Dear Esther: a video game-art-experiment
Though unlike any videogame I have ever played, I see no reason to banish Dear Esther from that form. That doesn't mean that Dear Esther is nothing more than a videogame; instead, I would argue that Dear Esther is a hybridized art form: a videogame and an art experiment that crosses the traditional boundaries of mediums.
If we are tasked with defining what Dear Esther is, the best place to start is the Oxford English Dictionary, where all the definitions that I use will come from. The user doesn't “do videogames,” instead the verb almost always used is play… we “play videogames.” To the OED entry on play (verb): “to exercise or occupy oneself, to be engaged with some activity. And again to the OED, this time for the entry for game (noun): “Amusement generally.” Even the harsh critic (from Destructoid) who gave Dear Esther a 4.5 out of 10 admitted to finding pleasure in several general ways within the game: with the music, the visuals and (to a lesser extent) the writing. I know that I was personally amused while playing Dear Esther, with not just what was mentioned before but also with the creepy atmosphere brought about by incomprehensible cave drawings of neurons, chemical formulas, biblical verses and fleeting ghost sightings. So as I occupied myself with a video-form that I found to be amusing, at least generally, I have no problem saying that I played the video game Dear Esther. And if we consider the creator of Dear Esther, Dan Pinchbeck, a reliable source on the issue in my eyes, his opinion that the importance of interplay between player and avatar defines a videogame is another valid reason to call Dear Esther just that.
But these definitions don’t stop me from labeling Dear Esther as a videogame and nothing more. Here again I turn to the words Mr. Pinchbeck. He says that with Dear Esther the goal was to “ditch traditional gameplay out of an FPS space and [see] what that leaves you.” For some examples of traditional FPS gameplay, Halo and Call of Duty are both billion dollar franchises with millions of fans across the world. Dear Esther is clearly separate from both of these games. So how is it different? Dear Esther isn’t concerned with the immediate gratification of killing an enemy. Instead the primary goals are artistic and experimental: with the game’s music, narrative and visual imagery. Of course there are all of these artistic elements in Halo and COD, but with those games the focus is on the gameplay. The OED entry for art (n): “any of various pursuits or occupations in which creative or imaginative skill is applied according to aesthetic principles.” The aesthetic principles apparent in Dear Esther allow me to find that it should be considered art as well as a videogame.
As a mixture of part videogame part art, Dear Esther is certainly experimental. Mr. Pinchbeck works as a researcher on videogame interactions at the University of Portsmouth, and undoubtedly incorporated some of his research into Dear Esther. The IGN review called Dear Esther an “experiment in the videogame form” but also noted that “judged purely as a videogame, it has obvious failings.” The reviewer for Destructoid straight out admits that he “kept my middle-finger glued down to the “W” key for the game’s duration.” I would agree more with the reviewer from IGN who, while admitting Dear Esther’s gameplay limitations, appreciates the experimental qualities of the game. The reviewer from Destructoid, who continued to follow the typical videogame dogma of trying to finish the game as quickly as possible, missed the boat. Dear Esther is more like a virtual, outdoor art gallery than a videogame, asking the player to stop and look around for a while. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a videogame.