Saturday, October 12, 2013

Blog 5 - Dear Esther

    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.


Sarah Ayre said...

First of all, I want to say good job Adam, because I knew what you were arguing (that Dear Esther is art but not a video) the entire time and you definitely managed to convey your frustration with the game through this piece. I also want to apologize for the length of my comments, because they are not because your piece requires a lot of work, but because i think you have a lot of good ideas you can expand upon

Your second paragraph starts out with the a sentence referencing a statement in the first paragraph, but in a vague way that I think is probably unnecessary considering that you show again later in that paragraph how Dear Esther falls short as a video game. I would suggest either just removing that last part of the sentence entirely or reworking it so that the phrasing isn't so awkward. Also, I would question your sentence "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." Does Dear Esther follow a straight line with not variations? I would argue that it doesn't, not in the strictest sense that you apply. While the story line of the game is constantly pointing you in one direction, you can take different (slightly) paths to get there. It might be interesting to note how frustrating this slight freedom can be at this point in your paper (if you noticed/felt this way too) because instead of having only one way you can go, this very minimal freedom just reinforces how little freedom you have as a player. By being able to control your movements, the player feels that they have some control over the story line, but as we know, that's not actually the case. You could see this slight freedom can be seen as a tease. If you decide to go this route, at this point in the paper it might be good to bring up the idea, which you can expand upon later.

Another point you bring up a couple sentences later is that there is "No mental competition with a puzzle or maze" in Dear Esther, which i would again challenge. I think if you look at Dear Esther from a different angle, the whole game could be seen as a puzzle that you must piece together. You are given these snippets of narration with visual clues at random and it requires real mental effort to collect them all and put them all together into some semblance of order. If you want to use this idea, you could mention that this would require the player to run through the game multiple times, and mention just how random the narration truly is, as it appears at different times with different triggers. This idea is another way you can address Dear Esther's shortcomings because the idea of the "game" as a puzzle is not obvious at first or even maybe second glance and how a failing of the game is that people might not even see this way of approaching the game.

Sarah Ayre said...

Your phrase "So "Dear Esther" doesn't fit my definition of video games, but what do I know? I am hardly a gamer," doesn't really seem to serve any purpose but to undermine your authority, and so maybe just strike that. If you want to bring up that you aren't really a gamer, that's fine, but don't forget to note that since Dear Esther doesn't fit your criteria of a classic video game, maybe it wasn't specifically directed at gamers, and then you can explore who it is directed at. Bringing up here that you had the same reaction as someone who could be thought of as a gamer is interesting then, because seeing how Dear Esther effects people with different backgrounds similarly could reinforce your point. Also, "So on to the reviews of professional game nerds!" is kind of an obvious transition, and i think actually pretty unnecessary, unless you perhaps reword it to say something along the lines of how interesting it is that you and the video game "professionals" have the same opinion, or something of the like. That last bit might have been a bit confusing, so here's an example: "As someone who doesn't play video games that often, Dear Esther made me feel blah blah blah... Interestingly enough, people who play video games for a living and write reviews on them thought the same thing..." then going into what Pinsof said. It could strengthen your argument too if you note that Pinsof as a video game reviewer should be open to all different types of video game and he still thought this one was weird, or something along those lines.

Don't forget to use specific quotes in your argument. When you bring up Pinsof, it's with some strong ideas that support your argument, but they are slightly weakened when you don't give any direct quotations that I think might be there in Pinsof's review. In this line of thinking, make sure you are correctly quoting and citing these quotes. The macDonald quote you use doesn't have end quotation marks, and is kind of plopped into the paragraph without leading or following explanation (in that sentence). Just a few of your words on either end of the quote makes it feel more natural to the reader.

In the next paragraph you mention that you will be using a purely personal definition of art, but don't explicitly state what that definition is. If you say that "I define art as ...." then the reader will know how you are evaluating art and can know how or why Dear Esther fits/doesn't fit this definition. You also bring up Marcuse briefly here, but don't do anything with it. If you revise this, you could give a paragraph or two to just what Marcuse would think, which would be interesting to read.

Final comments: make sure to summarize and finish out your conclusion-it should leave the reader with the basic points your discussed and remind them of how you have proven your argument. Also, don't use exclamation points! In essays, they stick out like a sore thumb and make me feel like you are yelling at me (As a reader) which is unnecessary because obviously i'm reading your paper and so i want to know what you have so say. Just try to avoid them

Adam said...

I like the emphasis on competition in the introduction, although the introduction could have been either shorter or clearer - it was kind of windy for what it accomplished.

Your 2nd paragraph needed a good edit (probably combining it with the first). While everything is a little vague, I think raising adventure game as a possible genre makes a lot of sense. "It could almost be considered an adventure game if it weren't for the lack of mutability in the sequence of events." That's an extremely smart line (it almost reference a set of precise definitions which aren't, sadly, actually here...), but that's also where you fall down.

*Show me* that events are not mutable. I say that because we need to think about how much mutability you need for it to matter. For instance, whether or not we spend the time and effort to piece out the writing on the cliff is highly mutable. Whether we look at circuit-diagrams or fish diagrams or both or neither is highly mutable. Maybe, at some level, this doesn't provide *enough* mutability, but you need to get into the details, now that you have a great approach. How much mutability is enough, and where is (and isn't) there mutability in this particular game?

The pause/rewind analogy is pretty good. I also think it's more testable than you give it credit for. You could, for instance, create a video (maybe a partial one) of a play though, and discuss how it is better/worse/like/unlike actually playing it. See what I mean? This idea, in other words, is smart but undemonstrated - a good topic for revision.

Later on in the essay, you begin to wander, rather than pushing yourself to explore in more depth the interesting questions/definitions/problems you raised. I'd much rather see you work through the cassette player metaphor, or to think about how mutable events are, than to see you ramble toward the end.

Overall: Lots of potential, but too much rambling, with not enough development of the most promising material.

Note also that Sarah pokes some holes in your generalizations - which again goes to the point that you want to try to work through your arguments more specifically, in more detail.