Thursday, February 27, 2014

Relying on Art to Entertain

                Concluding my personal experience playing the video game Dear Esther and after reading the reviews of others, I am inclined to conclude that Dear Esther can be considered a game but one that focuses on art more strongly to entertain the players.  In this paper, I argue that the game contains all the necessary components to be classified as a video game but has a much stronger presence of art than most other video games.
First, let us observe the definition of a video game and see how it applies to the three games we have played so far; Zork, Portal, and Dear Esther.   Merriam-Webster’s definition of a video game states that a video game is “an electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen.”  This definition obviously applies to all three of the games, if in the case of Zork the changing text is considered an image portrayed by the computer system to the player.  Merriam-Webster then defines a game in general as “a physical or mental activity or contest that has rules and that people do for pleasure.” Again this definition applies to all three games.  Mental activity is required to interact with the games in a constructive manner to produce entertainment. 
Next, let us consider the different structures present within the games.  Both Zork and Portal rely heavily on player interaction with the game environment to proceed through them to the end.  In Zork players must move around the text-represented world and interact with it to progress by picking up items and finding treasure.  Throughout Portal, players must continuously be engaged with their environment, altering it with the portal gun to advance through the levels and moving objects like blocks to activate doors.  However, in Dear Esther this level of stimulus from the player is almost entirely absent.  To completely finish the game the player simply needs to hold down the ‘W’ key on the keyboard and direct the screen with the mouse to discover the correct path to take by means of trial and error.  Finding the correct path is the extremely minimal interaction with the environment that is present in Dear Esther, there are no items to discover, enemies to defeat, or puzzles to solve. 
Without the mental stimulus involved with reacting to and manipulating the environment, Dear Esther engages the player with phenomenal visual stimulation from the game environment to entertain the player.  Zork completely lack pictures and therefore does not present this form of entertainment to the players, instead it relies on the interaction with the environment for entertainment.  Portal has visual stimulation but it does not rely on it for all of its entertainment, instead it focuses more on the interaction with the environment to make the game entertaining.  Since Dear Esther relies so heavily on the visual stimulation of its environment to entertain the player, the detail of the scenery had to stand out much more than other games.  In short, the game had to develop into a more prominent work of art in order to grasp and hold onto the player’s attention.

The screen shots above shows the difference in graphical detail between Portal and Dear Esther.  It is clear that Dear Esther has much more detail and is more visually appealing than Portal.  There is more to consider, however, about what makes Dear Esther stand out from other games as having a stronger reliance on art to provide entertainment.  As the player is wondering around, sometimes a short narrative will begin.  These narratives are really rich in language and tell parts of a story to the player.  More and more about the story is revealed as the player continues through the game.  This literary tale is also a work of art that engages the player to want to continue progressing in the game to learn more about it.  Short narratives by GLADoS are present in Portal but they are from the monotone voice of a computer and are simple descriptions of events that occurred, they lack the intriguing rhetoric present in Dear Esther.   

The reviews of Dear Esther all classify it as a game, but one that goes against the current ideas of what a video game is.  Pinsof’s review of Dear Esther articulates the same ideas portrayed previously in this paper.  He states that while the game is indeed a game because it has “rules and narrative triggers” it is less entertaining because it lacks the interaction typically included in other games (Pinsof).  MacDonald from IGN observes the game as a work of art used to tell a story and expresses his thoughts that the game illustrates the idea that “games have plenty of directions left to explore” (MacDonald).  Here she is saying that Dear Esther provides a new direction for the world of gaming; interactive storytelling.  Both reviews critique Dear Esther as lacking the interaction with the environment typically seen in videogames but also find it entertaining because of the immense graphical details of the game and the confusing yet mentally stimulating narrative.   In short, Dear Esther is a game that attempts to entertain its players by thoroughly relying on visual and literary art instead of the typical player interaction with the game’s environment as seen in other video games.


Pinsof, Allistair. Review: Dear Esther. Destructoid. February 13, 2012. 

Keza, MacDonald. Dear Esther Review. IGN. February 13, 2012.

Merriam-Webster. Definitions for Video Game and Game. 

Dear Esther. Computer Game. (2012).

Portal. Computer Game. (2007).


Jessica Merrill said...

I agree with all the ideas in your essay, but I'm having a hard time forming all of them into an argument. You're thesis at the beginning makes sense, and is supported by most of the essay, but you also have a lot of other ideas scattered throughout. For the first two paragraphs, you incorporate Portal and Zork into your argument. At this point, it seems like you are trying to define them as well, like they should be part of your thesis. For a revision, you could either expand on these, defining them as video games or art or both.Your last body paragraph and your conclusion focus more on what you are trying to argue, but they still have drifting ideas. You still make points about the other video games in the last body paragraph, and the conclusion says a lot about the reviews without tying them up as nicely as they could be.

Like I said before, I really like your ideas. This essay would be great for a revision, because I think you could expand a lot on almost all the ideas you have here. In this form, though, they do not have enough support or context for them to all be justifiably part of your argument. The supporting facts somehow get lost.

Adam said...

I'm not opposed to your dictionary definitions, but I would like to better understand what you find attractive about them. I thought your compact discussion of Zork and images was clever, incidentally, and I do think it's smart to incorporate a definition of "game" along with one of "video game".

I thought your compact discussion of what unifies Zork and Portal vs. Dear Esther was very good. Maybe I'm being obnoxious, but I think this line could have used a little further discussion: "Finding the correct path is the extremely minimal interaction with the environment that is present in Dear Esther, there are no items to discover, enemies to defeat, or puzzles to solve. " While on the surface that's entirely true, I think one path to interpreting the game - if we call it that - is to argue that the enemies, puzzles and items are all *internalized*. Maybe that's silly, but I think the difference between external and internal is crucial here.

Your discussion of the qualitative visual differences between Portal and Dear Esther could be expanded. We need to start by acknowledging that both games choose to look the way they do - so what do those choices mean? Do we need to call the pretty scenery of DE "art" as opposed to the stark minimalism of Portal? Go into any museum of modern art, and you'll see plenty of minimalism, as well as plenty of work that's not conventionally pretty. To put it another way, the contrasting visuals are a good topic, and you're by no means handling it badly - but collapsing "pretty" into "artistic", which seems to be what you're doing, is certainly problematic.

Similarly, you collapse "artistic" into "entertaining" as well as into "pretty" at the end. Again, this is not necessarily an absurd thing to do - you may have some interpretive insights to offer on this basis, but it requires a little bit of justification and self-awareness for it to work.

Overall: Despite the strengths of each individual paragraph, I'm not sure at the end what you're really trying to say. Given the wealth of your individual insights, I would have liked to see a little more vision from you on how we should understand (or accept, or reject, etc.) Dear Esther.

Note that Jess says a lot of the same things as I said in my "overall" section - the whole here is less than the sum of its parts, but the parts have a lot of potential.