Oftentimes when a social norm is introduced to an idea that challenges it, the new idea is faced with rejection. In the avant-garde video game, “Dear Esther,” reviewers challenge the game’s unconventional setting and “plot” because of its apparent deviations from the typical template followed by most video games. The concept of challenging a new form of something is not new, especially among different mediums of art. This was shown in emerging art forms such as Romanticism that challenged the norm of its day, Baroque, and illustrates the point that art cannot be defined as adhering to the norm. Therefore, although “Dear Esther,” does not follow the typical path laid out by many video games, it does not make it any less of a video game.
Chart-topping video games like “Halo” or “Gears of War” are characterized by fast-paced action, bright colors and interactive play that allows the player to be constantly entertained by different aspects of the game. Although these hyper-stimulating narratives that bombard the player with visuals and sounds are the present norm of this medium, it does not define the genre of video games itself. A game that challenges this style is often rejected as a video game because of the simple fact that the audience is expecting something different. The most essential characteristic of a videogame, as defined by many, is the ability of the player to control or interact with the images on a screen regardless of the orthodoxy in its execution. This definition, although seemingly lacking, is a unifying concept of all works in this artform and does not restrict the artist in the manner in which he does this. “Dear Esther” deviates from traditional video games because it introduces a new way to interact with images and narratives based on a holistic view of emotional appeal rather than the traditional style aimed solely at the senses.
Historically, art mediums have seen major shifts in style based on changes in political and social contexts as well as technological advances. Although a relatively new medium, video games too have gone through shifts in style throughout their brief existence. The prevailing style is filled with bright visuals, immense soundtracks and complex mechanics, and can be compared to the Baroque style of painting and music during the 17th century. The gaudy and direct aesthetic of this style was used not only to impress the viewers but also to communicate themes without the ambiguity of interpretation. This style, prevalent in many video games of today’s age, is similarly used to impress the large, and growing, population of consumers in the 78.5 billion dollar industry (Reuters). To attract the gamer audience that is constantly immersed in an oversaturated market of video games, artists need to produce games that are even more stimulating, and mechanically engaging than the last.
“Dear Esther” challenges this “Baroque” style of video games with its appeal to the audience’s emotions through visual and auditory aesthetics woven into an organic interactive narrative. The “sweeping strings...gloomy piano pieces”, the picturesque landscapes and dense narrative are again analogous to another stylistic movement, Romanticism. The Romantics, rejected by the major artists of the time, deviated from the major Baroque movement by promoting a more individualistic and natural view of the world as opposed to the direct and incontrovertible themes of the Baroque era. “Dear Esther” presents an isolated individual traversing the “natural beauty of the coast and the startling luminescence of the underground caves”, a scene reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich Example (MacDonald). Although one does this by simply “hold[ing] down the “W”-key for 70 minutes” this does not detract from it’s classification as a video game because what it lacks in mechanics it boasts in “strength of the writing and the world alone” (Pinsof, MacDonald). The interactivity is not based in the mechanics like traditional games rather it is rooted in the ambiguity of the landscapes scrawled with cryptic writings, and an emotional narrative both of which can be interpreted in countless ways.
The curiosity “Dear Esther” evokes from its players is evident in the countless web pages and forums that discuss the many and varied interpretations of the video game. This ambiguity is what drives players to immerse themselves in the visuals and sounds that the game presents despite the simple mechanics. By creating a game in which its interactivity is not defined by the number of customizable weapons and armors, the makers of “Dear Esther” have transcended the traditional realm of gaming by innovating a new way to interact with its players.
Much like the early critics of Romanticism and countless other artistic movements, those challenging “Dear Esther” as a video game base their argument almost solely on the fact that this piece of art does not adhere to the norm of video games. “Dear Esther” and other unconventional video games exemplify many of these emerging art forms by taking a genre, such as video gaming, and introducing new concepts and aspects that alter the audience’s idea of what that art form really is.