Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther, an artistic experience

The video game, Dear Esther is an artistic simulation of the world that tells a story of a shipwreck on the coast of Britain. It has been argued whether or not the story-driven “video game” should be or should not be considered a “game.” Its lack of interactivity and player-engagement recontextualizes what Dear Esther actually is. The artistic creation, the value of a realistic simulated world and the serious attention to detail make Dear Esther more viable to be called art rather than an archetypal video game.
Dear Esther begins with the narrator introducing the story, “Dear Esther, the morning after…” As he begins telling the story, epic music plays in the background and the player is introduced to the plot of the shipwreck. The human player plays in the first-person, making the game a simulated experience. The player meanders around the area by clicking one key to move. A gray, eerie sky covers a dark ocean among the cliffs of Britain and led by a light, the player is able to wander around, look up, look down, turn around in every direction to observe the surroundings. But that is indeed the problem in which players have— that the player can only observe rather than be able to interact with the mysterious objects and happenings around them. A review of Dear Esther seems bothered by the limited interactivity,
“Dear Esther asks nothing of you but to occupy this world. There's very little interactivity; a torch comes out automatically in the dark, but that's pretty much the limit. You can't help but imagine a version of this game that lets you touch and feel, picking up pebbles on the beach to throw into the sea or leafing through old books in an abandoned bothy. You feel the urge to stop and stare, to wander off the path and explore, but there's always the awareness in the back of your mind that there's not really anything to find” (MacDonald). It seems as though Dear Esther could have easily been a thrilling and interactive game just with a few slight changes to allow the player to be more involved with an objective of the game. Solely because the player holds down a key the entire game to move the character around in the first person perspective doesn’t seem to be enough interaction and game-play for Dear Esther to truly be considered a game, but more accurately considered interactive art. Another review suggests that, “Dear Esther is such a purely audio/visual experience that I have to conclude it would be better as a short film” (Pinsof) This statement holds true for many players, furthermore making the game more accurately called interactive art.
Dear Esther is an experience. The player participates (somewhat) in events through observing, perceiving a simulated reality, and “living” as the first-person player in the game. The experience becomes an artistic one— the players becomes lulled into the story of “Donnelly,” the legend of the hermit, as the first-person perspective of the player lives through the adventure navigating the cliffs and oceanside of Britain. An outstanding amount of detail and thought had to have been put in to the creation of this game— attention to the beautiful realm, contextual atmosphere, and setting. The waves crash against the shore as the player walks the path that ascends the cliff, a gull flies overhead, each footstep makes a sounds, sunlight peeks through the cloud cover in the sky. This is as well as the soothing sound of the narrators voice pulls the player into the game making this game seem to be an entirely artistic experience— one can’t help but be mesmerized. Rather than a game, another gaming reviewer recalled Dear Esther to be a, “Slow paced experience more than a game praised for the way it adapted first-person exploration to tell a complex tale of grief, illness and loss.” (Thursten) Having a personal experience is part of what defines art as art. Art is often ambiguous and subjective to the individual whom is viewing it. Dear Esther is similar, in that every individual player may have a different perspective and experience of the game. The game offers symbolism, parables, metaphors, symbols, and a mysterious story that every player will have a different experience and perception. 
The game design of Dear Esther, as well as the artistic experience of playing the game reinforces that Dear Esther is more art, rather than video game. The game is led by the narration of a story, there aren’t any puzzles for the player to solve, and the lack of interactivity makes it a difficult case to claim this game as an actual game. Narrative and art takes precedence in Dear Esther making gameplay more of an artistic experience. The experience, appreciation of the story, and call for imagination are the ingredients which make the claim that Dear Esther is art more so than a video game. 

MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of IGN. n.d.: n. pag. Web

Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Rev. of Destructoid. n.d.: n. pag. Web.

Thursten, Chris. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of PC Gamer. n.d.: n. pag. Web.


Adam said...

You begin very clearly, although the clarity makes me wonder if you could have pushed a little farther. Is it a particular *form* of art, for instance? To what extent are "art" and "video game" mutually exclusive? There are ways, in other words, of making this argument more precise.

The movement among definitions for Dear Esther - from "art" to "interactive art" to "an experience" is not, as we might expect, a movement toward greater precision. My expectation here is that you are finding a way of trying to define it precisely through a series of stages, but "an experience" is if anything a wider generalization than "art". Why that movement from the general to the *more* general?

"Having a personal experience is part of what defines art as art. Art is often ambiguous and subjective to the individual whom is viewing it. " -- let me point out that this is a particular (and as Marcuse might point out, a historical) understanding of what art is. It is a definition which is literally expressionist, and which is almost assuredly rooted in Romanticism. These aren't problems - but there is a kind of problem in the lack of consciousness here. If this is your understanding of art, you should be either moving deeper within (why do I understand art this way? Is it a good way of understanding it) or deeper into Dear Esther (how does an expressionist understanding of art help me understand Dear Esther?). A good revision, of course, might successfully make both movements at once - understanding your vision of what art is through Dear Esther, and vice versa. I'm asking for something kind of big - to understand the particular historical character of your own point of view - but that kind of particularity can give you a lot back, too.

Another observation: I would have liked to see some interpretation into particulars of the game (or the experience, if you prefer). Rather than generalize about the emotional impact of the game, *focus* upon it. If art is about a personal, subjective emotional experience, how did some critical moment (perhaps walking on the shore among the candles, or perhaps walking among the writing in the caves) do for you? It is almost never wrong to approach the general by way of the specific.

Kyle McManigle said...


I was immediately drawn in from the beginning of your essay. I thought that you set a very definitive course for what the essay would take specifically saying what Dear Esther is not, then what Dear Esther is. This was great to what we have talked about in class, even with Marcuse, and I found it a strong way to establish your essay, so I had high expectations since you wasted no time in getting to the point. I also thought that your fourth paragraph was very strong in defining what you think of art (having a personal experience that is often ambiguous). I thought this was just as strong as your first paragraph started out, which is what I expected throughout the whole essay. And I thought you could have even added in the fact that the experience of Dear Esther itself is an ambiguous experience since the narration can even change between games. However, I felt that you waited too long to do this, almost going back and forth in the first few paragraphs about what it isn't in using in the reviews. I was left saying "How" to myself throughout the second and third paragraph. If you were to revise this, I think you have a very strong central argument you should run with (ie the first and fourth paragraph), and I also think that what you attempt to do in the second and third paragraphs is important since your beginning also is what Dear Esther is not. I would just suggest that you streamline what you have to a singular argument of what it isn't (if possible) to match a singular argument of what it is, which would require you to take one definition (maybe just saying art instead of a couple different phrases for it). From there, I think you can go on for pages on the same line of thought you have that have a lot of potential and interesting thought put into it. You have a very solid framework that would benefit from a little restructuring and the development of your ideas using more thought and real game examples.