I have walked the path Dear Esther laid out for me twice. Once, back when it was a free fan-made modification for Half-Life 2, and again, when it returned renewed as a fully realized work of art, released on Steam. The world is bigger this time, and significantly more beautiful. But even if the game had been identical to the mod, I would still have payed for it. I owed the creator for the earlier experience.
Dear Esther is an incredibly difficult game to pin down. There are legitimate questions as to whether it can even be called a game. There is no high score here, no running, jumping, shooting, or aggravated puzzling. Dear Esther is empty of these things, a void filled by a long walk on a trash-strewn beach and the solitary voice of the narrator.
The empty scenery creates its own challenges. It forces me to fill the winding weed-choked paths with questions. No boss stands in my way, no puzzle keeps some wooden door sealed beyond all reason. Yet I find myself unable to continue, I cannot leave until I appreciate the reflection of a candle on wet sand, or the view of the moon over a forlorn coast. I am my own opponent, my own puzzle that locks the door.
But does that make it a game? Some books are hard to read, some movies are hard to watch. They challenge us, but we don’t call them games. Dear Esther is a book where the visuals aren’t left to the mind’s eye. It’s a movie where you control the pace and the camera. Is it a game just because it has us walking through a simulated space?
This is part of Dear Esther’s heart wrenching magic trick. It’s a work of art which forces us to question, it forces us to test the bounds of the story and the space it inhabits.
I played the new version of Dear Esther for several hours after buying it. I had to stop when I found an abandoned photograph on the coastline. I stared at the shattered frame, surrounded by a halo of golden candle light. I couldn’t go on, the game was too hard.