A unique experience
I dislike having to assign a final score to a "game" such as this one. Review scores are of course the classic compromise between an insightful description and a lack of time and/or patience on behalf of the reader. It's easy to argue that, despite the problems associated with distilling an entire experience into something as simple as a number, it generally a usable metric for how fun and entertaining an experience the product provided.
Personally, I would not associate the word "fun" nor the word "entertaining" with Dear Esther. But neither would I associate the respective opposites with it either. It is an experience. One I have yet to determine if I find worthy of the price of admission. I think arguing from a stand point of uniqueness, the answer would have to be yes. Dear Esther is quite unlike 99% of the other games on the market. Arguably because it is not a game, but it sort of plays like one.
Slight spoilers ahead.
You're put in the shoes of a protagonist who makes his way across a beautiful yet at the same time barren landscape. A tale is woven through voiceover, presumably by the protagonist hinting at events surrounding himself and other characters. The narrative of the game is at times relatively vague, but in my opinion there are several strong hints at what the whole game is actually about, and that is, in my opinion, at the core of this game. Here, the journey is literally the crux of the game, and not the end. Although I will admit that I still enjoyed the ending.
In some ways I feel an effort like this should be applauded because it breaks with a number of standardized practicies by putting the unique experience at the forefront. You're not told exactly how and what you can interact with or what the actual point is. Eventually it becomes clear that there's very little to interact with directly, but you are - in fact - never told that this is so. Refreshing and freeing in a way. But also uncomfortable because games provide a gateway into a world whose reality you have not had a life time to become accustomed to. Occasionally, you might feel a niggling thought occur that there is more beneath the surface just waiting to be discovered, if you only knew how. Some would probably argue that this is what makes it all the more special. Perhaps...
So why have I given this game 4 out of 5 stars? Because I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. But I feel it almost impossible to tell anyone else how or why they would. The uniqueness is its strongest selling point in my opinion, and while I would appreciate more experiences like this on the market, I'm not sure how I would feel about them dominating it. The final missing star hints at the concessions made in regards to the engine. Funneling the player is quite common in games, but I would have compromised more on the artistic expression, in order to avoid problems like ankle high fences/hills that are impossible to pass. An interview with the creator also noted that the engine itself required a compromise during the ending. This, and the aforementioned issue, along with a few tiny details not worth mentioning, is why I stay at 4 out of 5. Having an engine built specifically for Dear Esther would not have been feasible, but it would have made the experience better for it...