Pinchbeck describes Dear Esther as an "interactive narrative built using first-person game technologies".
The player progresses through the plot of Dear Esther via a series of voiced-over letter fragments to a woman named Esther. The game does not directly specify who the narrator is, but there are suggestions he is Esther's husband and that she is dead, killed in an automobile accident. These monologue fragments are triggered as the player reaches certain locations in the game, and are randomly selected for each given location. This random selection of voice-over parts causes a lack of coherency, and forces the player to draw his or her own conclusions. As the game progresses, the readings become more vague and start to contradict one another. Later in the game, the readings begin to allude to the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, which is also the subject of some of the graffiti found painted on the cliff walls.
It has been debated whether Dear Esther truly constitutes a game. The level of interactivity is minimal, and there are no identifiable objectives.  Some are, however, of the opinion that although the player is never directly told this, getting to a beacon which is referenced in many of the story fragments is the ultimate target.
The game follows a somewhat linear path on an uninhabited Hebridean island. A series of obscure visual symbols line the rocks of the island, most of which are chemical or electrical diagrams.
Dear Esther was written and produced by Dan Pinchbeck. Pinchbeck is a teacher of games and interactive media at the University of Portsmouth, United Kingdom. The game was designed by Pinchbeck and Josh Short, built by Short and Adam Griffiths, and programmed by Jonathan Brown. Music for Dear Esther was written by Jessica Curry, and voice acting was performed by Nigel Carrington.
Dear Esther is currently being redeveloped by Robert Briscoe, formerly of DICE. The remake will include a fully rebuilt environment and remastered audio.
Dear Esther was selected for exhibition at the 2008 Ars Electronica animation exhibition, was given an honorary mention for Best Voice Acting at the 2008 Machinima Awards and made the Top 100 of Mod DB's Mod of the Year 2008. Some reviewers have complained of poor level design, citing a lack of direction in the terrain, and multiple glitches related to movement. The voice acting, music and writing in the mod have been consistently praised.
Dear Esther won Best World/Story at the 2009 IndieCade Independent Game awards.