I have always considered the definition of "video game" to be fairly open. There are all kinds of video games: puzzles or mazes, shooters, adventure, role playing, fighting, sports, the graphical representation of a board game, and all sorts of combinations of all of the above but there has to be some kind of competition. I do not find that "Dear Esther" falls into any genre of video game and is more of a movie in a different medium. This is not to say that it is not Art, but it does not contain the aspects necessary to make it a game.
Let me start by going through what I have traditionally see as a video game as noted in the above paragraph. At first, I though it might be a puzzle or maze sort of game but really, short of having a lit path with blinking LED arrows, "Dear Esther" points the user down a single path, making any other path either a dead end or out of the protagonist's physical ability to traverse. It is certainly not a shooter, RPG, fighting, sports, or board game. It could almost be considered an adventure game if it weren't for the lack of mutability in the sequence of events. An adventure game is usually characterized by a beginning and an end with varying ways to get from one to the other while Dear Esther is a straight line with no variations. Finally, there is no competition, no input from the user that is a challenge or changes the seemingly random monologues and scenes. No mental competition with a puzzle or maze; No "virtual skills" challenge of a shooter; No strategy of the typical adventure or RPG.
So "Dear Esther" doesn't fit my definition of video games, but what do I know? I am hardly a gamer. So on to the reviews of professional game nerds! Allistair Pinsof, of Destructoid, also seems to have had trouble classifying "Dear Esther" as a video game. It isn't his final conclusion, but Pinsof discusses Dear Esther as interactive fiction. Though the story would not progress without someone to hold the "move forward" key and direct the mouse, I hardly classify that as interaction. Interaction implies that my actions have some sort of affect of the story. My actions, however, were only a means to drive the scripted story forward not unlike a play button on a video player. I used to have a broken cassette player with a play button that would not stay on that I eventually took to taping on. I felt like that piece of tape playing "Dear Esther." Pinsof concludes that the story would have been better suited as a short film and I have to agree. In fact, the story would be better suited if the user could pause and rewind. Pausing a video would allow the user to see the writing on the mountain side and cave walls while rewinding would easily allow the narration to be heard again. In the game, you'd have to start over to hear the narration again! There were several points in the game where I swear I saw a human figure only to get to the location and find nothing but a candle. Rewinding would have allowed me to answer the question "am I seeing things?"
Keza MacDonald begins her IGN review by lamenting that people are too hung up on what "Dear Esther" is rather than enjoying what it has to offer. Although I agree that arguing about what it is takes away from what it has to say as art, I paid my $9.99 expecting a video game and that is not what I got! " Dear Esther is an experiment with the video game form, a piece of interactive visual storytelling; spend your ten dollars (or £6.99) and expect an adventure game, and you'll be disappointed (MacDonald). I have to agree with Miss MacDonald that it is an experiment with the video game form, but not a video game. As Pinsof says, it would be better off as a short film.
All that being said, I do believe it is still a work of art. Using a purely personal definition of art, it is visually stunning as a work of code with no other purpose but to entertain it's audience and make them think about things outside of the daily grind. From a Marcusian standpoint, is this an example of the "Great Refusal?" Not necessarily, but the great thing about Marcuse is that art can be defined by the individual. If "Dear Esther" serves to get the user to think about what is present and what is implied, of what is and what ought to be, it can be art even on Marcuse's strict level.
Is "Dear Esther" a video game? More than likely most people who play it will answer no. It is more of a movie being run on a player with a broken play button, required to be held in by those who want to see it play. That doesn't make it useless, just different.