The events its narrator feeds us are things that have happened often and surely will happen again. I return to my earlier allusion to Myst, which created a fantastical world filled either with strange objects arranged in fashions foreign to our usual relationships with them, or objects which do not exist at all. The world of Dear Esther captures all the mystery of Myst without depending on anything out of the ordinary past a temporary hallucination. The attraction of Dear Esther is that it tells its beautiful story leaning strictly on the objects and devices of the ordinary until the very end, when the reader is left to their own devices to explain what they've just seen.
I'm deliberately being obtuse as to what Dear Esther is about because the story is the experience, so you'll have to look elsewhere for spoilers short of what I've already given you. When I played Dear Esther I journaled the experience, stripping out the spoken narrative and only writing down everything else I saw, heard and felt in an attempt to decipher what was going on. That I'd never paid such close attention to the minute details of a videogame world was my first sign I'd found something important, and I'd rather not ruin that experience for you.
While I may wish I'd noticed Dear Esther back in 2008 before I began opening my mouth on the subjects of what a videogame was or was not, I'm also glad for the fact that my first experience with Dear Esther was the most polished one, with remixed music and audio and presented as a fresh construction in the Source engine. It might have been easier to dismiss Dear Esther before it had been presented so professionally, but the craft of the game's environment cannot be denied, no matter what else you may think about it.
It has more interactivity than a visual novel but much less than an adventure game, such that I don't know what to call it if I rely upon genre definitions. Dear Esther is an argument for a transcendent definition of videogame that includes all the digital tools available to their creators, to be employed for whatever purposes they see fit, even if those purposes do not include any of the traditional trappings of a "game."
Descriptions of Dear Esther refer to it as "experimental." There are enough historical comparisons to prior games such that I don't know if experimental is entirely appropriate, as that usually makes me think of an exploration into the unknown. But if the purpose of Dear Esther was to prove a point, I think it's successful, and the conversation is what point you think the game was trying to prove, and whether or not it did. Inasmuch as art is about making us think and discuss, even if Dear Esther fails at all other tasks, it has already succeeded in this one.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.