If I were going to do this review properly, I would have done it in February, when Dear Esther came out. If I were really going to do it properly, I'd have done it back in 2008, when the game was being developed as a mod for the Source engine. Even after this all this time some people still haven't decided whether it should really count as a "game" - it doesn't have the puzzles or challenges games usually have. What it does require is engagement: it is a story whose pieces are not presented, but must be found. If a "first person game where you shoot things" can be called a "first-person shooter," then Dear Esther is a first-person listener, or a first-person rememberer, though any genre is going to be too narrow to adequately describe what developer thechineseroom has so delicately and elegantly crafted.
If you know the "memory palace mnemonic" - where you picture yourself walking through a house, associating important facts with objects or rooms - you have a sense of how the story of Dear Esther plays out. You are on an island, with no up-front explanation, and as you enter a house or glance at a distant cliff face, your character muses on the significance of these places, giving a glimpse of a story. The effect is something like walking a familiar path after years of absence, with details suddenly sparking vivid memories. The character shares these memories with you, and though his prose is a bit florid, the one or two places where it feels overwrought can be forgiven for how evocative and beautiful it is elsewhere. The world you're exploring feels old and real; the places you're exploring feel discovered, or remembered, more than created. It's hard to remember a game that evokes such raw emotion; with no mechanics or gameplay tension to distract you, it's easy to give yourself over to the story and the visuals. The less I tell you about the story, the better; not only because there are elements I don't want to ruin for you, but because the story is most successful in what it omits, leaving the details to the player's imagination. You'll be better off filling those in yourself, finding your own interpretations of the emotions the game elicits.
The official trailer (above, and on the game's website) says everything you need to know about the graphics and sound. Even if they didn't do a smooth job setting the mood - which they do - they would still be inviting and beautiful. There's nothing pushing the limits of what's been done with video game graphics here, but the details all feel necessary, and the attention payed to each view is seldom seen. Jessica Curry's soundtrack is wonderful and unobtrusive and sad, and even if it's not the easiest stuff to whistle, it'll hold you to the game, and always feels at home under the narrators reminiscences.
Questions about whether Dear Esther qualifies as a "game" might be interesting from an academic point of view, but they're irrelevant to the experience. Certainly, if it's an "experimental" game, the experiment is a success; Dear Esther is taking steps into uncharted territory and finding something amazing there, and I hope it changes the opinions of devs, gamers, and non-gamers alike about what's possible in the medium. Given what an achievement it is that thechineseroom's creation works at all, it's exciting and wonderful that it works so well.
If I were to give one piece of advice about Dear Esther, it would be not to approach it expecting a game - not because it isn't one but because it doesn't behave like one. Don't be expecting the kind of excitement that comes from a shooter or the strategy that comes from an RTS. Arrive at it with as few expectations as you can have, and let it take you at its own pace. There's no hurry - the way the light catches the cliffs, or the stream passing by a barbed wire fence, or the strange scrawlings on a cave wall are the soul of the game, so take the time to enjoy it. There's something to be found here that no other game has yet tried to offer, and it'd be a shame to miss it.
Steam download: http://store.steampowered.com/app/203810/ (Steam's summer sale is going on, so keep checking back - might be available on the cheap!)