I'm not sure what exactly to make of Dear Esther.
Is it an adventure game?
Many would say yes, and I think I'd agree. You are placed on an island, and your controls allow you to move around the island, to explore different areas and visit different locations. You can look at items, zoom in on them, view them from different angles.
However, you can't actually interact with anything.
The closest you get to interacting is that, from time to time, the game issues a short speech, as if from an off-stage narrator.
The speeches, as you progress through the game, form a story; at least, they form the fragments of a story. It's never really clear whether the narrator of these speeches is you, or somebody who came before you. And it's never really clear whether the character being referred to in the 3rd person in these speeches is you, or whether the narrator is telling somebody else's story to you.
The story clearly takes place on the island, though.
So in that respect many would call Dear Esther a work of art, an interactive story, a computer-driven epic poem. And I think I'd agree with that, too. It's clearly a performance, and, as art, it certainly is well-crafted.
The story is a compelling one, too. It's a tragic story, one told many times before, but told quite well, both in words and in more subtle ways (e.g., via the placement of candles on the path, or the paintings on the walls of the cave). More than once I found myself overcome with emotion as the game delivered yet another glimpse into its private world.
Dear Esther also compels on a purely aesthetic level. The artwork is beautiful; the music is gorgeous. The voyage through the caves in the middle of the island is just stunning. It reminds me of the first time I played Myst, 20 years ago; during those days I was often content just to walk around the island and gaze at the scenery.
It's clear, I believe, that Dear Esther is trying to do more than "just" tell a story. The visuals and the monologues and the wandering around all work together, full of allegory and metaphor. There are biblical references: quotations from Acts are painted on objects in the game, as well as referenced in the speeches, and stories such as Lot's wife, or the pilgrimage to Damascus, are touched upon, as well as less literal, but still clear, biblical references:
I have run out of places to climb. I will abandon this body and take to the air.
And there are other literary references, such as this fairly clear nod to John Donne's No Man Is An Island:
he would have realised he was his own shoreline, as am I. Just as I am becoming this island ...
I played through Dear Esther rather quickly, thirstily, eager to push the story forward. Others, I am told, savor this journey more slowly, even re-play it to gain a different perspective. The verses delivered by the narrator are randomized, so you may find your second time through the game to be a quite different experience.
So what, then, is Dear Esther? Is it a meditation on the perils of addiction? Is it a transcendent expression of pure love? Is it a commentary on the impermanence and mortality of man as he strives to create meaning that will outlive him? Is it "simply" a work of art, simultaneously none and all of the above?
I'll close with this, my favorite speech, hoping it reveals both nothing and everything:
I’ve begun my voyage in a paper boat without a bottom; I will fly to the moon in it. I have been folded along a crease in time, a weakness in the sheet of life. Now, you’ve settled on the opposite side of the paper to me; I can see your traces in the ink that soaks through the fibre, the pulped vegetation. When we become waterlogged, and the cage disintegrates, we will intermingle. When this paper aeroplane leaves the cliff edge, and carves parallel vapour trails in the dark, we will come together.