Dear Stanley: An Examination of Video Games as Art
By: Carmen Condeluci
As someone who has played video games for as long as he could hold a controller, I have often wrestled with the idea of considering video games an art form. As an interactive form of media, they have the ability to create experiences neither film nor literature can ever achieve, but this boon can also be a double-edged sword. Video games can create a bond between player and avatar at level unmatched by other forms of media, as well as provide differing experiences between players through well-crafted narrative. However, interactivity alone cannot solely create meaningful content, and gameplay itself can pull users out of an experience rather than enrapture them if not perfectly executed. Some games are able to strike a perfect balance, providing experiences that are truly meaningful to the player while holding their own artistic merit. Two examples of such games are Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable, which both rely heavily upon heavily narrative and stylized experiences in lieu of action. If we are to accept this degree of interactivity and presence of “gameplay” to be the defining factors of a video game as a medium, then these two titles certainly challenge the definition. By defining and examining what constitutes both a video game and art, these two examples can be shown to exceed their respective requirements.
Before either example can be examined specifically, a definition of what a “video game” truly is must be conceived. Obviously, a video game is a digital experience, produced by computer software, but it must have other qualities that distinguish it from other digital media, such as digital animation. The paramount factor for video games is a degree of interactivity, or otherwise some type of player control. Whether this is employed in the standard method of directly controlling an avatar by the player or through a more creative system is irrelevant; only the fact that interactivity is present is important. This interactivity appears in some set of mechanics that allow the game to be “played” in some way, such as the scoring points when a ball progresses past an enemy’s paddle in Pong or the reveal of additional plot points upon the defeat of an enemy in a role-playing game. These mechanics also often establish goals for the player. When they are met, completion of the experience for the player is achieved where the outcome is dependent upon the content of the game itself. It is from this basic definition that both Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable can be tested for validity in their classification.
When examining the specifics of Dear Esther, it can clearly be seen that the game includes interactivity, at least to a degree. 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. With its unique forms of interactivity, mechanics, and goals centralized on the player’s individual discovery and interpretation of narrative, Dear Esther firmly fulfills the requirements for classification as a true video game.
Now that Dear Esther has been verified, attention must be shifted to that of The Stanley Parable. The game is met with the same criticisms that Dear Esther is, as “gameplay” within The Stanley Parable is reduced only to walking, crouching, and occasionally pressing buttons, although its premise is far different than that of its comparator. Dear Esther attempts to pull players in through a rich, dark, and initially convoluted narrative, urging players to reveal it through repeated play-throughs in order to gain understanding. The Stanley Parable aims to do nearly the opposite by being, “funny, self-referential, surprising, and sometimes uncomfortable to play” to give the player insight on the importance of choice, control, and video games as a whole (MacDonald). When the game begins, the player is left with only a simple backstory and a British narrator spouting off instructions. Following those instructions diligently will lead you to the ironic, “true” ending, where Stanley escapes his bureaucratic hell of pushing meaningless buttons, although even the in-game achievement, “Beat the Game” is purposefully boring and bland. However, it is in the narrator’s instructions that The Stanley Parable’s most interesting mechanic appears: the effects of simple choices on the outcome of the game.
Take, for example, the first choice the player makes to move outside of the room they start in. Instead of leaving the room and progressing what the narrator refers to as “the story”, the player can close the door and choose to be a coward, ending their adventure immediately. The narrator even takes the opportunity to mock the player for not making a choice, saying that “Stanley couldn’t handle the pressure,” and when speaking for the player, “Nothing will hurt me. Nothing will break me. In here, I can be happy, forever.” Then, the game simply restarts, and the player is given yet another chance to move from the initial room. After mustering up the courage to step out of Stanley’s office, another choice presents itself when the player is presented with two open doors, and instructed to enter only the one on the left. In choosing to enter the door on the right, the narrator reminds the player that they made the “wrong” choice, and urges them to return to the main path. From there, the player can then choose to either disobey or follow the narrator, which produces endings anywhere from deep, contemplative, and sad to humorous, clever, and surprising. The degree in which the player decides to go against the narrator is usually proportional to the ridiculousness of the outcome, with one outcome in particular ending with the player being requested to push a single button repeatedly for four hours to stop a picture of a baby from being incinerated in order to achieve “true artistic enlightenment”.
Although this mechanic based on player choice is radically different from Dear Esther’s random story, it accomplishes a parallel goal. The narrative in The Stanley Parable, although heavily decentralized, can only be revealed in full throughout repeated play-throughs. This is similar endeavor to that required of the player in Dear Esther, but in this game, the player is encouraged to experiment in their choices to produce new outcomes rather than walk to their deaths repeatedly in hopes of revealing something new. The themes present throughout the entirety of the game’s narrative support this design over alternatives such as Dear Esther’s semi-random story, as the game mainly concerns itself with the impact, or the illusion of impact, that player choice holds in an interactive narrative, as well as the presence of the presence of the player themselves in relation to that of an avatar. By addressing the central message of the narrative directly through a gameplay mechanic, The Stanley Parable is able to more clearly convey that message to the player. Still, the goal of the game is brought about by this replay-ability, pushing players to draw their own conclusions about the importance of their choices in both the context of the game, and even outside of it.
After accepting that Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable are indeed classifiable as video games, the task of affirming them as forms of art is an order of greater magnitude. Before this can even be attempted, a clear definition of art is required. The Oxford Dictionary provides a fairly simple one:
Although it is obvious that video games are certainly a visual endeavor in creativity and imagination, this surface definition lacks consideration of the “human element” in defining art. It has the profound quality of producing differing reactions across individuals, as well as even eliciting empathetic responses. This subjectivity is essentially the reason why a true definition of art is so elusive, and requirement of multiple interpretations ultimately becomes the definition of art itself. However, art’s most powerful facet, especially in the case of video games, stems from “The truth of art [lying] in its power to break the monopoly of established reality to define what is real,” (Marcuse). Art allows us to consider situations that are placed within the context of fiction, all the while contrasting these sometimes fantastical implications with the realities of our world. From this, “the world of which [society] creates remains, with all its truth, a privilege and an illusion”; a privilege in that the “escape” and introspection it provides can grant great insight, but an illusion in the way that in it is not only heavily subjective, but possibly grounded in impossible context (Marcuse). With these considerations, we are left with a definition of art that possesses three key requirements: an application of human creative skill and imagination, a varying aspect of subjectivity in meaning and response, and the ability to challenge outside issues through its own unique context.
However, even though one might suggest a game that to that individual might fit this definition, many have provided a wide array of counter-points to the consideration of video games as art. Firstly, video games are not immune to a problem that plagues all media: a high variance of artistic quality. Surely no (or perhaps very few) gamers claim to be emotionally impacted by Pac-Man, nor do they claim to draw any insight upon life from it, similar in the way to how many films fail to make greater impact on an audience than just mere competition. However, unlike film, a medium that has experienced this subjective view of quality from the beginning with factors such as actors, camera-work, and more, video games unfortunately have a magnified version of this issue due to their nature and history. Many fail to see video games as anything more than the Pong and Pac-Man that they have evolved from, and the number of developers that are pushing for a heavily narrative experience with artistic merit, such as TheChineseRoom and Galatic Café, are only just now gaining relevance. This is due in part to the rapid evolution of digital distribution and the internet, allowing even very small studios to develop games, similar to independent film groups. The evolution of video games can be easily compared to that of animation, in which the primitive cartoons of yesteryear were seen as purely entertainment and the animations of today are accepted as a far more serious form of film as well as having the capacity of displaying artistic merit. In essence, comparing Pong to The Stanley Parable is like comparing Felix the Cat to Spirited Away; it shows nothing but a positive evolution in both technology and artistry.
In further relating the progress of video games as art to that of film, one of the most famous critics of the medium, 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 and The Stanley Parable, should be at the very least considered as an art form. He opens his argument with a very interesting statement, saying that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists,” (Ebert). Although this might be “true” in the sense that no one has attempted to make these comparisons, the same is true for any example of any already accepted artistic medium. There are hundreds of poor quality examples of music, film, and literature produced ever month, no, week even, that do not come anywhere close to the relevance of say, Homer’s Odyssey or, keeping with the theme of film, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Still, do we openly discredit the artistry behind a student’s freshly painted portrait solely on the basis that it is not of the same quality as the Mona Lisa? These comparisons are rarely ever made outside of their own medium, as outside comparisons between them are largely baseless unless the subject is that of narrative. Video games are simply to “young” a medium to have such generalized “greats” of which to compare themselves to, and the narrative of Dear Esther I feel is just as meaningful, if not more, than that of some of Ebert’s most precious films. Furthermore, the subjective nature of art is the final opposition to Ebert’s statement, as every individual has their own Odysseys, Citizen Kanes, and video games that have had lasting impacts or messages that they themselves have found personally meaningful.
Ebert’s next and final 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 and 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 and The Stanley Parable fit his requirements for art and dissolves his argument against video games quite eloquently and efficiently.
Simply proving Ebert’s 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. 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.
For a game that has come under such similar criticism and possesses a game mechanic that is parallel in its goal, The Stanley Parable presents a wholly different experience than that of Dear Esther. Although the game is certainly mysterious, it isn’t at all dark or brooding, opting for a fairly light and humorous tone. The game features a series of branching pathways and outcomes that are based on the player’s choices at key points throughout any one play-through. Jeff Gerstmann, of Giant Bomb, presents this mechanic quite eloquently: “The narration will tell you what happens next, and can do either that thing or, in most cases, do some other thing. Or maybe do nothing.” Depending on these choices, or lack thereof, the fourth wall can be either stoutly upheld or devastatingly torn down, and it’s in these choices and the Narrator’s reactions that The Stanley Parable attempts to provide a sort of “meta”-commentary about the roles of the player, avatar, narrator, and even developer in video game. Throughout the player’s deviations from the “true” path, the narrator will mock you for making the “wrong” decisions, attempting to get you back onto what he deems the “correct” path. As the player makes these choices, they are given a strong sense that they are the ones who are in control of Stanley’s story, when in reality they are at the mercy of the Narrator. All of the final outcomes and branching narratives are predetermined, so, “You think you are manipulating the outcome, but really it’s always the narrator manipulating you,” (MacDonald). Still, since the player has a great deal of influence on the many possible outcomes, each individual player will walk away with a different understanding or meaning for each individual ending. For example, a player that completes only the “true” ending and the “confusion” ending, which are coincidently two endings that rely heavily on the player following the Narrator’s specific instructions, will have a completely different experience with the game versus a player that has played through any number of the endings that more heavily deconstruct the fourth wall.
The Stanley Parable also aims to challenge what exactly should be, and can be, considered narrative within a video game. Throughout one path through the game, the Narrator resets the game multiple times in attempt to put the player on the correct path through the “story”. Under conventional logic of video games, restarting the game would start the narrative over again, yet the Narrator is completely un-phased by each restart, causing each reloading of the game as a plot point rather than an outside influence. Even elements such as achievements are used in the narrative, with an attempt to get what many would consider an easy goal, “Click Five Times on Door 430”, lead to a completely different set plot points. The only way for the player to experience this part of the game is to look at the achievement list from completely outside of the game itself, which can be interpreted as an interesting, if not strange, game mechanic. Although many games of recent days have attempted to include “outside-the-game” features, The Stanley Parable achieves this in a way that is so subtle, and so ingrained within the ways that typical gamers think about video games overall, that it causes the player to re-think exactly why they checked the achievement list in the first place. It is through unique mechanics like these that The Stanley Parable’s self-referential, humorous, and unconventional branching narrative challenges what players should consider as narrative itself, as well as what role the player themselves fulfills within a video game.
Overall, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable are certainly not conventional examples of either video games or art, and should be treated as such. The limitations and standards of the medium hamper them in both of their respective categories, but they are 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 either game 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.”
 Chemical diagram of ethanol found in game
 Many different kinds of circuits and electrical circuits found in game
 For insight into how The Stanley Parable relates to my argument, I have included some of my own personal playthroughs that I have previously streamed to my Twitch.tv account. I highly recommend watching this if you have not experienced The Stanley Parable.
Works Cited: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. MacDonald, Keza. "The Stanley Parable Review." IGN. N.p., 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Nov. 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. Megill, Travis. "Braid: Critical Compilation." Critical Distance. N.p., 22 Apr. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.
Gerstmann, Jeff. "The Stanley Parable Review." Giant Bomb. Gamespot, 20 Oct. 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
Marcuse, Herbert. The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon, 1978. Print.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere, 1968. Print.