark for the real success that such experimental titles can find today.
However, I am nothing if not a harsh critic, and Dear Esther has its problems, small piece of history that it is. It is possibly unfair to judge an experimental video game by the standards of more established media, but if video games expect to play in the big leagues, they shouldn't be exempt from playing by the same rules.
But first, there are things which Dear Esther does right. Easiest to praise are the visuals, which depict the island on which you wander as lonely but yearning to be explored. Each point of visual interest has been crafted with great care – from the vistas to the smallest details, like a lone buoy, far offshore and barely visible.
The size of the island itself is something to appreciate. Regardless of your feelings with regards to the game's very casual walking speed, the island's stretches of nothing have their own desolate beauty.
But while the setting of Dear Esther can easily hold interest, its story has a much harder time attempting to do the same. From what you are allowed to piece together, the narrator is attempting a sort of redemption by exile. His disembodied voice pops in occasionally at certain checkpoints to provide you with vague details about what basically amounts to "stuff." A small collection of first names, a meandering history of the island, and unclear, melodramatic recollections of ailments and car crashes are some of what you can expect from these telling monologues that are anything but. I very quickly came to realize that the game's visuals were better than its writing deserved. It is frustrating.
For a game like Dear Esther, the story's the thing. The plot here lacks so much specificity and context as to void its stabs at emotional poignancy. To be vague is one thing, but that artful reluctance to provide specifics is a better trait for a rational character than the opposite. When reasonable people are weighed down by guilt, the poetic musings they conjure surprise you by contrasting with the voice you expect; but the narrator of Dear Esther is too unhinged to make a clear point among all the overthinking. What we get is a voice that constantly oversells things and scurries back and forth much too often between too many incomplete themes. It is unsatisfying to follow and even more unsatisfying still to piece together. There are bits and pieces of good phrasing scattered within all the overwrought prose, but the story would have benefitted from the writers falling out of love with this character.
Dear Esther was made in a time when video games needed a reinvention. It tried for some big things and for that is has my respect. Visually, it is a full experience; I just wish that same amount of polish and editing was present in its other, crucial half.