Friday, November 8, 2013

Dear Esther: Not a Game, but Art

    Dear Esther is designed, marketed, and sold as a video game and reviewed by gamers. Players use the same computer keys to "play" the game as they would in any other game. But these qualifications do not suffice to make Dear Esther a video game. There are essential parts to make a video game whole that Dear Esther just does not present to its players. It does, however, give its players a rewarding visual experience thanks to its masterfully crafted, detailed world. Therefore, Dear Esther is less of a game than it is art.
    When a gamer purchases Dear Esther for $9.99, they are not purchasing something “played using a microcomputer with a keyboard and often joysticks to manipulate changes or respond to the action or questions on the screen” ( Instead, they are purchasing the chance to explore an alternate reality, an unknown, mysterious virtual world. Dear Esther does not give its players a traditional experience in that it does not allow the gamer to interact with the surroundings in any way but exploration. Walking is the only function that the controls allow the player to utilize. A critic of Dear Esther summarizes it as, “my middle-finger glued down to the “W” key for the game’s duration” (Pinsoff). The “E” key and the click of the mouse, which are normally used to shoot guns or pick items up in games, are instead only functional as  minute zooms. This is significant because where the critical functions of other games lie, with the “E” key and the interaction it allows players to have with the game, Dear Esther challenges this and the use of these tools only awards the players the option of taking a closer look at the world of the game.
    In mosts games, there is some sort of objective. For example, in Risk, the objective of the game is to take over the world. In Portal, the objective is to move objects to their designated location and ultimately complete all the levels of the game. In Dear Esther, there is no true objective. Some may argue that in Dear Esther “you are led, without ever really feeling like you are being led, by subtle visual cues that stand out against the landscape and draw you towards them” (MacDonald). Using this information, it may be easy to say that the objective of the game is to reach the top of the mountain, but that is not necessarily true. There are no explicit directions relayed to the players about reaching the top of the mountain, and given the choice, a player could wander around the game for hours without consequence until they finally decide to climb the mountain.
    Developing specific strategies to completed or conquer a game is often the ultimate goal of a game. However, “to approach a game as a rigid set of rules is the same thing as looking at a painting and demanding to know what is this a painting of? A computer game stands the best chance of becoming art if it fosters activities that subvert any such understanding of games” (Flynt, 124). Applying Flynt’s analysis to Dear Esther, we see that the game cannot even be considered as a rigid set of rules because it does not have an established objective from the beginning. Thus, Dear Esther successfully subverts this understanding to such a high degree that it establishes itself as art rather than a game. Its primary concern is not with any set of rules in place for the experience of the game to be completed, defeated, or conquered, but instead is obsessed with the experience the game fosters as explorable terrain.
    At the conclusion of Dear Esther, which is also the climax of the game, the player reaches the top of the mountain. Surprisingly, we lose the one control that we ever had in the game in the first place and are stuck as bystanders as we watch the player, from his point of view,  jump off the highest point in the virtual world, and soar down across the beautiful landscape we recently traversed. Essentially, the conclusion of the game is suicide of the principal character (the principal character being the person the player sees through the eyes of for the duration of the game). This contrasts greatly from any game that I have ever played in that the ultimate reward for completing the game is death instead of life. Usually, emerging from any game alive is part of the challenge of the game and fighting off attackers to defend yourself is part of the ride. Additionally, in its last moments, the game allows us to appreciate the landscape one last time from a different point of view than we experienced it the first time on the ground. The one last breathtaking sweep reestablishes the game as a visual masterpiece.
    A huge defining characteristic in video games is conflict. “Gameplay is all about conflict. Without the conflict inherent in games, there would be no gameplay and no sense of achievement when the player overcomes his objectives” (Ince, 68). In Dear Esther, there is virtually no conflict at all. As we play the game, we hear a story which may have involved conflict, but as the player, we do not actually encounter any physical conflict or danger for its duration. There are no battle scenes or weapons. In fact, there are no other characters present in the game besides the protagonist and there are no tangible objects. This further enforces the idea that Dear Esther is more about the visual experience and its art rather than the world as a game. If there is no conflict to concentrate on for strategy, battle, and defeat, then our primary concentration rests on exploring the world around us, simply because there is no other option.
    In thinking about why gamers play video games in the first place, we get back to the  elementary basics of the games themselves. They are supposed to have the ability to occupy a player’s mind to distract him from everyday life, really. Games are designed for amusement. As humans, however, we need some sort of motivation to play a game, some sort of reward or benefit from the experience. Gamers design their games so that these rewards are built into the games themselves, to keep us motivated to play. As writer Steve Ince instructs prospective video game writers on essential skills, he says, “do not lose sight of the fact that the game must feel and play like a game. Without rewards to give a regular sense of achievement, the motivation to keep playing the game will dwindle, no matter how dramatic the plot or character interactions are” (Ince, 69). Clearly Steve Ince would not approve of Dear Esther as a successful game. There really is no true gameplay in Dear Esther. There is wandering, seeing, exploring, listening, and the overall captivating experience that allows you to feel the virtual world, but there is no active gameplay. At the conclusion of the game, there is no real sense of achievement, either. On the contrary, there tends to be a sense of despair or emptiness. To “play” all the way through the game and then reach the end only to dive off a cliff does not leave the player with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside.
    One of Ince’s essential video game characteristics, however, can be found in Dear Esther. There are rewards throughout the game, though they may be subtle, they reinforce the idea that exploration is key and the ultimate goal of the game is to experience it fully as a work of art; truly see it. In the game, the rewards come in the form of visually captivating scenes. At the end of the last, darkest tunnel in the caves, we are rewarded with the beautiful landscape of the beach with the full, shining moon overhead. When we venture into the cave on the beach, we are rewarded with a piece of the story that we hear throughout the game, a vigil to the lost love of the protagonist. Taking the time to look out the window of the shack on the beach, we are able to most clearly see a message written on the side of the mountain. The rewards in the game arrive when we actively participate as a wanderer, an explorer who desires nothing but to see what the virtual world has to offer and appreciate its beauty. There is a reward for completing the game, and it is to see the artfully crafted landscaped of the beach from an unobstructed point of view, soaring through the air.
    Dear Esther is a striking work of art. It explores a virtual world in a way that only a video game could allow, but fails to stand up as a video game primarily. It serves the function of inspiring appreciation and awe in its players for the sheer art that it is. It presents beautiful visions of a dark, mysterious world for us to enjoy on a level that we could not enjoy if we were unable to walk through the world and experience it as we can. Thus, it is essential for Dear Esther to be presented as a video game because the technology a video game allows us to experience the world on an interactive, exploratory level, but Dear Esther is no game. Dear Esther is a work of art.

Works Cited

Flynt, John P. In the Mind of a Game. Boston: Thomson, 2006. Print.
Ince, Steve. Writing for Video Games. Norfolk: A & C Black, 2006. Print.
MacDonald, Keza. “Dear Esther Review.” IGN, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
Pinsoff, Allistiar. “Review: Dear Esther.” Destructoid, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.


Adam said...

I'm interested by the complexity of your initial idea: Dear Esther seems to be, and is sold as, something which it is not. I don't know how central that will be to the essay, but it's interesting. I like how you contrast Dear Esther with the dictionary definition. As an aside, though, there is at least one more thing you can do in Dear Esther, which everyone always seems to miss: you can swim up.

I'm not opposed to what you have to say about Dear Esther and objectives, but I want to bring that argument at least a little bit into question. Doesn't the voiceover (which varies, of course - which might weaken or strengthen what I'm going to argue) provide some forward impetus. Here's an example I have in mind (from

"The mount is clearly the focal point of this landscape; it almost appears so well placed as to be artificial. I find myself easily slipping into the delusional state of ascribing purpose, deliberate motive to everything here. Was this island formed during the moment of impact; when we were torn loose from our moorings and the seatbelts cut motorway lanes into our chests and shoulders, did it first break surface then? A wonderful sight. The moon cresting the junction between the cliff path and the stone circle. It cast a shadow of the ridge across the beach, all the world as if you had signed your name across the sand in untidy handwriting."

In other words, I wonder if the claim that there isn't an objective is something you'd really defend immediately after reviewing the game again. Maybe so - maybe you discount the monologue vs. the other aspects of the game. I just think you're ignoring elements of the game which seem to be at least ambiguously propulsive.

I like your analysis of death and life, with death being (curiously) the goal. Incidentally, I can think of at least one Zork-type game (named Infidel) where death is part of victory. However, the idea of death-as-goal hardly goes along (at least not obviously) with your claim that there is no goal.

Re: conflict, I need to try to be a jerk, at least sort of, and look for conflict. For my part (using Carmen's essay as a reference point), I think that one possible conflict is in the player - if we want to piece together a coherent narrative, we need to fight with the game (likely through multiple playthroughs) to do it. I also think there is an element of struggle, for instance, in trying to figure out the writing.

Maybe none of that is real conflict, and I'm not at all sure that you're wrong. It's just that this essay sticks out to me as needing to consider possible counterarguments seriously - some of your claims are worthwhile and interesting but not nearly as obvious as you seem to think they are.

Your discussion of rewards is interesting. I feel like your point of view is evolving in a way which almost demanded another revision. If rewards are the defining characteristic of video games (as a lifelong player of rpgs, which tend to be mechanistically obsessive about rewards, I'm very sympathetic with that analysis), then we need to ask what counts as a reward and what doesn't. What you are showing me - maybe not quite as explicitly as you could be - is that Dear Esther *walks the line* with rewards. Are they merely pretty scenery, or do they push into "legitimate" gameplay territory? This essays has various merits, but this line of thought - although far from complete - is my personal favorite.

Adam said...

Overall: Your writing is very good throughout. Your use of research is good and well-incorporated. Your analysis is dangerously (but maybe necessarily - video games are tough to write about) reliant on generalizations, which is why I wish you'd really push yourself farther, for instance, by asking whether the game *really* fails to provide us with directions and forward momentum. I do really admire the section on rewards, but I feel like that question - and an argument emerging from it - could have been used to rewrite the whole thing (more precisely, with more evidence) from the beginning.