Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther as Art and Game

Dear Esther as Art

    Dear Esther is an unusual piece of software. It defies easy categorization. Its nature as an interactive experience places it on the boundary of the common definitions of "game" and "art." To label Dear Esther may not affect the experience, but doing so allows for easy discussion of its place in the landscape of modern media. Dear Esther is an important example of art, and an important achievement in video games, and recognizing this is an important step in the evolution of modern art.
    To establish that Dear Esther is an important artistic game, it must first be defined as a game. As Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid says of Dear Esther, "yes, it is a game. There are rules and keys and narrative triggers and all those things we come to expect of a $9.99 purchase on Steam" (Pinsof). The argument made here is that Dear Esther should be defined as a video game because that is what it is in form, if not function. Dear Esther is built on the Source video game engine, uses the same control schemes as most first-person shooters, and, superficially at least, asks for the same player interaction as most video games (Cameron). While it eschews the trappings of popular, successful video games, this simply makes it a different type of video game instead of a different medium altogether.
    Establishing that Dear Esther is a game can be used to determine if it is art. Film critic Roger Ebert declared these two states inherently exclusive, stating that, "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control" (Ebert). This definition limits the scope of art to static media such as film and literature, assuming that the work of art must retain its artistic qualities even when unobserved. Dear Esther, however, applies narrative techniques borrowed from art and film to the experience of the player. The art of Dear Esther is in the authored design, which accounts for the players choices and invites the player to experience the narrative in the way that the designer intends. The hand of the author is felt throughout Dear Esther in moments when, as described in a review, "you are led, without ever really feeling like you are being led, by subtle visual cues that stand out against the landscape and draw you towards them" (MacDonald). This invitation to interact with the world allows the author to deliver the narrative in new, creative ways. As Nathan Grayson describes in a piece on Dear Esther "taken in conjunction with the option to explore and digest the world as we saw fit, it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it" (Grayson).  By creating systems that respond to the players actions with the intention of providing an emotional and potentially self-reflective experience for the player, the developers of Dear Esther act as artists, and their creation, art.
    Dear Esther's authored design show that in form it is art, but its content prove that it is also, maybe more importantly, art in function. According to Marcuse, "In its advanced positions, art is the Great Refusal -- the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence" (63). Dear Esther engages in this refusal by delivering its narrative in a disjointed, non-linear fashion, as well as through the symbolism of objects in its world. The juxtaposition of the realistic, believable environments with the narrator's descent into insanity show the Marcusian refusal at work. They highlight the difference between the fictitious world of Dear Esther and the real world.
    Dear Esther's difficulty to categorize come from the same elements that make it interesting. However, categorizing it as a game and as art is important because it expands the definitions of these media to include more experiences like Dear Esther.

Works Cited:

Cameron, Phil. "Moved By Mod: Dear Esther's Dan Pinchbeck." Gamasutra. UBM Tech, 1 July 2009. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Ebert, Roger. "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Genders?" Roger Ebert Digital LLC, 27 Nov. 2005. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Grayson, Nathan. "Dear Videogames, Stop Telling Me Everything." Rock Paper Shotgun. Rock Paper Shotgun Ltd., 29 Aug. 2008. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. IGN Entertainment, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.

Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.


Shane Bombara said...


Your approach to the reviews of the reviewers’ is one that highlights many good points and utilizes their thoughts effectively. Your first paragraph touches on the similarities shared between Dear Esther and many other games. I agree that it has somewhat of a conventional approach as far as some of the controls are concerned. What I think would’ve helped this continuation of thought, but maybe in a different way, is by providing how it is art outside of the same concepts of a similar game. Touching on that would further solidify your argument as it being an art and a video game, while also aiding to the idea of it being not easy to classify this sort of game easily. So, basically what aspects of the game are artistic when not examining the generic controls? The second body paragraph I really enjoyed because it really gets to the heart of the entire concept of Dear Esther and viewing it objectively as art. Your transition into Marcuse’s writing is good, as it ties in nicely with Dear Esther as a part of art and the Great Refusal. The only thing that is troubling to me is by the end of this final paragraph I’m left wanting more. It’s like you had such a well-developed perspective but right before you really get going you stop. Some more elaboration on Marcuse and it tying into Dear Esther could’ve really solidified your ideas more.

Adam said...

While your intro isn't terribly specific, your framing of D.E. as evolutionary is interesting.

Your second paragraph defines it as a game formally without really specifying what *you* consider important, formally, in a game.

The third paragraph is interesting but maybe incomplete - it should probably be 2 or 3 times longer than it is. I mean that as a compliment - it's ripe for a revision - but it's a little hard to follow all of the details. I understand that you're arguing, with Ebert (but why do you side with him?) that art requires authorial control; I understand that you're arguing (also with him, but why) that games normally eschew authorial control. You're also arguing that formally DE is a video game while finding novel, game-like ways of conserving authorial control. I think this is what you're saying, and I like it - but I'd like to see it analyzed through delving into specific moments in the game. Your too general at this stage; for this to work as a revision, you need to get into an exploration of - for instance - how authorial control vs. interactivity works as we explore the caves.

I think the turn toward Marcuse is too much for a short essay which already is trying to do a lot. What is the game refusing or rejecting? What "is" is it resisting, and what "ought" is it trying to imagine, if only negatively?

Overall: This has the right ideas, but it's overly general - you need to deal with deeper details of the game for it to work as it should