An Artistic Endeavor
Innovation is necessary in order to keep any genre of entertainment exciting for its consumers. Video games are certainly no exception. In recent years, more and more variations of games have surfaced – from simulation games such as Electronic Arts’ Sims to the motion activated Wii system by Nintendo. All of the advancements calls a certain question into examination: Where is the line drawn for a form of media to be considered a video game? The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther no doubt challenges the concept of the traditional video game. Dear Esther, through its minimal player interactivity and its beautiful visuals and story, it qualifies more as an art form and less as a video game.
To begin, the definition of a video game according to Dictionary.com is “any of various games played using a microcomputer with a keyboard and often joysticks to manipulate changes or respond to the action or questions on the screen” (Dictionary.com). However, there are no changes to manipulate during the entirety of Dear Esther. The only thing that the “player”, and I use that term loosely, is able to do is move north, west, east, or south. Allistair Pinsof puts it nicely in his review of Dear Esther that: “You literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes -- even ducking, the only other action, is automatic”(Pinsof). Any reviewer could not call that a “manipulation” as there are no decisions involved. One might argue that a decision would be which direction to move in. This does not qualify as a decision because it does not alter gameplay and nothing happens as a consequence; it only gives a different view of the artistic world. Additionally, the player is not presented with what the definition of a video game calls “action or questions on screen”. In games that would qualify as “interactive fiction” such as the video game Zork by Infocom, the player consistently makes choices that impact gameplay, such as picking up items and using them to do various things such as fighting trolls or even simply pushing a button. All of these actions have a consequence. However, in Dear Esther, there are no consequences. The only argument I find could be made against this point is that if you go too far out into the water in Dear Esther, you drown and have to restart from the shore. Even this “consequence” is practically meaningless, as you lose no progress, only a minimal amount of time.
Further, since Dear Esther does not qualify as a game, what does it qualify as? Art, which is defined as “the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance” (Dictionary.com). To call the art of Dear Esther “beautiful” seems like an understatement. For example, examine this picture from the cave in Dear Esther:
(Dear Esther Cave Screenshot)
Keza MacDonald claims in her review of the game that, “You don't actually do anything except guide the invisible protagonist around the island, taking in the natural beauty of the coast and the startling luminescence of the underground caves.” On closer inspection of this screenshot, one sees that the ground is intricately inscribed with the small outlines of tiny rocks. Off into the distance, the artist has taken the time to draw the moon, bright and luminous, in the night sky. Every line is placed so perfectly that it looks as if this could be a professional painting hanging in someone’s living room.
Moreover, the writing in Dear Esther is exceptionally beautiful and certainly “more than ordinary significance”(Dictionary.com). The story is intricate and complicated one about the narrator who has lost his lover in a car accident and about various past residents of the island. The developers were able to focus more on the story since there is no actual gameplay, and it is written in beautiful prose with heart-stopping voice-overs that stuck with me such as “People moved at the summit but I could not tell if you were one of them” when the narrator is referring to his lover Esther (Dear Esther Wiki). He puts emphasis on the “you” when he speaks it, causing the player to hear the love in his voice that he harbors for Esther. Thus he is “expressing” something “of more than ordinary significance”: love (Dictionary.com). If actual gameplay would have been involved, then the significance of the story would have been minimized, and that is clearly not the direction that the developers wanted to take the game.
Overall, through the lack of interaction with the environment, but the beauty of the environment and story itself, Dear Esther has made its mark in media as more of an art form and less of a videogame. Although it does not qualify as a true video game, that does not mark it as a failure. Its beauty saves it and makes it into an even more unique experience than a video game could offer. That, in the end, makes the experience worthwhile.
"Art." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Dear Esther Cave Screenshot. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 27
Feb. 2014. <http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/02/13/dear-
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb.
"Video Game." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
"Wikia." Dear Esther Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.