Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prompt 1: Reviewing the Reviewers

            “Video games can never be art,” is not a statement that I am inclined to accept outright (Ebert). As someone who has been playing video games for as long as he could hold the controller, I have often wrestled with the idea of video games as an art form. As an interactive form of media, they have the ability to create experiences neither film nor literature can achieve, but this boon can also be a double-edged sword. Gameplay, if not perfectly executed, can cause players to feel frustrated and detracted from narrative elements or symbolism, but also create a bond between player and avatar at a level unmatched by other forms of media, as well as create differing experiences between players. If we are to accept these factors as the key differences between, say, video games and film, Dear Esther certainly falls within a heavily “grey” classification. While exhibiting little to no gameplay outside of holding the “W” key, it weaves a narrative with an incredible depth and heavy symbolism, as well as includes a mechanic that purposefully creates individualistic player experiences. Although Dear Esther may challenge what we classify as video games, it certainly exemplifies how they can go about achieving status as an art form.
                If we are to adhere to the definition of video games as simply an interactive medium, then Dear Esther certainly fits the bill, but when considering it as such, it seems as if many key components are missing. Movement, although available in all directions, is severely limited with the absence of the ability to both jump and crouch. This is lamented by reviewer Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid, “All you do in this game is walk. You literally hold down the “W” key for 70 minutes – even ducking, the only other action is automatic.” In addition, the goals are unclear, objectives are nonexistent, and indication on how to progress is not expressed to the player in the slightest. However, there are plenty of video games that we have no trouble classifying that also have none of these qualities, such as Zork. If it were not for the instruction booklet, a player would have no guidance as to their objective, and there is never an indication of how much treasure a player has remaining to collect.
The true confirmation of Dear Esther as a video game comes from its most interesting mechanic: a semi-random story. Each voice-over is triggered by approaching either a piece of scenery or entering a new area, and there are three to four completely different monologues for each one. Although the plot might be confusing to a player on their first play-through, it becomes more and more clear with each successive jump from the radio tower, with “clues and allusions in the narrator’s musings that you won't notice the first time,” (MacDonald). These differing experiences that can be drawn from each individual player are what are meant to be the game’s “goal”: the drawing of a unique view on the narrator’s plight and the events preceding his eventual suicide on Hebridean Island.
Affirming Dear Esther as an art form is an order of greater magnitude, even though it is rich with so much symbolism, plot, and intelligence that it rivals many novels and films. Although one should always take IGN reviews with a grain of salt, Keza MacDonald offers a firm base on which to examine the game’s artistic merit, claiming the game “will leave you feeling edified, contemplative, and possibly even emotionally moved.” Many games attempt to emotionally move players in some way, whether it something as blatant as the soul-crushing death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII[1] or the lighthearted, yet questionable incineration of the Companion Cube in Portal. Evocation of emotion in Dear Esther comes primarily in the form of despair and sadness, and originates in the monologues as well as in the masterfully composed score, with “sweeping string music in pastoral scenes,” and “gloomy piano pieces in caves help paint the landscape with character,” (Pinsof).
However, emotion is used more as a backdrop to Dear Esther’s true driving force; the “contemplative” and “edified” aspects of MacDonald’s explanation of the game are far more conducive to both its narrative, and classification of the game as art. Unlike many other narrative-heavy games, Dear Esther does not “spoon-feed” the player anything, and forces them to think about the content presented to them and draw their own conclusions. The game does this in part by its rich symbolism, with an excellent example being the constant appearance of wall writings, both chemical and electrical. Paul, who can be inferred to be a pharmaceutical representative, is pinned in some playthroughs of the game as being the drunk driver that killed Esther, while in others the true reason for the crash was an electrical brake failure. This is represented by the increasing appearance throughout the narrator’s journey of chemical alcohol representations [2], as well electrical circuits representing the brake failure [3]. The narrator struggles to come to terms with what to blame for his misery, whether it is a drunken Paul or random accident. None of this however, is directly or even remotely stated to the player, and is, in fact, only my “reading” the game, speaking beautifully to Dear Esther’s ability to allow the player to draw their own conclusions and meanings, just like towards that of a film or novel. Through their reading, a player can then draw their own moral or intellectual message, fulfilling an individualistic edification for each and every person who experiences the game.
Overall, Dear Esther is certainly not a conventional example of either a video game or art, and should be treated as such. The limitations and standards of the medium hamper it in both of its respective categories, but it still is able to shine through with primary characteristics of each. If only Roger Ebert would have attempted a play-through of Dear Esther before releasing his infamous journal entry, video games may not have garnered controversy when attempting to be recognized as art, or at least not in the magnitude that it does today. Like MacDonald states in the end of her review, “I can only recommend that you give it a chance; whether or not you relate to it in the end, it will have been worth the experience. If you do connect with it, Dear Esther can change your perspective on what games could be doing.


[1] I apologize for the spoiler, but come on, the game has been out for 16 years now! By the way, if you like (J)RPGs you should play it.

[2] Chemical diagram of ethanol found in game

[3] Many different kinds of circuits and electrical circuits found in game

Works Cited:

Allistair, Pinsof. "Review: Dear Esther." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. Destructoid. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of Dear Esther. Web log post. IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.
Ebert, Roger. "Video Games Can Never Be Art."  Ebert Digital LLC, 16 Apr. 2010. Web. 15 Oct. 2013.


Adam said...

Your introduction is very nice - on the subject of identifying with the avatar, I actually think Scott McClouds book "Understanding Comics", maybe weirdly, provides a lot of insights here. If I get a chance, I'll photocopy a page or two to bring in for class.

There was a lot to like here. While you arguably got tangled up a little in distractions, the extended attention you gave to the centrality of playing the game multiple times is a great approach. The only thing that would have really enhanced it would have been to discuss the randomness in detail - that is, talk about things you learned/believed *specifically* in play through A vs. B vs. C (or whatever), as a way of really pinning down how the game evolves. Granted, doing so would have taken some effort, but it would have enabled you to make your argument specific in a way that is currently absent. That's maybe what I'd most like to see if you revise.

Your discussion of Ebert is in danger of being a distraction, but could have worked well if you had played against the details of his argument - this would be another way of approaching revision.

Good work, but I would like more attention on precise details - there is a dangerous degree of generalization present throughout this essay.

Ronald Rollins said...

My biggest question about this is would Roger Ebert's opinions on games as art really have changed if he'd played Dear Esther? Dear Esther is such an unusual subject among even the gaming community that I have to wonder if he'd use it as a sign that the industry is still immature, or that its very simple gameplay would've been better suited for a movie.

Dear Esther does push story in games more than most others in that you are forced to look around for signs and try to build your own understanding of the universe, but it's not quite something unique to games either.

Still, I do think you make a strong case in your favor.