Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dear Esther: A Piece of Modern Art

“Now to everyone’s favorite unit…modern art!” my teacher announced reaching for her laptop to change the PowerPoint slide. “We will begin with readymades.” The screen briefly flashed white and, in painfully slow motion as is custom with slideshow presentations, a picture materialized on screen.
Sitting a few rows from the back in a cramped theater-style seat at the Frick Fine Arts Building, I struggled to see what I was looking at. Is that a urinal?
            “In 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted this piece of artwork to the annual exhibition hosted by the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp called this piece of art ‘Fountain,” and, over the next few years, it would become an iconic piece of modern art.” She paused, and looking out at what must have been two hundred open jaws, clarified, “And yes, it is a urinal.”
Good, let’s just call everything art then.
            My point here is that, regardless of what definition we conjure up on Google, everything is art. In the most simple of terms, art is subjective. Art is anything that appeals to the senses. Art includes dance, music, film, books, television shows, paintings, sculptures, and, yes, urinals. Sometimes art is harder for certain people to sense, for instance me and the white ceramic latrine.
            Luckily, it was not difficult to view Dear Esther as art because of its strong resemblance to literature. Books and writing are traditional extensions of art. And if you disagree that literature is not art, then you might agree that poetry is art, and Dear Esther is certainly poetry as well. Dear Esther is digital literature, and therefore it is art. 
            Dear Esther is nothing more than a digital book – imagination is replaced by island scenery; pages are replaced by the digital framework of cave walls and rocky paths; the reader is engaged with the keyboard rather than a physical book (or eReader, or Nook, or Kindle, or iPad). Through a series of monologues, the narrator delivers the story and introduces several characters – Donnelly, Jacobson, Paul, the hermit, and Esther. In every piece of literature there is conflict, just as in every piece of art there is tension (think back to the urinal and the extreme tension that resonates in that piece of art). In her review published in 2014, Keza MacDonald describes the conflict/tension of Dear Esther. MacDonald writes, “Dear Esther is the story of a shipwrecked castaway on a remote Hebridean island, delivered through spoken lines of sumptuous, disconnected prose as you walk around the detailed landscape.” As the “ghost story” unfolds the player learns about a drunken accident and about the suffering and eventual death of the island’s other inhabitants. Every piece of literature, at least every piece of good literature, has action. In his 2012 review of Dear Esther, Allistair Pinsof sums up the action perfectly: “All you do in this game is walk. You literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes -- even ducking, the only other action, is automatic.” The action may be boring and monotonous, but there is action. Dear Esther is an exploration; the action is therefore exploring and adventuring in order to reach some end goal or final destination.
            One final argument that confirms Dear Esther is a piece of literature: if you typed out the narrator’s monologues, you could follow along as a reader. The digital medium in which Dear Esther is delivered merely enhances the reader’s immersion. Where traditional books provide solely narrative surrounding and paintings provide solely visual surrounding, Dear Esther simultaneously provides a narrative surrounding and a visual surrounding. Dear Esther is simply an extreme picture book.

            While Dear Esther certainly functions as art, its function as a game is more obscure. I hoped to second the argument put forth by the game itself: “why not everything and all at once!” However, I found that Dear Esther does not function as a game. My first step in analyzing whether or not Dear Esther is a game, was to define the general concept of a “game.” The most encompassing definition I found was: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable” (Whitson). According to this definition, as well as many other definitions I read, the primary requirements of a game are:

1.      Rules

2.      A variable and quantifiable outcome

3.      Player influence over the outcome

4.      Emotional Attachment to the outcome  

Dear Esther has rules – the geographic bounds of the game are the rules. The definition of a “game” expands to define the role of rules in a game: “The rules construct the possibility space of the game (i.e. what players can and cannot do) – they are “affordances” that permit certain actions while prescribing and preventing others. By accepting to play, players consent to the constraints posed by the rules. What makes “digital games” different from traditional games (e.g. card games, board games, etc.) is that the rules are embedded in the hardware and the software of the game, thus freeing players from having to enforce the rules themselves” (Whitson). When you arrive on the deserted, down-trodden beach you can either walk along the rocky coastline or investigate the house. Or I suppose you can stand still and do nothing, but those are the only options. From there you walk up the incline towards the lighthouse. In the cave, there is only one way to move…forward. In fact the walls of the cave are the strictest rule because they provide the most limited range of choice – when you are walking along the beach at the beginning of the game you can at least walk in the water, on the sand, or on the rocks, but in the cave you can only move straight forward.

            Dear Esther has an outcome: after about two hours of walking, you climb a seemingly endless stair-lined incline, reach the top of the lighthouse, and “take flight.” The player, I would argue because at least I did, has an emotional attachment to the outcome. However, because the player has no influence on the outcome, and because there is only one possible outcome (excluding the possibility of not finishing the game as an outcome) Dear Esther cannot be considered a game.
Works Cited and Consulted:
MacDonald, Keza. “Dear Esther Review”. 13 February 2012. Web. <             /articles/2012/02/13/dear-esther-review>
Pinsof, Allistair. “Review: Dear Esther”. 13 Febraury 2012. Web. http://www.destructoi
Whitson, Jennifer. “FCJ-106 Rule Making and Rule Breaking: Game Development and the           Governance of Emergent Behavior”. The Fibreculture Journal Issue 16 2010. Web.            <http://six    development-  and-the-governance-of-emergent-behaviour/>


Adam said...

Since you bring up modern art - would most modern artists, or perhaps your art history professor, agree that art is purely subjective, or that "everything is art"? Note that your reading in Marcuse over the last couple weeks has often returned to this question, in one way or the other.

My point isn't that you're *wrong* to have this point of view. But you seem to take it as a given when the story here is really much more complicated (for instance, we might argue that because of "Fountain" and similar works, we are now in a historical moment where we broadly think that art is subjective/contextual rather than be objective).

Note that even you retreat from this emphasis on subjectivity, into the more demanding idea that art involves some kind of exploration.

I thought your discussion of what a game *is* was both precise and highly relevant. You pick the same foundational rule (the boundaries) as I would have picked, and you also focus on the singularity of the outcome (although it is true that many, many games have a linear path ending in only one good outcome, although we might be able to fail in many ways along the way). But I do think there was an opportunity to push yourself much harder - and also to return less flippantly to the issue/relevance of Modernism - by putting some pieces together. The game strips both rules and outcomes to their absolute formal essentials - and yet there is still *something* there (if only as pure form). What I'm trying to point out is that tendency of the game to strip out the content of the forms as much as possible, while retaining a ghost of the forms themselves, is a potentially very useful way of thinking about modernism (I'm thinking of Kandinsky, for instance, as a good reference point).

I'm wandering a little, so let me summarize. You introduce a great way of thinking about Dear Esther in the beginning, but don't follow through on it. You move intelligently to the topic of form at the end, but in many ways that's where you should have begun. In the middle you argue that it's basically a book - which isn't a bad argument, but it's one that should be made in detail, through examples (to me, that's like arguing that films are books - you are separating the screen play from its context and elevating the importance of the words over the visuals, without explaining why).

There's a lot of good material here, but you're not making the connections you could be between your own introduction and conclusion.

Maggie Stankaitis said...

You make really great points of why Dear Esther should be considered art, but most of the points are not interconnected and support why it ISN’T a game. I think you need to make your standing argument clearer by stating that you believe that Dear Esther is an art rather than just a game. As it stands now it just seems to me like you are stating reasons why Dear Esther is artistic, which you could argue for a lot of video games.

I think you could delve in deeper into the details of the game, also, to support your argument.

In my opinion your best, and my favorite, point that you made was, “Luckily, it was not difficult to view Dear Esther as art because of its strong resemblance to literature.” Unfortunately, though, you only make this connection for a few sentences, but I think this is an interesting point and could make for an entire essay and argument within itself. Compare it to other literature, ghost stories, genres, etc.

Overall I see good points, but a lack of coherence throughout your essay. I think had you formulated a more specific thesis/argument that this could have been a stronger essay.