Friday, December 13, 2013

Dear Esther: A Romantic’s Response to Social Norms

Oftentimes when a social norm is introduced to an idea that challenges it, the new idea is faced with rejection. This concept has been exemplified in numerous art forms that have come and gone throughout our society. In the unconventional video game, “Dear Esther,” reviewers challenge the game’s avant-garde setting and plot because of its apparent deviations from the typical template constructed by most games that have preceded it. However, in the past many historic art movements have emerged simply as a result of challenging an existing art form or introducing new concepts to an old idea. This can be seen in the appearance and development of Romanticism, which challenged the accepted norm of its day, Baroque. The emergence of this movement and many others illustrates the point that art of a certain genre cannot be defined as simply adhering to the norm.  Therefore, this idea validates that although “Dear Esther” does not follow the typical layout defined by many video games, it does not make it in itself any less of a video game.  
Among the list of games that do embody the generalized idea of a video game are chart-topping and best-selling hits such as “Halo” and “Call of Duty.” These kinds of games are characterized by fast-paced action, bright colors and highly interactive combat that allow the player to be constantly entertained and stimulated 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.”  (McCafrey).  He commends the makers of the game for such constantly invigorating “movements and animations abound.” Similarly, “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2” was referred to as being, “like an action movie” by another IGN reviewer, who similarly praised the “complex terrain in the environments, weather effects, destructible objects, and the overall sense of action and chaos” (Bozon). The attraction that players seem to have toward “action and chaos” can be seen almost uniformly throughout these specific kind of video games, the chart-toppers, and certainly heighten the appeal of the game due to the fact that this style seems to have the most stimulating visuals and audio effects.  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.”  The fact that these reviews focus almost solely on the graphics, audio and interactivity of the game highlights the idea of what a video game is “supposed” to be, according to the reviewers, and consequently alters the video-gaming audience’s idea of what a video game is.  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 kind of soundtrack increases the success of the game and illustrates the fact that video games are generally expected to be as visually, audibly and physically stimulating as possible. Even on a small scale, Davidge’s attempt to break free from the norm of videogame soundtracks was dismissed, because it didn’t conform to these expectations. This further shows that the audience’s perspective, as well as the reviewer’s, holds video games to a standard set by these best-selling video games that aims to be as constantly stimulating as possible. Despite the fact that reviewer thought the soundtrack was “complementary,” the fact that he wished it was more “additive” shows the emphasis on more exhilarating audio.
Although a relatively new medium, video games have gone through shifts in style throughout their brief existence, as one can easily see by comparing the bloody and violent video games advertised on television to the older and less aggressive games such as “Pong” and “Pacman,” that one may still be able to find in an amusement park or arcade.  Despite changes in the video game genre due to technological advances, it is more than apparent that the overarching themes and concepts of video games have changed just as dramatically. This is not a new phenomenon because, historically, art mediums have seen major shifts in style based on changes in politics, societal influences, and technological advances.
In today’s culture, the prevailing style of video games is characterized by bright visuals, immense soundtracks and complex mechanics, and heightens the players’ senses to the point where he/she is completely immersed in the stimuli. This is directly comparable to what was the widely popular Baroque style of painting and music during the 17th century.  Baroque styles emerged under heavy Catholic influences and were adopted by European aristocrats as a means to impressive visitors with heavy overtones of wealth, triumph and power. The style spread from canvas to architectural works in an attempt to be even more impressive and grand. This style mirrors the goals of “Halo” creators in designing themes and soundtracks to capture their audience in the most outstanding and impressive ways. 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,” personifies the major stylistic traits of Baroque paintings. The colors are exceedingly vibrant, the amount of detail in the image is impressive and, given its title, there is no debate over its meaning or content.  This is also directly relatable to the themes of highly popular video games, of which there is no debate when looking at titles such as “Modern Warfare,” “Gears of War,” and “Grand Theft Auto.” These styles, prevalent in both the video games of today and the works of the 17th century, were utilized to attract audiences based on the most visually stimulating aesthetics.  Just as Baroque developed from paintings to grand architecture and even the famous and enormous Trevi Fountain in Italy, to keep the gamer audience engaged, developers need to produce games that are even more stimulating and mechanically engaging than the last. Direct evidence of this can be seen outside of a Best Buy the night before a game such as “Halo” or “Call of Duty,” is released, as hundreds of customers can often be seen camped out at the store, waiting eagerly to see what new graphics and special features accompany the latest version of the game. Although nearly extinct as a current form of art, the remaining pieces of Baroque art continue to carry out their main goal of impressing the audience in the most visually appealing ways even to this day, as it is estimated that over 3,000 Euros are thrown into the Trevi Fountain, constructed by Nicola Salvi, every single day. Even just a screenshot of “Halo 4” appears ostensibly similar in terms of color and detail to a typical Baroque painting, which asserts the idea that popular video games of today do in fact have very similar stylistic traits when compared to popular Baroque-style paintings such as “The Fall of Phaeton.”  Further, the production of Baroque paintings, specifically in regards to Reuben’s, “Fall of Phaeton” and his other works is very similar to the production of games like Halo and Call of Duty.  Studios run by popular baroque artists including Reubens himself were made of up of dozens of apprentices who worked on paintings and other works of art that were commissioned to them.  These workshops were not uncommon during this Baroque period and were seen all over europe including Reubens’ largest one in Antwerp.  His apprentices would do the majority of the drawing and sketching while Reubens would supervise and add final touches.  The output of pieces of his workshops were astonishing and at one point he was commissioned to create 39 ceiling paintings for a church in Antwerp. (McLanathan). Similarly, Call of Duty, among other blockbuster games, was created by a studio of artists, designers and programmers.  Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty, has approximately 150 employees and undoubtedly collaborate with more, who all work on their titles.  They create Call of Duty games biannually which is relatively a very large output, especially due to the intricacy and detail that go into their games.  Both of these large Baroque and Baroque-style workshops and studios mimic the aesthetic of their artworks.  The chaos and action that is associated with this style can be attributed to the work environment of these large and busy studios.  
“Dear Esther” challenges this “Baroque” style of video games with its appeal to the audience’s emotions through more subdued visual and subtle auditory aesthetics woven into an organic interactive narrative. Between the “sweeping strings,” “gloomy piano pieces,” picturesque landscapes, and dense narrative, “Dear Esther” appears analogous to another stylistic art movement, Romanticism.  Pioneers of the Romantic era were, like “Dear Esther,” 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, which had been established mainly by the Catholic Church.  “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich is a descriptive example of a Romantic painting that deviated from what was at the time considered the norm. 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.” This style introduces the ambiguity that comes along with interpretation, which was not seen in Baroque, or in video games with indisputable themes like kill-or-get-killed. However, it is precisely the factor of interpretation that sets apart both Romanticism and refreshingly new video games such as “Dear Esther.” Rather than using the title of a piece to blatantly spell out the theme in a few simple words, such as Baroque and top video-game developers have done, Romantic painters leave much more up to the imagination of the audience.   “We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both.” Leaving the theme up to the analysis of the audience gives the meaning of the art an entirely new meaning. Pieces of art that require more thought-provoking interpretation challenge not only style of art, but the way that people are forced to think about it. Unlike examples of Baroque art, which often convey the piece’s entire message just in the title, one cannot look at a classical Romantic artwork and immediately know what the artist is trying to say. The entire idea is that a work of art will speak differently to those based on their respective interpretations. By simply reading the title, “Dear Esther,” it is not obvious at all what the game is going to be about, and even in the first few minutes of the game it does not become readily apparent, whereas most popular video games will spell out the plot on the back of the box if it is not implied in the title.  “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 obscurity of the landscapes scrawled with cryptic writings, and an emotional narrative, both of which can be interpreted in countless ways.  This style of video game mimics the goals of artists throughout the Romantic era, who shifted the focus from just simply trying to stimulate the audience in every possible sensation to a more thought-provoking and inward seeking style of painting. Conceptually, this is what set Romanticism apart from painters and architects of the Baroque era, whose goals were purely aesthetic. Much more like the creators of “Dear Esther,” painters of the Romantic Movement drove their audience to evoke their own personal expression through art. This outlook is what drives players to immerse themselves in the visuals and sounds that the game presents despite the relatively simple mechanics.   Contrasting again with the Baroque artists, romantic works of art were not created in large workshops by dozens of artists.  They were created in studios by the sole artist and were not as prolific as Baroque artists.  This individualistic and isolated work environment reflects in the art itself in terms of mood as well as theme. Additionally, as a result of the indistinctness in plot and goal, “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.  While some players praise the game for its unconventional characteristics, a much larger majority have complaints based around their previous notions of video game features. However, discussions 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 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. Essentially, this too was the goal of Romantic painters that challenged the superficial themes revolving around Baroque, which was met with the same opposition that many gamers have shown toward “Dear Esther.”
        Despite the varying themes between “Halo,” “Call of Duty,” and “Dear Esther,” the reviewers were critical of similar elements between all three games.  This shows the uniformity of expectations that video gamers currently have for this art form.  Halo reviewers criticized the latest edition for a, “complementary rather than additive” soundtrack, targeting the level of stimulation, much like those of Dear Esther who were critical of the fact that they had to, “hold down the ‘W’-key for 70 minutes,” implying a critique of the even less stimulating mechanics. 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 scores over 9.5.  
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 as well as modification of existing ones, and “Dear Esther” is no different. Although video games are a relatively new art medium, many experts and 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,” deserve equally as much credit for challenging the present standards and introducing new concepts to the genre as a whole.
Although these features define the one current style of the art form, that is not to say that it defines the art form itself. It simply shows the narrow mindset that many gamers have about what video games are and could be. Although they may be less popular, many other styles can exist and constitute a video game just as much. 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 art form 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 standard created by a vast majority of other video games that dominate the market and determine their most common features. “Dear Esther” and other alternatively created video games exemplify many of these emerging art forms by taking a genre, such as video gaming, and introducing new concepts that challenge the audience’s perception of that art form. Although most often met with dismissal and rejection, it can be argued that games such as these help the genre to evolve and develop, simply by countering what its audience’s previous expectations and introducing new ideas. In “One-Dimensional Man”, Herbert Marcuse stresses that oppositional movements are crucial to prevent “flattening out of the antagonism between culture and social reality.”  Because the alien and oppositional elements of culture have been eliminated, no longer is the “autonomous personality, of humanism, of tragic and romantic love” celebrated.  Marcuse asserts that this elimination of oppositional elements is a result of the reproduction and display on a massive scale of “high culture.”  The mass production of Baroque paintings in the 17th century and the Baroque-style video games of the 21st are exemplary of just that.  The mass production and reproduction of these art styles resulted in the deconstruction of the boundaries between higher culture and social norm.  Just as the Italian and Roman aristocrats scoffed at the introduction of Romanticism, the makers of “Halo” and “Call of Duty” would more than likely dismiss a game such as “Dear Esther.” Despite the opposition of those that set the norm, it still holds true that the evolution of an art form, genre or movement can only happen when someone challenges it’s key features and forces it to develop into something entirely new.
Works Cited
The Chinese Room. Dear Esther. Steam, 14 Feb. 2012. PC.
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.

Mccaffrey, Ryan. "Halo 4 Review." IGN. Imagine Games Network, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

Bozon, Mark

Marcuse, Herbert. "One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents)." One Dimensional Man, by Herbert Marcuse (contents). N.p., 30 May 2005. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.

McLanathan, Richard. Peter Paul Rubens. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1995.

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