In Art and Liberation, Marcuse states that, “Every work of art is consummate in this sense, self-sufficient, meaningful and as such it disturbs you, consoles you, and reconciles you with life” (Miles 103). Through the analysis of One-Dimensional Man, as well as pieces of Marcuse’s other works, it can be said that in both the Marcusian and the common definition, Dear Esther can undoubtedly be considered art. Scenery, paintings, and music create a beautiful canvas, and make the game art in aesthetic sense. The form in which it is played and how the aesthetically pleasing aspects of the game are executed gives the players of Dear Esther a chance to find meaning in the art through negation.
Dear Esther takes on the form of a video game, a medium that is tied to technology at its roots. Marcuse argues that although technology and art are traditionally separated (as the beautiful and the useful), the distinction can be collapsed and they can become one (Miles 104). In One-Dimensional Man, he further states that that, recently, art has been absorbed into the prevailing state of affairs, taking the form of commercials to sell, comfort, and excite (Marcuse 64). Presented as a video game, Dear Esther takes on the form of commercial art. Reconciling these two seemingly opposite entities, we can start defining how Dear Esther is art in the ways that Marcuse defines it.
Visuals, music, and verbal narrative all bring a distracting element to a very simple storyline. The game is essentially a walk-through, with very little interaction with the surroundings other than observing the environment. Since looking and walking is all there is to do, the game suggests that the experience of the game is in what is seen, not what is done. The opportunities the game gives the player to interact with the environment, while not always blatant, demonstrate that it has a layer other than the walk-through: a layer that is open for player interpretation. Players interact with both engaging and somewhat boring environments, and these have different effects. A player could easily play and finish the game without taking pause to view or think about the visuals. Ignoring the beauty and intricacies of the game would be a conscious decision at some points, but many omissions are made because the player may not think the place has significance; that it is not worth a look around even if that is one of the purposes of the game. To the player who is paying attention to the scenery, some parts of the game are more distracting than others. Walking through the caves, it is hard not to stop and look around in awe at the beauty. On the other hand, walking along the meadows in the second chapter of the game seems to be more of an obstacle on your way to something bigger. If the player chooses to interpret the visuals, both of the kinds create a different feeling in the player: a feeling that comes from estrangement, of the art as Marcuse defines it.
According to Marcuse, art has the power of negation (Marcuse 63). It can make the observer realize something about our world that could not have been realized through any other object. It creates something called estrangement, which dissociates the viewer from their world and allows them to recognize the world as what it truly is (Marcuse 67). Dear Esther has this effect on its players through many different parts of the game.
The scenery in the first half of Dear Esther is pretty, but not completely engaging. It may remind the player of a pleasant, though somewhat cloudy, day on the shore. The player walks at a life-like pace that is frustrating for a game. Frustration also emerges when actions possible in real life are not actually possible, like climbing onto shipwrecked boats or up slopes that are not terrifyingly steep. Becoming completely engrossed in gameplay, it is easy to experience the narrative of the game as real. Once brought back to reality by the differences, the player can reflect on how the story might have related to them. In an interactive game that is so similar to the human experience, knowing that Dear Esther is a game leaves the players searching for differences from reality. The musical score and voiced narrative create an easily found difference. The music is mostly piano and strings, but sometimes voices are heard when trying to set a “creepy” mood. It adds emotion and anticipation to the game, fading in and out to emphasize moments of narrative significance (MacDonald). In this way, it works very well within the story. In addition, the voiced over narrative adds another layer of artistry, in a literature sense. The voice creates a story through letters to Esther, speaking in intelligent and carefully-crafted language. It uses metaphors and complex descriptions, as well as alluding to ideas without clearly stating them. These letters are the epitome of poetic language. The mystery and scarcity of the pieces of the letters make them special. All the aesthetics of the first part of the game create a life-like scene with some breaks from realism, which are important in the capability of Dear Esther to create the estrangement effect.
Reminding the players that they are actually interacting with a game instead of reality creates the negation in the life-like parts of Dear Esther. It is not through beautiful art that the players see their life, but in the interruptions of the simple gameplay. The distractions force the player to step back from the storyline and think about how it relates to the other layer. How does the narration relate to where they player is walking? What is the music saying about what the player is doing, or where they are headed? The breaks from realism also beg the question: why isn’t it possible to do what the player is trying to do? What should the player be doing instead? The added and blocked-off elements make the player think about what they are doing in the game and its significance, which very well may lead them to bigger meanings. Arriving at these lessons is just what negation aims to do to its players.
The ultimate break in realism comes from the second part of the game, especially the caves. The beautiful caves are one example of spectacular visuals that take the player’s attention easily. The pieces that need interpreting stand out, and in this example they literally glow. The paintings in the caves are done with neon paint, and candles light the way to important areas and finally the end of the cave.
These scenes are estranging such that they are so dissimilar to our world. Up to this point, the game has contained more common scenery, and the introduction of the beautiful complexity of the cave makes it necessary for us to find similarites, instead of differences. The player struggles to find connections between the visuals of the first half of the game and the latter half. If it looks nothing alike, how can parts of it connect back to the first part, and more importantly reality? This question takes the player a step back, and allows Dear Esther the chance at having a negating effect.
In Negations, Marcuse states, “Ideal beauty was the form in which yearning could be expressed and happiness enjoyed. Thus art become the presage of possible truth” (Vivas 141). The visuals, music, and narration in Dear Esther are undoubtedly beautiful. They also lead us towards truth. In a game that is both realistic and the exact opposite, Dear Esther creates the estrangement effect in that it leads us to ponder the relationship to our own lives. With the simple storyline guiding us to pay attention to environments and meanings, players make many layers of connections. After the player understands the relationship between the two parts of the game, the next logical step is connecting it to reality. This connection is created by the estrangement effect of the game, and is the goal of art, according to Marcuse. Therefore, in the Marcusian definition, Dear Esther is a beautiful and powerful piece of technological, commercial art.
Works Cited and Consulted
MacDonald, Kenza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.
Miles, Malcolm. Herbert Marcuse: An Aesthetics of Liberation. London: Pluto, 2012. Print.
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Vivas, Eliseo (1970). "Marcuse on Art". Modern age (Chicago) (0026-7457), 14, p. 140.