Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Prompt 1: Undefined Experience

Prompt 1: An Undefined Experience

Key components of a game include rules, challenges, goals and interaction. Games usually involve mental or physical stimulation that can help develop specific skills, serve as a form of entertainment or provide an educational/psychological role. The term game is used in opposition of art since games are categorized structured forms of work with distinct guidelines and defined endings whereas art is boundless with infinite outcomes. The cross product of the two works is more commonly used than one would think. Unfortunately, some audiences are unwilling to appreciate the collaboration of the two worlds in a concrete idea like a game. Leave it to Microsoft who partnered with The Chinese Room, a British independent video game development studio who took on the challenge of combining gaming with art as they released an experimental first person video game that blurred the lines of a video game and the many dimensions of art which they named Dear Esther. In Dear Esther the player explores a deserted Hebridean island while listening to voiced over letters written to a woman named Esther read by an undeclared narrator. First released in 2008 and remade in 2012, Dear Esther continues to receive mixed reviews since audiences disbelieve it classifies as a video game when really it’s beyond sophistication puts it in a league all its own.
Defining something ultimately declares its limit. Placing something in a category creates boundaries that further prohibit anything more to come out of what was then originally declared. By deciphering Dear Esther as just a game or a work of art would be a stifling mistake. The quirky combination of the simplistic yet frustrating player interaction and the dramatic visual and musical components make Dear Esther a beautiful creation. “Dear Esther only has three things going for it: its writing, music, and visual”, describes the scene where the character experiences the depths of the gloomy cave perfectly. A magnificent amount of sound dramatizes the artful scenery inside the cave while unveiling a wave of emotions as the player relates to the sadness of the character, and aren’t drama and emotions aspects of a game?
Let’s recall what defines a game: a structured format, rules, guidelines, goals, challenges and interaction. Truth be told, Dear Esther is not the best demonstration of solid evidence of the above criteria. But what it does show is its versatility. This game, similar to other games provides a form of entertainment. The player is not faced with the challenge of dodging missiles or searching for a magical key that’ll help carry the plot forward but with the chance to interpret the story however they choose. “Dear Esther doesn't need puzzles or mechanics to draw you in. The strength of the writing and the world alone is enough.” The lack of puzzles and physical obstacles is necessary for the full experience. It allows the audience to appreciate their progress in the game at their own pace while the imagery and narrative take center stage.
Despite the reviews, the player is in control of the action. Even though the only control is the “W” key that allows the character to walk, (the only other action is ducking and even that is automatic) Dear Esther purposefully doesn’t allow the player to make their own actions. One review stated “I do not believe Dear Esther is the search for an answer, or even for a meaning…it is an experiment with the senses and the emotions.” If one is looking for a way to put Dear Esther in its appropriate place it may be helpful to accept what it is capable of and therefore does for others rather than what it actually is. It is a journey through sight, sound and illusion with a few metaphors thrown in to conjure up feelings relatable to what the character is going through in the game. Emotion is a large contributor when playing games, it can rile up feelings that can either benefit or hinder the player. Dear Esther manages to transcend the character’s emotion across the screen while still maintaining the adventurous journey on the island. Other works might benefit from the fusion of gaming and art; what is our world if we can’t appreciate the collaboration of all works.
It’s vague plot and lack of interaction with the player is almost like its way of inviting itself into the video game world without actually claiming itself as a video game. Dear Esther is playing a trick of its own, the identity game. Its purpose is not overshadowed by its lack of identity and that is a game all on its own.

[1] "Dear Esther Review", Keza MacDonald, February 13, 2012
[2] "Dear Esther Review", Allistair Pinsof, February 13, 2012

The scene where the character experiences depths of the cave accompanied by dramatic music.