Video Games as Art: An Examination of Dear Esther
By: Carmen Condeluci
“Video games can never be art,” is an infamous statement from the great film critic Roger Ebert that I am not inclined to accept outright. 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 elements, 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.
Amidst Dear Esther’s shortcomings in the departments of action and objective is an over-abundance of narrative, presented through monologue from the assumingly player-controlled narrator. It is through this that the game introduces its most interesting mechanic: a semi-randomly generated 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 event. Although the seemingly insane commentary might be confusing to a player on their first play-through, they become 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 changes can be as simple as subtle changes in the narrator’s lofty crazy talk or as blatant as changes to the vision that the narrator experiences at the end of the level “The Caves”. Since each play-through creates a differing narrative experience, the game’s “goal” becomes the player’s quest for clarity among the disjointed ramblings of the narrator over multiple treks through Hebridean Island.
When the multiple changes to the game’s narrative are compounded, a player can draw vastly differing plots from each individual play-through, with their understanding of the narrator’s plight growing over consecutive runs. Take, for example, my experience. I played Dear Esther all the way through three separate times. On my first play-through, I had little to no knowledge of Paul other than that he was implied to be a drunk driver in the collision that caused Esther’s. This was further supported by the vision of the two crashed cars on the M5 highway that I received near the end of the third level. The narrator recounted nearly no specifics regarding either Esther or Paul, instead speaking more in depth about Jakobson, Donnelly, and the depressive history of the island.
Unsatisfied with the now-unclear narrative, I began a second play-through. This time, the narrator spoke more in-depth about Esther and the circumstances of her death, as well as recounting stories about her. Early in the first area, the narrator randomly tells a story of how the doctors in the delivery room during Esther’s birth were amazed at her birthmark, and she cried to fill the void, a trait that the narrator enjoyed about her, and now terribly misses in her death. The narrator makes it a point to mention that he repeatedly traversed the area of the M5 highway where the crash occurred, hoping to make sense of the accident that took Esther from him. He also provided more exposition regarding Paul, talking about how he drove to Wolverhampton to meet with the pharmaceutical representative and discuss the accident. The narrator later states repeatedly that Paul insisted he was not drunk, and implies that the accident was due to a mechanical brake failure. He explains that Paul also suffered injury from the crash, but unlike Esther, was able to be resuscitated.
On attempting yet another, third play-through, the narrator mostly reverted back to often nonsensical musings regarding Jakobson and Donnelly, although this time he explained that Donnelly’s book which he holds so dear was in fact stolen by him from an Edinburgh library. However, this time the narrator spoke of his extremely painful kidney stones and his experiences with Esther throughout surgery. She apparently stayed by the narrator’s side, eventually pulling him out of the death-like sleep that anesthetics had put him in. Now that she is gone, the narrator implies that she is no longer present to pull him from death, and that his journey towards the radio tower to end his life is the result of her absence. This play-through solidified the importance of this event by changing the vision of the crashed cars to one of a slightly bloodied operating table. The changes that each play-through brings can be seemingly insignificant and small, like the fact that Donnelly’s book is stolen, or shed massive light on the story with additional exposition, such as with the narrator’s experiences with Paul. Across all three of my runs, my understanding of the game’s narrative grew with the utterance of each new monologue, giving more insight into the narrator’s state of mind as he traverses the island toward his death. Instead of employing action sequences to create a driving force, Dear Esther challenges players to constantly re-examine the plot in order to reach the goal of deriving the entire narrative from more than one hundred different combinations of voice-overs.
After accepting that Dear Esther is indeed truly classifiable as a game, the task of affirming it as a form of art is an order of greater magnitude, even though it is rich with symbolism, narrative, and intelligence that rivals many novels and films. The famous film critic, Roger Ebert, has been extremely vocal in his dismissal of video games as nothing more than an entertaining distraction. If we choose to simply ignore the fact that Ebert has only played two video games in his life, one of them being a “virtual museum”, Cosmology of Kyoto, and Myst, for which he “lacked the patience”, examining his counter-argument provides insight into why exactly video games, and specifically Dear Esther, should be at the very least considered as an art form. Ebert’s key argument against video games as art lies within the fact that games, unlike art, possess “rules, points, objectives, and an outcome,” in which “you can win (the) game”. Yes, this may be true of the sports and tabletop games that he cites, but to put all video games under this same definition is a bleak and archaic view of the medium.
Interactivity to Ebert is equated almost exclusively with competition, as he constantly refers and makes comparisons to the game of chess. When presented with Braid, he makes the point that the core mechanic of reversing time to correct a player’s mistake “negates the whole discipline of the game,” and is akin to “taking back a move” in chess. This is a fair assumption if the goal of Braid is to experience it without making any mistakes, but this is obviously not the case. Braid asks the player to question the convictions and desires of the main character, Tim, which are represented throughout the game in both narrative and level design. It is a game not so much about succeeding and excelling in its gameplay, but rather struggling through to the end in order for a player to make a greater conclusion as to its overarching themes and messages, similar to how Dear Esther challenges players to repeatedly journey to the narrator’s eventual suicide in order to reveal enough of the plot to make a similar caliber of conclusion. Ebert also comments that when a game lacks points or rules, it “ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story.” Dear Esther, as well as games such as The Stanley Parable, lack both of these aspects, and although they challenge our definitions of what we classify video games to be, it can be concluded that these heavily narrative experiences are games in the way that they force players to uncover the story through either their own unique mechanics or heavy symbolism. If Ebert considers a “representation of a story” to be art that can be experienced without question, then at the very least, Dear Esther fits his requirements for art and dissolves his argument against video games quite eloquently and efficiently.
Simply proving Ebert’s shoddy analysis of video games to be false is unfortunately not enough in considering Dear Esther as an art form, as the legitimacy of any form of media as art lies within specifics, a factor that even Ebert adheres to when discussing film and literature. 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 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 play-throughs 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 , as well electrical circuits representing the brake failure . 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 single, or hopefully multiple, play-throughs of Dear Esther before releasing his infamous and short-sighted journal entry, video games may not have garnered controversy when attempting to be recognized as art, or at least not in the magnitude that they have today. Like MacDonald states in the end of her review when referring to Dear Esther, “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.”
 For insight into how The Stanley Parable relates to Dear Esther, I suggest checking out this short video-review. It is meant to be a slightly humorous review, but it does a good job of quickly explaining why the game is relevant, as well as relatable to Dear Esther.
 Chemical diagram of ethanol found in game
 Many different kinds of circuits and electrical circuits found in game
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.
Ebert, Roger. "Okay, Kids, Play On My Lawn." Ebert Digital LLC, 1 July. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.