Dear Esther is a Half-Life 2 mod that was released for distribution in 2008, and re-released last week as a commercial product on Steam. I am cautious about invoking the dreaded "should" statement unless it's important, but you really should play Dear Esther if you haven't already. It raises as many legitimate questions as it answers, which in my experience is always a sign of a thing's profundity. It may be as important to contemplation of where our medium has been and is going as Shadow of the Colossus, Bioshock, and Passage. It would be a damned shame, if you have the ten dollars to spare, that you didn't give Dear Esther the few hours of your time it richly deserves.
Dear Esther bears no resemblance to most of our videogame experiences. It has a little Myst in its digital DNA, but there are no puzzles to be solved beyond the strictly intellectual. There is no running, no jumping, no picking up or throwing. There is only walking, looking, and listening. Dear Esther is an exploration of an island upon which we are ostensibly shipwrecked, with voiceover passages and matching paragraphs of text triggered as we walk over certain locations. It is broken up into four chapters any of which may be selected once the player has finished them, but I can't imagine not sitting down and playing the entire game at once, every time I play it, because more than anything else, Dear Esther is a short story.
Each step forward in Dear Esther is reading a line. The flowers, rocks and grass are the words. The paragraphs are not the literal ones read aloud but the caves and vistas and shacks that trigger them. Dear Esther is linear like prose. We're empowered to walk off the path but the inability to run discourages it once we realize how painfully slow backtracking can be. The optional paths are more like footnotes, extra information that may be valuable to our reading of the text but also potentially extraneous.
I've heard game designers defy the notion that videogames are a medium, in the sense of a substance upon which creation imprints itself, like paper or canvas. Dear Esther smiles kindly upon those game designers and asks them to open its metaphorical pages. Some of the reactions to this game float around the question of whether Dear Esther had to use a videogame to tell its story, as if the answer to that question belies the legitimacy of the attempt. I'd suggest that Dear Esther uses the power of interactivity to blend player-authored and presented narrative in a way not many games have for me before. I wouldn't have felt any ownership of the story had it been printed on the page or projected onto a screen for me to watch passively.
Furthermore, I'm glad the creators of Dear Esther chose to make a videogame instead of writing literature or shooting a short film because they've demonstrated something I argued for last week, namely the potential of videogames to tell emotionally powerful stories by using the building blocks of the mundane. There is nothing fantastical about Dear Esther. It takes place on the beach of an island, in a cave, and an ascent to an aerial tower on a cliff. Its objects are decidedly dull: paint cans, sutures, flashlights, candles, photographs, wrecked ships, and detritus.