But it's also pretty because it's framed by narrative. It's pretty, also, because it's got the most wonderful cello and piano accompaniment. It's a mood piece, in a very literal sense. All these factors, these sights and sounds, create a very specific mood, in a very specific place.
There's worry that Dear Esther isn't a game, that it's merely a short story shoved into an engine, a film vignette created in Source - and without that very immediate sense of interaction, it loses its right to be a game. Doom might raise the question of whether we can talk to the monsters, but at least it let you shoot them. Hell, at least there were monsters.
But these worries are redundant. Not all games need to be Doom, and by the same note, not all games need to be Dear Esther. We are better off for Dear Esther existing, because it offers something entirely separate from the usual fare.
Dear Esther lets you play with it, but it doesn't ever confirm or deny that the way you're playing is right. While we do need some way to interact, to expect that interaction to be purely by way of immediate feedback - that our relationship with games is binary, one driven by keystrokes and mouse clicks - seems narrow-minded.
You're presented with the little fragments of narration in Dear Esther, each giving you a little more information on the whole, a slightly clearer picture, with most contradicting something that went before. The 'game' is in bringing those pieces together to form a clear picture in your head. It's about throwing out what you don't want or need, and keeping parts that resonate with you. You'll end up with a picture of a story that's wildly divorced from both what the game presents, and what anyone else ends up with.
I think that's kind of beautiful.
That's not to say Dear Ester is without flaw, as the middle section of the game tends to go against that unguided linearity that the more open levels thrive on, leaving what little choice you did have by the wayside for a good portion. It opens up again afterwards, but only momentarily.
The beauty of Dear Esther is that it raises questions about content rather than mechanics. It strips out anything that can get between you and what it wants to say, and every problem relates to how the game presents its story, and how effective that story is. We don't have to worry about production values, or whether the whole thing will fall apart in a buggy mess. It's what The Chinese Room wants to show you, and how you take what is shown. No barriers of entry. No obstacles. No guff.
Whether you like what Dear Esther has to say, though, is entirely up to you.
Version Tested: PC