Thursday, February 27, 2014

"Dear Esther" as a Commercial Masterpiece

In “One-Dimensional Man”, Marcuse states that, recently, art has been absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs, taking the form of commercials to sell, comfort, and excite (Marcuse 64). Presented as a video game, Dear Esther takes on the form of commercial art. In both the Marcusian and the common definition, Dear Esther can undoubtedly be considered art. Scenery, paintings, and music create a beautiful canvas, and make the game art in aesthetic sense. The form in which it is played makes it art in the Marcusian definition.
Dear Esther is aesthetically pleasing on many levels. First and foremost, it has extremely well-made visuals. The game starts on the shore with typical beach scenery and a cloudy sky. When the player reaches Chapter 3, though, the landscape becomes indescribable. The caves are so beautifully crafted with light, colors and intricacies that anyone would consider astonishing. There are also paintings within the game that are complex and interesting. Symbols for organic compounds appear often, and in the caves there are depictions of neurons and patterns that look like circuitry. In one alley of the cave, these paintings cover the entire wall.

They overtake the senses with their intricacy, neon coloring, and sheer number. This is art in an overpowering way, which is a different form than most of the other visuals take in the game. All of these aspects make the game enjoyable to look at.
The soundtrack and the letters add two other, less visual, layers of art to Dear Esther. The music is mostly piano and strings, but sometimes voices are heard when trying to set a “creepy” mood. It adds emotion and anticipation to the game, fading in and out to emphasize moments of narrative significance (MacDonald). It set a mood that could not be created by anything other than instrumental music. In this way, it works very well within the story, but it can also stand alone as art.  Lastly, the voiced over narrative is another layer of artistry, in a literature sense. The voice creates a story through letters to Esther, speaking in intelligent and carefully-crafted language. It uses metaphors and complex descriptions, as well as alluding to ideas without clearly stating them. These letters are the epitome of poetic language. The mystery and scarcity of the pieces of the letters make them special. These two aspects of the game create another layer of aesthetic pleasure, and therefore add to the artistry.
                Nevertheless, there is more to art than the pleasing aesthetics. According to Marcuse, art has the power of negation (Marcuse 63). It can make the observer realize something about our world that could not have been realized through any other medium. Dear Esther takes the player on a journey that is both similar and dissimilar to the world we live in. The first two chapters of the game are spent walking on the shore, something most people have done in their lifetime. The walking pace is extremely life-like, as well as the scenery that is experienced. This similarity breaks, though, when they player cannot go certain places, like on a couple shipwrecked boats. If the realness is not fully broken by these small roadblocks, it is completely discarded by the beauty of the cave. Nothing in this world can compare to the caves. These differences remind the player that there is a goal to be reached; that they are actually playing a game. The similarities create the possibility of players to find something in the game that relates to their own life. Becoming completely engrossed in game-play, it is easy to experience the narrative of the game as real. Once brought back to reality by the differences, the player can reflect on how the story might have related to them. The player experiences the story first hand, in a somewhat interactive and very enthralling way. It can be frustrating that the only interactions are walking and looking, but this is still submerging the player into the story. The player is in control of what he or she looks at; it’s easy to miss something if the player is not paying attention. Since looking and walking is all there is to do, the game suggests that the experience of the game is in what is seen, not what is done. In this way, it creates a need in the players to look around and interpret the scenes. This is an act related to viewing art, and not necessarily to playing a video game. The similarities to our world and the interactivity of Dear Esther add another, more complicated layer of art to the game; a layer that makes it art of negation.
                Together, the aesthetic and negating aspects of Dear Esther create a piece of art in both the common and Marcusian sense. It’s pleasing music, literature, and visuals have similarities to our world, but also differences that make it more attractive and meaningful. In “One-Dimensional Man”, Marcuse quotes Paul Valéry, “That which is ‘natural’ must assume the features of the extraordinary. Only in this manner can the laws of cause and effect reveal themselves” (Marcuse 67). The beauty as well as the medium of Dear Esther makes the player take pause. Being a game, it forces the player to look around and try to understand his or her surroundings. The dissociation of the real world and the world of Dear Esther creates an estrangement effect in the player, bringing him or her out of their element enough to be able to find bigger meanings in gameplay. The attributes that make Dear Esther aesthetically pleasing also make it a better form of art in the Marcusian sense.

Works Cited and Consulted

MacDonald, Kenza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. N.p., 13 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.


Adam said...

The difficulty for me at the beginning is that for Marcuse, art (like truth), always has an oppositional character - see the passage on the "great refusal" for one example. So for Marcuse, art is not necessarily about being conventionally pretty - it's about having a particular kind of response to the world.

That being said, I like your emphasis on the three layers of aesthetic pleasure here. Regardless of whether that observation connects with Marcuse, it's still important, and you make it in detail, although in an ideal world I'd have liked to see you deal with the layers more in relationship with one another (how does the cave connect with the score and with the narration, rather than touching on each one more or less in isolation?).

While you're not (yet) interacting with Marcuse's complexities, you have a well-written line which begins to take Marcuse and Dear Esther seriously together: "Dear Esther takes the player on a journey that is both similar and dissimilar to the world we live in." I think this would have been a good line for, say, the *first* paragraph, but you are, at least, beginning to ask the right questions.

I'm a little unclear on where you see the negation. I think you're interested in the sudden break the game makes away from "ordinary" realism. You're also interested in the way that the game demands that we pay attention, and yet gives us lots of opportunities to fail to do so. Now let me ask this question: what is the relationship between the two? Does the game demand attention/interpretation *differently* when it breaks away from realism, for instance? Or is the departure from realism itself a kind of distraction? I think you're beginning to move toward asking these kinds of questions, but this paragraph isn't really developed yet - probably because you have several paragraphs of introductory material, not all of which was by any means necessary.

Overall: You're trying to engage with the difficulties of Marcuse in relationship with a rather strange and difficult "text", and you're beginning to do so - but your attempt to do so is hindered by the much more obvious and less interesting material at the beginning, which could have been greatly simplified/boiled down.

Jake Stambaugh said...

Like Dr. Johns said, I think that the discussion at the beginning about aesthetics is less interesting than the discussion of negation. I think that a pretty simple revision strategy would be to essentially flip your paper over, starting with the paragraph on negation and then discussing aesthetics in relation to negation. I also think that you would need to focus your argument a little bit more than you have it now. You are currently saying "Dear Esther is aesthetically pleasing and negating, therefore it is art" but I think that picking one of those topics to focus on and using the other as a support would make your paper feel more cohesive.