Oftentimes when a social norm is introduced to an idea that challenges it, the new idea is faced with rejection. In the avant-garde video game, “Dear Esther,” reviewers challenge the game’s unconventional setting and “plot” because of its apparent deviations from the typical template followed by most video games. The concept of challenging a new form of something is not new, especially among different mediums of art. This was shown in emerging art forms such as Romanticism that challenged the norm of its day, Baroque, and illustrates the point that art cannot be defined as adhering to the norm. Therefore, although “Dear Esther,” does not follow the typical path laid out by many video games, it does not make it any less of a video game. This shows that due to the consistent presence of a deviation in new art forms, we can can use deviation to help define a work as art.
Chart-topping video games like “Halo” and “Call of Duty” are characterized by fast-paced action, bright colors and interactive play that allow the player to be constantly entertained by different aspects of the game. “Halo 4,” received rave reviews by IGN (Imagine Games Network) for these very reasons. The amount of effort and time put into stunning, in-your-face visuals, is apparent from the very beginning of the game which “starts with a mesmerizing CG cutscene that flat-out knocks you on your ass. ...movements and animations abound...” (McCafrey). Similarly, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” was referred to as “like an action movie” by another IGN review which again praised the “complex terrain in the environments, weather effects, destructible objects, and the overall sense of action and chaos” (Bozon). McCafrey goes on to acknowledge that the game’s “gorgeous graphics [is] only one responsibility [it] must bear”, with the other being “best in class sound design”. Both the Modern Warfare soundtrack written by Hans Zimmer and the soundtracks of previous Halo games (1,2 and 3), scored by Marty O’Donnel, “elevate the action happening on the screen.” However, the decision to use British electronica producer Neil Davidge for the soundtrack for Halo 4 was criticized by IGN because of Davidge’s moody soundtrack as being “complementary rather than additive” which results in a less-than-memorable score. This piece of the review seems to highlight the fact that the more common “in your face” soundtrack increases the success of the game.
Although a relatively new medium, video games have gone through shifts in style throughout their brief existence. This is not a new phenomenon because historically, art mediums have seen major shifts in style based on changes in political and social contexts as well as technological advances. The prevailing style of video games is filled with bright visuals, immense soundtracks and complex mechanics, and can be compared to the Baroque style of painting and music during the 17th century. The gaudy and direct aesthetic of this style was used not only to impress the viewers but also to communicate themes without the ambiguity of interpretation. One painting, The Fall of Phaeton by Peter Paul Reubens, illustrates the major stylistic traits of Baroque paintings very well. The colors are exceedingly vibrant, the amount of detail in the image is impressive and given it’s title, there is no debate over it’s meaning nor it’s content. This style, prevalent in many video games of today’s age, is similarly used to impress the large, and growing, population of consumers in the 78.5 billion dollar industry (Reuters). To attract the gamer audience that is constantly immersed in an oversaturated market of video games, artists need to produce games that are even more stimulating, and mechanically engaging than the last. A screenshot of Halo 4 is ostensibly similar in terms of color and detail which asserts the idea that popular video games of today do in fact have very similar stylistic traits when compared to Fall of Phaeton.
“Dear Esther” challenges this “Baroque” style of video games with its appeal to the audience’s emotions through subdued visual and subtle auditory aesthetics woven into an organic interactive narrative. The “sweeping strings...gloomy piano pieces”, the picturesque landscapes and dense narrative are again analogous to another stylistic movement, Romanticism. The Romantics, rejected by the major artists of the time, deviated from the major Baroque movement by promoting a more individualistic and natural view of the world as opposed to the direct and incontrovertible themes of the Baroque era. “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich is a classic example of a Romantic painting. John Lewis Gaddis describes it as leaving the viewer with feelings of contradiction, "suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.” “Dear Esther” presents an isolated individual traversing the “natural beauty of the coast and the startling luminescence of the underground caves”, a scene reminiscent of Friedrich (MacDonald). Although one does this by simply “hold[ing] down the “W”-key for 70 minutes” this does not detract from it’s classification as a video game because what it lacks in mechanics it boasts in “strength of the writing and the world alone” (Pinsof, MacDonald). The interactivity is not based in the mechanics like traditional games rather it is rooted in the ambiguity of the landscapes scrawled with cryptic writings, and an emotional narrative both of which can be interpreted in countless ways. This ambiguity is what drives players to immerse themselves in the visuals and sounds that the game presents despite the simple mechanics. Additionally, as a result of the ambiguity, “Dear Esther” evokes curiosity from its players; which is evident in the countless web pages and forums that discuss the many and varied interpretations of the video game. These discussion foster an interaction with the narrative that is unlike that of today’s popular video games. By creating a game in which its interactivity is not defined by the number of customizable weapons and armors or multiplayer capability, the makers of “Dear Esther” have transcended the traditional realm of gaming by innovating a new way to interact with its players.
Despite the varying themes between “Halo,” “Call of Duty,” and “Dear Esther,” the reviewers were critical of similar elements among both games. This shows the uniformity of expectations that video gamers have for this art form. Halo reviewers criticized the latest edition for, “complementary rather than additive” sound effects, much like those of Dear Esther who were critical of the fact that they had to, “hold down the ‘W’-key for 70 minutes.” Both reviewers were most displeased with aspects of the game that they felt didn’t engage them in the most stimulating way possible. Simply put, reviewers of the most popular video games want something “like an action movie,” and consequently hold the entire genre of video games to the same standard. It is no wonder then that avant-garde games such as Dear Esther receive such a harsh score, a 4.5, for failing to adhere to this widespread standard, while Halo and Call of Duty received over 9.5’s.
Although some might argue that comparing the deviation of Romanticism from Baroque to the deviation of Dear Esther from popular contemporary video games does not in itself confirm “Dear Esther” as an art form, there are countless other examples to assert this logic. Impressionism emerged in the 19th century despite overwhelming opposition of the movement by the majority of French artists at the time. Just in the last century, surrealism and abstract expressionism styles established themselves despite the mainstream prevalence of realism in the United States. Throughout history, deviating from the norm has resulted in the proliferation of new art forms and Dear Esther is no different. Although video games are a relatively new art medium, many experts, or gamers, already have their minds made up about what it should be. Nonetheless, those that decide to question the norm, such as the creators of Dear Esther, should still get credit for introducing new concepts into this art form.
Although these hyper-stimulating narratives that bombard the player with visuals and sounds are the present norm of this medium, it does not define the genre of video games itself. A game that challenges this style is often rejected as a video game because of the simple fact that the audience is expecting something different. The most essential characteristic of a videogame, as defined by many, is the ability of the player to control or interact with the images on a screen regardless of the orthodoxy in its execution. This definition, although seemingly lacking, is a unifying concept of all works in this artform and does not restrict the artist in the manner in which he does this. “Dear Esther” deviates from traditional video games because it introduces a new way to interact with images and narratives based on a holistic view of emotional appeal rather than the traditional style aimed solely at the senses. Despite this nonconformity it still meets the essential criteria of a video game..
Much like the early critics of Romanticism and countless other artistic movements, those challenging “Dear Esther” as a video game base their argument almost solely on the fact that this piece of art does not adhere to the norm of video games. “Dear Esther” and other unconventional video games exemplify many of these emerging art forms by taking a genre, such as video gaming, and introducing new concepts and aspects that alter the audience’s idea of what that art form really is.
Bozon, Mark http://www.ign.com/articles/2009/11/10/call-of-duty-modern-warfare-2-review
Fall of Phaeton Peter Reubens
Wanderer Above the Sea Fog Caspar Freiderich
Pinsof, Allistair http://www.destructoid.com/review-dear-esther-221082.phtml