Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther: An Interactive Art Game

            Approach any man, woman, or child and simply ask “what is art?” You should then be prepared to face a barrage of varying answers. The ensuing responses about art may range from something as profound and literal as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to quite possibly something completely unexpected such as the architectural mastery of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The point is, when defining, analyzing, or envisioning art it is entirely subjective to the individual. The video game Dear Esther is no exception in this case and is quite often the subject of much debate. Dear Esther is an entirely unique experience which transcends the classification as a mere video game, and instead should be seen as an exceptionally crafted interactive artistic gaming experience.

            Enter the world of Dear Esther. We begin our journey by standing on an unknown and uninhabited island just a few feet from the shore. There are instant subtle cues right in front of us that any gamer would embrace, like walking toward and exploring a decrepit cabin. MacDonald felt just as I did saying “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.” We are plunged into this game with no directions, and for me at least, no clue how to even move at first. But once we learn how to walk it’s quite easy to be struck by the captivating scenery that surrounds us. The sweeping sound of the shore, the monumental cliffside in the distance, and the ripped skyline which is open just enough to emit a beam of sublime light can alone provide as much realism and beauty as a Monet painting. The gaming reviewer Pinsof felt “Dear Esther is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played at points, overcoming any sense of dullness the rest of the experience put me through.” But this beauty is even more exemplified when the narrator begins his poetic monologue from what can only be understood as fragmented journal entries to someone named Esther. The music provided with our journey can be quite moving and sometimes even quite eerie when the dark piano score begins to play. These latter segments, especially inside the cave, felt like using the “W” key was giving us the ability to see an art exhibition.
            In Dear Esther, even with its artistic form, can at times take a semi-conventional approach as a game. First, the controls are rather simple and common and can be summed up abruptly. You can walk forward, laterally, and backward at a rather snail-like pace, zoom in your view, swim up when in the water, and when you embrace the darkness of some buildings and caves a flashlight automatically comes out. As Pinsof bluntly puts it “you literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes -- even ducking, the only other action, is automatic.” His statement is not too far from the truth. We may be simply guiding our player through this uninhabited Hebridean Island picking up pieces of the story as we go, but this isn’t just walking with no cause and you’re surely not spoon fed the entire game. Like many other games, you must in fact find and walk along the correct paths in order to advance in the game. If you feel like venturing into the dark waters like I did, you’ll find that you can even die. When you’re drowning in the water we see a dark flashback to what looks like a shipwrecked boat, providing a rather powerful message. So, the notion by many that this should not be considered a game should be laid to rest because it adheres to a lot of familiar territory many other conventional games take, but with more artistic qualities.

            A very critical piece to this entire argument is the use of narrative qualities throughout the game. Consequently the plot and gameplay would seemingly become entirely one-dimensional and devoid without the storytelling from our mysterious narrator. As Allistair Pinsof says “Even when the words fall flat, voice actor Nigel Carrington makes them come alive with a rare spirit. He adds a weight to the syllables that make them sink into your gut,” and the heart. Dear Esther forces the player to fit pieces of a cryptic puzzle all together in order to form a vivid understanding of the events that took place prior and during our narrators inhabiting the island. For example, when the narrator relays to us a disjointed story of a car crash it almost seems random and may be written off. However, later in the game during nightfall as we ascend from the caves we see candles scattered along several parts of the beach. They only become revealing when we approach candles intentionally surrounding several pictures of a woman, and later more candles enclosing various parts of a car. At this point if the narration didn’t help you enough, then the symbolism and blatant imagery should bring everything together. Esther was our protagonist’s wife whose life was tragically cut too short due to a car crash. Our shipwrecked narrator feels anguish, despair, and hopelessness as we arrive closer to the final moments of the game. It was these images and the poetic words from our narrator’s perspective where emotion and sympathy is evoked from us, the player. This is similarly reminiscent when looking at a painting and reading an interpretation of what the painter was trying to convey. Here is where a game transcends what it means to be a medium of entertainment and becomes coupled with art. 

           Dear Esther made me reevaluate how I perceive gaming now. I’ve come to realize that there doesn’t have to be a clearly defined set of objectives or a mission, weapons, or even an ability to jump, run, or open things in order for a game to actually be considered a game. The artistic form and somewhat conventional qualities make Dear Esther into a piece of interactive art gaming where the player is working with the medium in such a way that it achieves a specific purpose (Interactive Art). This specific purpose is shown in Dear Esther as it is revolutionary to gaming and art because it doesn’t confine gaming to an individual genre or art to its own genre. Thanks to Dear Esther, in the next few years we may really begin to see a shift in people perceiving video games as art.

Allistair, Pinsof. "Review: Dear Esther." Rev. of Dear Esther. Destructoid. N.p., 12 Feb. 2012. Web. 24. Feb. 2013.
"Interactive Art." Art Interactive. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <>.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of Dear Esther. IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 24. Feb. 2013. <>.


Kevin Weatherspoon said...

First and foremost I like how you went straight on ahead and brought up "what is art?" than started giving examples of how others may approach that question. By doing that it gave me a clear understanding of where you were going with this essay. I also like how you talked about the game and gave examples from it which would eventually let me know how you also agree that "Dear Esther" is considered a game to you as well. I was actually so intrigued by this because I personally don't think it's considered to be "game" related, but after hearing your response to why it is it certainly got me thinking twice now. I could be wrong, but I think you should just add a tab bit more on "why it is art" throughout the majority of this essay instead of just bringing it back up again for the last paragraph and that could be towards revising it if you intended to do so. Overall, I think this is really good because it helped me in a way to approach an essay differently next time.

Adam said...

Defining something as purely subjective isn't a definition at all - it's the refusal to define something. Maybe more to the point, it's not productive - how can you find a way of talking about something which is purely subjective and personal?

Your interest from start is in Dear Esther's visuals. What I'll look for as I proceed is whether you are able to think about in detail, even analyze, any specific visuals. Your generalizations aren't bad, but you need to move into specifics to write on this topic well (for instance, do you mean what you say about Monet - and if so, what can you do with that? Or is it a passing thought of no importance - in which case, why'd you say it?).

"So, the notion by many that this should not be considered a game should be laid to rest because it adheres to a lot of familiar territory many other conventional games take, but with more artistic qualities." - you come close here to defining what a game is, at least. What makes it a game at this moment (of drowning)? The threat of death? The possibility of failure in general? You're on an interesting path and yet still quite vague here.

"This is similarly reminiscent when looking at a painting and reading an interpretation of what the painter was trying to convey. Here is where a game transcends what it means to be a medium of entertainment and becomes coupled with art." - It's noteworthy here that you don't really think that art is purely subjective in one sense. I think your point of view is that art demands interpretation - that is, it compels subjective interaction. This isn't a bad thought (maybe you could have gotten to it sooner), but it's limited. It would be more interesting to interpret than to simply observe that the game asks to be interpreted.

Overall: I thought this started and then stayed on the vague side. I'm not totally clear on what you think art is, on what you think gaming is, or on how you interpret any particular aspect of Dear Esther after reading this essay, although I *do* think your interest in the visual dimensions of it shows some promise.