The prevailing perception of a video game resembles software like the Call of Duty franchise by Activision, a combat heavy, fast paced, and aggressive experience focused on excitement and film-like experiences. These games care more about how many guns there are to use than leaving the player with an emotional impact. On the flip side of this perception is the idea of more cerebral games. This type of game places more importance on player interaction with the environment, and creating an emotional impact within the player over how many people the player has virtually killed. Games of this nature include items like Journey or Flower, both by thatgamecompany. Tossed into this divide of definitions is the game Dear Esther, by developer The Chinese Room. Initially developed as a mod to the popular Half-life 2 game (by Valve), Dear Esther sells itself as a game, but is a wholly different experience than a modern military shooter. Dear Esther is in fact a video game only because the term video game is inherently vague, but is better defined as an “interactive experience”, while still counting as art.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a video game (electronic game) is defined as “any interactive game operated by computer circuitry” (Electronic Game) and later defines game as “universal form of recreation generally including any activity engaged in for diversion or amusement and often establishing a situation that involves a contest or rivalry” (Game). What’s notable about this definition about a video game is that it makes no mention of combat, or fast-paced action, or even a mandate of “winning the game”. A video game just needs to be interactive and played on an electronic device. By this definition, Dear Esther must be a video game, because that is exactly what it does. The program is played on a computer, and is interactive by way of allowing the player lead his or her own way through a mysterious environment at their own pace, and discover parts of the island and the story behind the island as they go on. Dear Esther is a video game.
|New Environments in Dear Esther|
Moving away from the encyclopedic definition, the better way to evaluate the status of Dear Esther is by its critics and commentators. The issue leveled by many reviewers of this game is that the mode of interaction (limited to walking around) is not enough to quantify this as a game, a position that I agree with. As Allistair Pinsof stated in the review for Destructoid: “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. At one point, my finger became so tired that I mapped the “Forward”-command to my right-mouse button. […] The bigger problem with Dear Esther is that it revolves entirely around moving forward without providing any momentum, incentive, or even a clear path (at times).” (Pinsof). The criticism here is that just walking to reveal contents of the story are not enough; a game should have a more active form of interaction. Dear Esther’s entire game is based on the character being washed up on an island, and then navigates the island, while a narrator reads letters addressed to Esther, which describe the history of the island, what the narrator was doing in the island, and what may have happened to Esther on the mainland, all while the player navigates the character through the strange environment, full of strange paintings, discarded cargo, derelict ships, and rotting chemistry textbooks. Player interaction is limited to movement, and the only real choice the player makes is how long to explore each particular location before moving on. Even crouching or turning on a light, hallmarks of exploratory video games, are left to the software’s control, not the players. The only impact the player has on the game is on how long the game lasts. Beyond that, all control is in the hands of the program. The game focuses on the player’s experience in navigating strange and beautiful environments, while being led on to the next area through a haunting score and the desire to reveal more of the story behind the game through the narrator. It lacks the kill-kill-kill mentality of shooting games, or even the mind-bending nature of puzzle games. The greatest parallel I can draw to Dear Esther is the game Amnesia, where the interactivity of the game is limited to walking around in a horror-movie type environment. In both cases, the plot and the emotions evoked in the player are the only things keeping the player moving forward, there is no other incentive to continue. The game only lasts so long as quickly as the player moves through the content. Keza MacDonald of IGN stated “As a piece of visualized fiction, Esther is a wonderful thing, but judged purely as a video game it has obvious failings” (MacDonald). MacDonald believes that the limited interactivity made it more akin to a choose-your-own-adventure novel, a work of interactive fiction, but not a game. That mirrored my experience as well. Playing the game, I felt as if I was more along for the ride, more so than I was actually playing. The game was highly immersive, due to the fantastic level design and music, but I never felt as if I was playing, just watching a movie where I controlled the camera. Paul Goodman, on the review for the Escapist, stated: “When it all comes down to it, Dear Esther is a game that puts story over gameplay, and in many ways successfully creates a unique experience. That being said, Dear Esther isn't for everyone. If you're the type of gamer who feels most comfortable with a laser assault rifle at your side, then you might not enjoy what makes Dear Esther unique. If you're the type who believes that games can be art or tell an interesting story, then Dear Esther may be more your style” (Goodman). And that’s exactly what occurs here. The game makes sure the story and exploration is the priority, with the requirement of how “game”-ey it feels as a secondary concern, and an opinion left up to the player. Christopher Franklin (Campster), a video game critic, made the video “That’s No Moon…”, wherein he discusses the game/not-a-game dichotomy, stating that in the interest of fostering variety in digital experiences, defining a game is only important to the person playing it, and less about the mechanics of the game (Franklin). Choosing to say Dear Esther is not a game is just based on personal experience on what a game is to you, simply because there are too many varied metrics to define what a video game truly is. For me, I believe that Dear Esther is not a game, just because the player has no impact on the outcome, only on how quickly the end comes. It is a wonderful experience, but not interactive enough to qualify as a game.
That being said, stating the game is more of an “interactive experience” more so than a real video game does not preclude it from being actual art. The work put into the game, including level design, music, and scripting is top notch, and the program is really able to evoke emotions in the player. By the end of the game, I felt truly sad for the narrator, who seemed to slowly drop into madness, wonderment at what happened at the island, and awe for the amount of painting/graffiti the narrator was able to do, in such a stylistic form. The game was able to evoke in me a sense of mystery, as the cave drawings that went from chemical structures, to electrical circuit diagrams, to depictions of neurons were merged into single drawings, and that, combined with the biblical quotes that described Paul’s transformation on the road to Damascus, left me intrigued.Dear Esther stands as art because it represents an experience just as immersive and emotional as any movie or painting. Looking at video games as a whole, the games that are easier to describe as real art are not the games that rely on shooting and killing as the sole mechanic, but the games that place more importance on how the player interacts with the software, and the emotions that come from the experiences. Going back to the example of Flower and Journey, both of these games rely on how the player interacts in beautiful settings. The importance is on finishing the content, yes, but also on the emotions evoked. Flower has the player controlling the wind, and with a goal of pollinating the environment, getting all the flowers to bloom.
|Strange Drawings in Dear Esther|
|Flower Gameplay, from http://www.indiegames.com/images/timw/flower2b.jpg|
|Journey Gameplay, from http://www.theaveragegamer.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Journey-Co-op-Barrems.jpg|
The distinction between game and not a game is highly personal, as it speaks to the individuals definition to describe how much interaction, and what method of interaction, are appropriate to define a game. To me personally, Dear Esther is not a game, but more of an interactive experience, because the player interaction is minimal on its effect on the software, but the software is able to completely immerse the player into the environment. Once again, Dear Esther is more like a movie with the camera controlled by the player than a full on game. However, even if Dear Esther is not a game, it can still be art. The software deftly manipulates the emotions of the player, and is able to evoke true feelings of wonderment, mystery, and sadness through the use of music and level design. Dear Esther is not game, but it is clearly a work of art.
"electronic game." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/183800/electronic-game>.
Franklin, Christopher. "That’s No Game…." Errant Signal. N.p., 16 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
"game." Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/224863/game>.
Goodman, Paul. "Dear Esther Review." The Escapist. N.p., 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
All images are screen-shots of my own playing, unless otherwise noted.