Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Work of Art, But Not a Game

        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
The sole issue with using the limited Britannica definition is how overly vague it is. By this definition, even Microsoft Word counts as a video game, as long as writing counts as an interactive and recreational experience (it does). By technical merit, the

        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
The game is art by its ability to evoke emotions in the player, and that was certainly accomplished. Furthermore, the combination of fantastic visuals and music independently count as art. To create a world as immersive as this, with a score that allows prompts you to move forward,
Flower Gameplay, from
On the surface, it’s not the most captivating of experiences, but the combination of chiming music, visual cohesiveness, and the peaceful nature emotion of the game when finishing a level are wonderful. Journey takes a different approach. It has similar art style and wonderful music, but it also takes become art because it is able to connect two different people in a meaningful manner, without any direct communication between the two people.
Journey Gameplay, from
You work to finish a goal communicating only by action, and yet, still feel a sense of companionship by the end of the game. In both cases, the games are art because they are able to connect with the player, on a basic quality of design, and on an emotional level. Dear Esther may not fit into the traditional definition of a game, but it is art.

        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.

Works Cited

"electronic game." Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. <>.

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. <>.

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.


Jessica Craig said...

Your opening paragraph, and especially your last sentence, left me slightly confused about what your essay was going to be about. Is Dear Esther a game or not? Or is it art? The opening paragraph seems to also contradict the title where you assert indefinitely that Dear Esther is not a game but is in fact art. I agree that your essay should examine arguments for and against Dear Esther being a game or art, but maybe in your opening paragraph make it more clear which you have ultimately decided. Paragraph two continues in the same manner. Dear Esther fits the definition given by the encyclopedia but then you say that definition doesn’t really count because it is so vague.
I think paragraph three is where you begin better analysis toward some sort of answer. You state, “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.” You are arguing that, while the player does interact with the game, the degree of interaction is not enough to satisfy that definition of a game. To add to this, or perhaps in conclusion to this, can you put forth your definition of a game?
I like that you give a clear reason why Dear Esther is art when you say, “The game is art by its ability to evoke emotions in the player, and that was certainly accomplished. Furthermore, the combination of fantastic visuals and music independently count as art.” However, you had just spent the entire first half of your essay disproving that Dear Esther is not a game, but then you refer to it as a game. So maybe you do really think it is a game even though you made the argument that it was not? This might be an interesting point to bring up in a revision, why do we all seem to refer to it as a game even though many of us made the argument it was not a game but is art? Maybe this is because we were introduced to Dear Esther as a game and not a piece of art.

Adam said...

Your intro is wordy, but bringing up Journey & Flower as context is smart. I hope you do something cool with that.

It's interesting that you use a definition focusing on a contest or rivalry - I could have done with a brief explanation, at least, of why that definition works for you.

You have a very long and very dense paragraph where you dance around the subject of defining what a game is. Curiously, you never do it - you end up sort of throwing your hands in the air and saying basically that a game is whatever *you* think is important. If you're going to do that, the obvious thing is to delve into your own personal experience & viewpoint, and explain what is important to you and why. In other words, if you really think it's a personal matter, then your obvious next task is to *make* it personal.

At the end, you're beginning to shift your ground and tentatively define what art *is*. You center it around the generation of emotion: Journey and Flower are works of art because they are fundamentally about emotional expression. Incidentally, we call the matching movement in visual art (which was extremely influential on early comic books / graphic novels, a relevant fact for next week) *Expressionism.

So you've moved from arguing that how we define a game is really a personal/subjective matter to arguing that the function or nature of art is to produce (subjective, personal) emotion.

All of this makes for a rather interesting essay at the end of the day. About 75% percent of it would need to be cut if you revised, but you *do*, in fact, have a point of view about what is important and valuable in art- and maybe you're getting to the point where you can think about what the relationship is between games and art either in general or in particular (maybe this is really an essay more about Flower than it is about Dear Esther - Dear Esther might retreat into the background).

I agree with all of Jess's observations, give or take - like me, she sees you as shifting your ground a lot!