This week’s prompt asks us to define what Dear Esther is – a video game, art or some point on the continuum in between. In asking to define this piece, the prompt explicitly wants us to put Dear Esther in this category so that it cannot be in that category. In doing this, by defining the piece, we should then arrive at a more subtle understanding of what the piece hopes to accomplish. With this prompt though, we must first, briefly, define both ‘art’ and ‘video games’.
I have always been found of the idea that ‘art’ is anything that elicits an emotional response in someone, though that is so absurdly vague that almost anything can be considered art. We can possibly narrow that down then by saying that art is anything that elicits intentionally elicits a specific, intended emotion, though that also has its flaws. When dealing with art, it is important to also consider, though on a different level, the aesthetics as both an end in themselves and as a means to the greater meaning of the piece. Still, art can be considered more than the aesthetic forms and intended meaning. To many artists, especially those under the umbrella term of ‘modern art’, the process of creation is as, or more, important than the final creation itself – examples of this would include constrained writings, highly mathematical or involved paintings and abstract sculptures. With so many different aspects, ‘art’ is almost impossible to define – and that is without even touching the theoretical aspects as espoused by the likes of Marcuse or other philosophers.
Video games, then, seem much easier to define. Firstly, they must be video – moving images on a screen – and secondly, they must be interactive. In fact, the term ‘interactive fiction’ can be used in place of ‘video game’ in just about any setting. This is the crucial difference between this medium and other fictions – in video games, the viewer has the main role of not only appreciating the work from in front of a screen, but they must actively put themselves into the world of the game and interact with the aspects they usually have no control over – namely the plot and setting.
Having now given ourselves a footing, albeit a weak one at best, we can turn our attention to the piece at hand, Dear Esther. By almost any definition, it can be considered art – eliciting emotions while being aesthetically appealing (and in many cases it is outright gorgeous). Can we call it a video game, then, remains the question. Dear Esther is obviously a work of fiction, and it just barely meets the requirement to be called interactive. So in the broadest of terms, yes, it is. Even with a lack of puzzles, enemies or even useable objects, Dear Esther allows the player to interact with the world of the island at their own pace.
It is important to note here that Dear Esther is not a very good video game – or rather, there is a ton of room for improvement. As stated in the review for Destructoid, the game’s interactive parts are not nearly as well realized as the rest of the game. There was an attempt to give the player freedom to explore, but with the laughably slow pace, there was strong incentive to stay on the path lest you get stuck with a minute long trek back to the path. In this way, I think the Destructoid reviewer hit the nail on the head – is the video game medium the medium most suited to the story?