Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther as Art

Dear Esther as Art

In essence, “Dear Esther” by thechineseroom is an interactive fiction that uses a video game platform to attempt to simulate the universe of the guilty and depressed. The beauty of “Dear Esther” has earned it well-deserved awards and accolades for its creative style. “Dear Esther” is a work of art because of the ability is has to invoke an emotional response among engaged players, but does so by rejecting the typical video game format.

Marcuse, in One Dimensional Man, explains art through events such as attending opera and theater that are elevated above normal life. Further, he states that to prepare for artistic experiences, “attendance requires festival-like preparation,” (Marcuse, 64). From my own personal experience, briefly testing “Dear Esther” before engaging in its entirety provided me with expectations and an idea of the best way to use “Dear Esther” for its purpose. I found myself going through personal rituals before beginning the “Dear Esther” experience. This ritual was vastly different than that of preparing for opera. The rituals involved eliminating all other sensory input other than “Dear Esther,” including playing in seclusion and quiet. While this may be different than preparing for a “high society,” event, it still was preparing for an elevation from normal life. I was allowing myself to be elevated above sitting in a room watching a performance, permitting thorough engagement.

But to accept that the preparations were for art, not just an impressive video game, it is necessary to define art, and argue that “Dear Esther” fits the definition. Art is an aesthetically pleasing creation that has emotional weight behind it. While an artist may create their art for their own purpose, the observer gives the real meaning to their works. Their connection with art is what gives it meaning. Good art is clear enough to allow observer to focus their attention, but they give the inanimate life by imposing their own thoughts upon the physical. “Dear Esther” does this through the most impressive world generation I have seen from game designers, poetic narration from a depressed diary, and a masterful music score. The vague background that develops over the play-through gives readers the perfect amount of information to instill empathy with the narrator. But the lack of clear details is what allows the beholder to impress their own feeling on the game, and experience an emotion that few have experienced:  the raw guilt of feeling responsible for a loved-one’s death.

With this in mind, classifying “Dear Esther” as a game is destructive to the fundamental purpose of its creation. The Destructoid review by Allistair Pinsof perceives this as a game, which causes their grievances with the game aspect. “Yes, this game is dull. And, yes, it is a game,” (Pinsof, 4). Pinsof does not shy from hyperboles of the art’s beauty, but question its medium. Understanding that “Dear Esther” is not a game to be “played” per se is critical to total immersion and meditation with the art. The player (for lack of a better word) is only allowed to appreciate the beauty of “Dear Esther” by becoming the narrator: a guilt-stricken, lonely, depressed romantic who is allowed to just wander the beach and caves of a beautiful island. When the game is “played,” the player’s only experience is “progress[ing] through movement alone and the goal is to see the end,” (Pinsof, 2). A far more fulfilling experience may be had with “Dear Esther” when the player has a different expectation than the one described.

IGN reviewer Keza McDonald is much more inclined to shy from calling “Dear Esther” a game.  “Dear Esther asks nothing of you but to occupy this world.” “You are led without ever really feeling like you are being led, by visual cues that stand out against the landscape and draw you towards them,” (McDonald, 2-3). This review describes the artistic ability of the designers to catch the user’s attention with emotionally charged imagery, and direct you. While this reviewer does appear to have deep appreciation for the art, they (for the sake of preventing spoilers) fail to express the created beauty. By realizing there is nothing to “achieve,” the player allows their consciousness to wander along a beach and create an emotional connection with the art. The Rock Paper Shotgun review by Alec Meer was able to exact the feelings that “Dear Esther” instills. “Dear Esther is, in a very real sense, boring. It is supposed to be. Lonely tedium, that slow, slow walk through a stark land, leads to subconscious introspection,” (Meer, 2). You are meant to feel lonely and pensive as you progress towards no goal grand goal. Liberating “Dear Esther” from its tag as a video game lends the user to walk through this introspection of reflective guilt.

Appreciation for “Dear Esther” as art is instigated by accepting that it tries to distance itself from video game characteristics in order to allow the user experience an emotional reflection. As an experimental form of medium for a video game setting to express art, the potential is created for an immersing, multi-facetted piece of artwork.

Marcuse, Herbertt. One Dimensional Man. Boston.1962. Beacon Press
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. N.p., 13 Feb 2012. Web. 27 Feb 2014.
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., 13 Feb 2012. Web. 27 Feb 2014.
Meer, Alec. "What I Alternatively Think: Dear Esther." Rock, Paper, Shotgun. N.p., 15 Feb 2012. Web. 27 Feb 2014.


Courtney Elvin said...


I think you have a good foundation for the argument that Dear Esther is art, with a clear and specific thesis, which is very important. Something I especially like about your essay is that you address critics from both sides of the issue: ones that support it as art and ones that don’t get it. This strengthens your argument well, and I think you effectively disprove the counterargument to your thesis, a huge plus!

I like the ideas you analyze and connect to Marcuse in your second paragraph, but I almost feel like it doesn’t directly strengthen your central argument and definition of art. It’s very good for context and an effective analysis of Marcuse, but maybe in a revision you could consider tying it in more closely. Also, by the end of the paper, I’m still not completely clear on your stance on Dear Esther as a video game. You detail that it opposes the norms in many ways, but the relationship between art and video games is still not clearly defined. Are they mutually exclusive? A small discrepancy, but something you could expand on in a revision.

I am intrigued by your point regarding the player feeling empathy and then impressing their own feelings into the game. This is something you have as a support for the game as evoking emotion, but I think you have a lot of space you could further this in a revision through specific examples and more in-depth analysis of how the game invites these feelings from the player. I think it's a very interesting concept as you present it. Another relevant point you could bring in (as we discussed in class) is Marcuse’s idea of estrangement. I think that by the end of your essay, you approach the same ideas that support the presence of estrangement, so that could be another possibility for a revision if you so choose.

Overall, I like the inclusiveness of your definition of art and support for Dear Esther as a piece of art. It’s a great start to tackling a massive discussion, and I think you have a lot of potential if you choose to revise! Well-done!

Adam said...

Your introduction begins about where many other people's essays end - on the expressionist character of Dear Esther. Good.

In the 2nd paragraph, you don't really explain why the ritual *mattered* - I found this paragraph somewhat confusing as a result. The third paragraph, unfortunately, doesn't do very much more than repeat the first paragraph in a somewhat elaborated form.

Minor question. Do you agree that Dear Esther is boring? Maybe I'm eccentric (I mean, I know I'm eccentric - I mean in this particular matter), but in its own way I found it almost as engaging as Portal. I just find it odd that you *personally don't declare it boring, if boredom matters to you here.

Now, awkwardly, I want to go to the middle of your essay: "With this in mind, classifying “Dear Esther” as a game is destructive to the fundamental purpose of its creation."

This is an interesting attempt to respond to both reviewers at once, and to push beyond them. I don't disagree with you, but I feel like you're ignoring an elephant in the room - Dear Esther is presented and marketed *as a game* (

Does that mean that you're wrong? I don't think so - but it does mean that if we *need* to understand that Dear Esther isn't a game, we need to first move *through* the deliberately presented idea that it *is* a game. One way of revising would be to think about this contradiction, and the process we need to go through in order to resolve it.

Your conclusion acknowledges this, of course, but doesn't really work through the hard details of it. You also abandon something incredibly interesting along the way - you play intermittently with the idea that Dear Esther is about "becoming the narrator", rather than achieving a goal. Or can we say that it's a game in which our goal is achieving identification? To my mind, this was maybe the most interesting and distinctive thing you had to say.

Overall: Some very strong moments, but also some weaker ones. This was interesting but scattered, with no clear sense of what is most worth pursuing here. Are you most interested in identification? With the game/not game dichotomy? With the game's expressionism? Pick an idea and *focus* upon it.

Note that Courtney also like the focus on identification/empathy/expressionism best - its' not an accident that we both turn to that. But there are too many other things going on.