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.
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.com. 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.