Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther: An Artistic Pseudo-Game

            Dear Esther is not a game in a traditional sense of the word.  A game is most simply defined as a, “form of play according to rules and decided by skill, strength or luck.” (Google) The lack of alignment with this definition comes in the physical “play” and how it is decided, in the case of a videogame, by, “manipulating images produced by a computer program.” (Google) Despite this, Dear Esther offers the viewer of these images, something different, something unique in which, “there’s really not much else like it.” (Indie Nation 63) It is not an interactive game, but a surreal experience that can be described as a mobile story.  The construction of Dear Esther is an art, and the gameplay, or lack there of, is to navigate this mysterious environment and narration to discover.  Therefore, Dear Esther is a piece of art in which simplistic game play runs through for it’s comprehensive view.  It is an artistic pseudo-game.
            In a review, of what I will from now on deem an artistic pseudo-game, Keza MacDonald notes that, “Dear Esther asks nothing of you but to occupy this world,” and, “if you’re at all interested in exploring what games can do outside of the traditional genre templates, Dear Esther offers an unforgettable two hours…” An island of magnificent grandeur offering more than meets the eye defines the world of Dear Esther.  The art lies in the construction of the environment controls the ambiance of the entire progression through what can be considered the art exhibit.  It is physical in the mountain, and the great caves of wondrous luminescence, but also metaphorically represented in the aw of the body, and it’s relationship to the soul.  The narrator says, “I am traveling through my own body, following the line of infection from the shattered femur towards the heart.  I swallow fistfuls of painkillers to stay lucid.”   The caves are the blood vessels, covered in microbes that light the way of travel, others riddles with crystals in the walls, relating to the narrators kidney stones of which it is noted, “when I first looked into the shaft, I swear I felt the stones in my stomach shift in recognition.” The walls of the caves are covered with organic molecule representations of the painkillers in his system, and vast circuits and neuronal cells, some connected to nothing, a depiction of severed synapses.  There is little to no distinction of character between the narrator and Donnelly, noted at the conclusion of the pseudo-game adventure through the art, not knowing if Donnelly or himself had made the island and the markings, but knowing that Donnelly, “became his syphilis, retreating into the burning synapses, the stones, the infection,” like that of the narrator.  The viewer thus becomes these personified depictions, no longer from an external source, but also the navigator of the environment himself, just as one becomes when staring deeply at a painting, walking through an exhibit, or in virtual reality constructions.  This is engaging above all, coupled with music that, “fades in and out with exquisite timing to emphasize moments of narrative significance,”  (MacDonald).  In this perfect coupling of music, narration, and movement along the flowing landscape, there is significant thought into what this experience is and should be: an expression of a person, or people beautifully crafted as an art in the form of a full-body [out of body] emersion to by the hands of the programmers, to incite feeling and emotion.  Dear Esther is art physically, metaphorically, and emotionally ground.
            The artistic world is then open for investigation and innovation.  The simplicity of such highlights the artistry of that world for all that it’s worth.  It is not game-play because there is no interaction with the parts of the environment with no skill nor goal to reach.  Objects are not meant to be disturbed so as not to alter the overall exhibit.  The “play,” metaphorically, is the flipping of the page in the story by walking through the exhibit, like a maze.  It is not traditional due to the, “stripping out most interaction, combat, and immediate threat.” (Pinsof) The choices have already been laid out for the person in charge of manipulation.  “You can explore this world with your own eyes.  You can also explore parts that aren’t worth exploring.” (Pinsof) Though the artistic assemblage provides but one means to the progression through the work, it’s wonder in engagement propels you to look into avenues that are subconsciously known to yield no further progress.  They are important however, because they can provide information and confusion, thus adding more to the construction as a whole.  This is exactly why the “game-play” is so simplistic.  The pseudo-game itself is discovery within the context of the artistic world.  Walking to unfold the story, just as examining other physical artworks in a museum, doesn’t always amount to enlightenment initially, as is such in the deviations from the “correct path.” The “play,” physically, is a slow walk to take in the scenery, and to make the ascension to the final stage, when the soul is freed from the body and takes flight.  The control of movement only comes in finding this final event.   The loss of control once the end is reached is artistically symbolic as all the previous unfolding had been.  There was never meant to be a vast game-play.  There was only meant to be the subtle confusion of finding your way walking through a winding maze to uncover scenery and facts amounting to the end of flight.  The facile limitation of movement is purposeful and empowering to the expanse of the atmospheric presentation.             
            Though Dear Esther might not necessarily be something that avid gamers would show any interest in, it is noteworthy.  It is an artistic expression and a visual auditory experience most “true games” lack.  Its goal is not to aimlessly kill people for no reason, to score a goal, or to overthrow power.  It is purely an occurrence of exposition and revelation that is discounted for what it isn’t rather than revered for what it is.  Dear Esther is a flowing modern-day work of art. 

Works Cited:

Google.  Definition of Game. 2014
Google. Definition of VideoGame. 2014
Indie Nation 63. “Dear Esther.” 29 May 2009. Web
MacDonald, Keza. “Dear Esther Review”. 13 February 2012. Web.
Pinsof, Allistair. “Review: Dear Esther”. 13 Febraury 2012. Web.



Brendan Demich said...


Looks like you’re hearing from me again this week. Great essay! You demonstrate that you had a complex understanding of the “artistic pseudo-game” and that you had considered meaning and symbolism of the game in great depth.

I think your introduction was effectively written. It demonstrated the point you are trying to make well. While it was effective, I had a difficulty reading it. I had to read it through a few times to understand what you were communicating. Individual sentences could be written in a way that would be somewhat more easy to follow.

I’m slightly concerned about the second paragraph. You write very well about the experience and representations about the game. My reservations come from the extent to which you wrote about the experience of the game. You did make the point that you were trying to in this paragraph, however I believe you could have done so with less discussion of the in-game experience. In a revision, I would recommend reducing that discussion in order to have a more argument-dense paper.

In your third paragraph, you bring up many excellent points of how “Dear Esther” is artistic. Everything you write in this paragraph helps to argue you point and you make good use of the Destructoid review to help your point. What I would like to see in a revision of this is to argue against why it is not art. Pinsof’s review is more critical of “Dear Esther” than your essay presents. I’m not saying that in this essay you needed to present that review in its entirety. However, in a longer revision, I believe that you could refute the claims that Pinsof makes that “Dear Esther” is a boring game.

Your conclusion wraps your essay together nicely. Its brevity is very appropriate, and your essay is well represented by it.

Adam said...

One thing I'll be looking for here - especially if you revise, although also in a draft - is to understand your thoughts on why it's an "artistic pseudo-game"? Does the form, in other words, have anything to do with its content?

Your first long paragraph is fascinating. It's a bit of a mess, too, but maybe that goes with the material. Your focus on the identification of Narrator=Donnely (and as we discussed, the identities are really much more blurred than that, even) is great. I love that you're arguing both that the caves are an art exhibit and the interior of the body - what I'd like to see (and maybe what could help you focus in a revision) is a better understanding of how those two are one - what is the content or meaning of the identification caves = art exhibit = interior of body, or of the identification narrator = Donnely = (maybe) viewer? There's are very good insights here, with some good details to support them (something people often struggle with in the games) - there's also a great deal of room for refinement in a revision.

Rather than saying similar things about your other long, complex paragraph, I'm going to go off on a minor tangent. You have a lot to say about the oddity of the game "play" - which is to only walk slowly, choosing always to look at things you could have subconsciously ignored - and you point out repeatedly, I think, that this all takes place in an apparent maze. What do you make of the ways in which it is a maze and not a maze at the same time - the fact that it's a maze but not really seems to me to be just like your idea that it's a game but not really, and the illusion of the maze might even have an important relationship to the identification that interests you. To stretch a point, what does it mean to present the caves (which is really us, as you previously argued) as a maze, yet to never have the confusion of the maze actually lead us astray? You're saying interesting things, but thinking more about the form of the maze might help you both to push yourself farther and to focus.

Overall: There's tremendous potential here, but it's short on organization (although it has more *evidence* than most people have been able to muster for Dear Esther), and there's a point at the end where I wish *your* viewpoint about Dear Esther would come into more focus - which again, is a great area to explore if you revise.