Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dear Esther as Art

Dear Esther is difficult to define as any one entity, primarily because it has so many functions. It is designed, marketed, and sold as a video game and reviewed by gamers. Players use the same computer keys to "play" the game as they would in any other game. Despite all these characteristics, Dear Esther is still hard to define because it has narrative qualities in its story divulged by the narrator, although the information seems to make more gaps in the story than it fills. In the end, all of the things that Dear Esther can be defined as are forms of art: visual masterpiece, narrative, and emotional experience. Because all of the defining aspects of Dear Esther are art, the game itself is art.

The very first thing I noticed when playing the game - and I think most other players notice first, too - are the stunning visuals of the game. Everything in the world of Dear Esther is beautifully crafted with various textures and colors that surround and overwhelm the player. It is very easy to get lost in the dark world of Esther. Because there is no real other action in the game other than walking, the only function the player serves is really to explore the world around them.  MacDonald warns gamers in her review, "spend your ten dollars (or £6.99) and expect an adventure game, and you'll be disappointed" (MacDonald). Pinsof sums up the game rather negatively, but accurately when he says, "all you do in this game is walk. You literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes" (Pinsof). The click of the mouse and use of the "E" key on the keyboard, the keys that complete actions in Portal, only allow the player to get a closer look at something. This leads the player to believe the primary focus of the game is not to shoot or transport anything, but to observe and explore. The game was created, like a work of art, to experienced, as opposed to being created as something to defeat or entertain even.
Shot showing the beautiful, elaborate landscape of the game when emerging from the caves.

Dear Esther features a story element divulged to the player by a mysterious narrator. We hear short clips of a story that seem to fit together in some way, but still have gaping holes by time the game is over. In the beginning of the game, one of the narrator's blurbs describes a car crash, and later in the game, we find wreckage from what seems to have been a car crash surrounded by candles:
The orientation of the wreckage and the candles seem to be a sort of vigil to the narrator's lost Esther, after whom the game is named. To further support the idea that the narrator is suffering from the loss of a loved one, we come across another vigil that includes a picture and candles:
Once we find this vigil, the story of the narrator's lost loved one is solidified. The narrator's seemingly lost feeling without his loved one echoes throughout the game with the wandering of the invisible protagonist. He is wandering without any clear destination, but at the finale, the end of the game, his story ends. The player loses control of the wanderer and witnesses a suicidal sequence during which the wanderer jumps off the highest cliff in the game and then floats throughout the game before turning black. This is when the narrator frees himself from the guilt and pain he associates with the loss of Esther. As soon as he jumps, he is free, and the story ends.

A characteristic unique to Dear Esther among many video games is its ability to elicit an emotional response from its players. The narrator's voice adds an undeniable element to the game. Pinsof addresses this in his review and says of narrator Nigel Carrington, "he adds a weight to the syllables that make them sink into your gut" (Pinsof). The narrator's loss and solemn mood is echoed throughout the game with its melancholy darkness, isolation, and generally dreary setting. The game is not happy and bright, but dark and sad. If the player loses himself in the story of the game, he will find himself absorbed in and haunted by the world of Esther, feeling sorry for the narrator, but relieved when he is free at the conclusion of the game.

Everything about Dear Esther draws the player in further so that they continue to walk along the rugged terrain. The beautifully crafted landscapes and details of the caves captivate the player while bits and pieces of the narrative itself are revealed by the world itself as well as the narrator. The game, as art, is a creation meant to be experienced with the ears, the eyes, and the heart.


Adam Lewis said...


I think you have done a wonderful job of describing Dear Esther as a work of art. I was a bit put off by the summary of the narration at first because we assume your intended audience has played the game, but then I realized that the narrative isn't always very clear and I actually appreciated the recap.

What I would suggest, is that you explore the alternative; that is Dear Esther as a game (or not a game in this case.) Just because it is stunning and tells an interesting story to evoke wonder, emotion, and imagination doesn't necessarily mean it isn't a game. Many games are visually appealing and tell and interesting story so I would get more into why it isn't a game if you choose to revise this one.

That being said, I enjoyed reading your blog, kudos on the good work!

Adam said...

I like the complexity of the first paragraph, but I wonder why it's noteworthy that the game has narrative qualities. They might be *different* than usual in DE, but it's not like they wouldn't exist at all in other games.

Your analysis of your screenshots is compact, well executed, and convincing. Few people in the class did this basic thing. You didn't just do it, though. You did it well. The analysis of these screenshots alone was certainly well worth my effort reading your essay.

"The player loses control of the wanderer and witnesses a suicidal sequence during which the wanderer jumps off the highest cliff in the game and then floats throughout the game before turning black. This is when the narrator frees himself from the guilt and pain he associates with the loss of Esther. As soon as he jumps, he is free, and the story ends." -- this is smart, but I don't feel like it's complete. I mean, I think the analysis is good, but what do we do with it? I think you're pushing the idea that this is the moment when gameplay is clearly subordinated to story (character?). If so, it's a good reading, but it could be a little more explicit & developed.

The ending couple paragraphs wander a little bit into overly generalized claims. I actually don't think you're wrong with any of it - I just think you got such a great start analyzing noteworthy specifics of the game that it's a bit of a disappointment to see you retreat a little from that into more obvious ideas (I mean, it's no shock that video games get an emotional response. That doesn't mean that DE isn't unusual, but emotion in itself is people something have given to video games more or less from the beginning).

Overall: Very good analysis of specifics, not to mention choice of screenshots, with some good insights. In some ways the whole was less than the parts, though - the more general sections were less interesting, and in some ways a step back from the specifics.

Adam's second paragraph makes an important basic point about what I call your generalizations.