The definition of art is surrounded by a fair amount of subjectivity. Film critic Roger Ebert “set off an intense debate among members of both the film and video game industries… by stating that video games are fundamentally inferior to film and literature as an artistic medium and that video games could never move ‘beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art’,” (Hall). He gives evidence to his definition of art when stating, "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control" (Hall). While his analysis of all video games lacking “authorial control” is at least moderately imprecise, more dramatically incorrect is his definition that authorial control is a requisite of art. The concept of authorial control may be considered as a useful feature of a piece of art expressing the creator’s meaning; however, it should be rejected as the fundamental basis for defining artwork. It is the exact notion that there is some collaboration between artist and audience that gives a work a stature of art. The Chinese Room, a British-based video game developer, powerfully promotes audience involvement to immersing degrees in games like “Dear Esther.”
Undoubtedly, “Dear Esther” is constructed upon three main layers of artistic creations, each of which could be classified as a “work of art.” These layers are its storyline (including the poetic letters of the narrator), its graphic design and world generation, and its music score. With a mysterious narrator introducing the game and world, the player is necessarily vulnerable to his intermittent injections of story elements. However, these spoken letters almost entirely refrain from concrete explanations. The large amount of symbolism and ambiguity forces the player to interject their own creativity to fill the cavernous gaps of the story line. This becomes abundantly evident as players of the game discuss their experience with the game, expounded by the result that each playthrough offers a new order and presentation of letters. The story of the narrator is not only his own, but the story that each individual creates with the narrator. And while this creation of a unique story helps to give players their attachment to the game, the sensory involvement drags the player into the game entirely. The music score of “Dear Esther” helps players note important times of narration, or even just unease the player with a resounding hum of a bass string or tinkling skeleton keys. The sensory marvel is completed with beautifully crafted bio-illuminencent caves and rolling hill line against the foggy sea. With these two senses being exercised entirely, the player is almost inevitably drawn into their avatar so they may experience the island first-handedly. While each is impressive, these facets do not necessitate the definition of art, or an art-game, upon “Dear Esther”. The consequence of these works is that the game as a whole becomes immersing and that the player imposes himself upon the game. This injection into the avatar provides the initial evidence needed to justify “Dear Esther” as a work of art in video game medium.
It is this ability to submerse audiences that afford players their own unique, as Gee puts it, “trajectory through the game.” While not the only example of a video game and video game developer that works towards intimate levels of player involvement in the story, “Dear Esther” and The Chinese Room provide a fairly modern example of this idea. Gee uses the example of the 1997 title “Castlevania: Symphony of Night” to emphasize the idea of player collaboration with developers to create a story based on two stories: the story which developers create a background and base, and the trajectory which players experience based on their decisions and events that will occur in different orders. This experience is the exact requisite for Gee to consider a video game as art (Gee). “Dear Esther” magnifies this concept by the extent with which the player controls the trajectory of the story with fairly strong control over their story and the deeper level of “visual-auditory-decision-making symphony.” As previously examined, the modern level of video game technology can more convincingly simulate a virtual reality, and the player decisions are equally as shaping in “Dear Esther.”
“Dear Esther” is successful in providing ample opportunity for players to identify with, or even implant themselves upon the avatar of the game. But how does identifying with the avatar matter and how does it help to justify the video game as a piece of art? An example from my own experience of play through is useful in answering this. A few times in “Dear Esther,” the player encounters awe-inspiring, terrifying abysses that beg inspection. The first is at the base of a hill guarded partially by railing. Though at this point in the story, the narrator, avatar, and even myself have developed pervasive, agonizing despair, I could not bring myself to face the fate of jumping into this abyss, though it called to me. I knew this wasn’t the time for me to end my story, there was far more to be pondered. The house and ariel in the distance beckoned me on. But that feeling was far different when reaching the radio tower when the character made its final flight. I knew that was how the game and my story had to end. This level of identification with the avatar was complete; I couldn’t bring myself to just experiment with what was in the abyss because I felt like that was not the way I needed to go to find my answers. Remarkably, this fits even Ebert’s idea of authorial control in a more subtle way. “You are led, without ever really feeling like you are being led, by subtle visual cues that stand out against the landscape and draw you towards them,” (MacDonland). Dear Esther interestingly blends a degree of a concrete storyline with player independence. While the notion of authorial control should be considered as a characteristic of art, it is hardly the defining attribute of a form of art.
Video games critic Allister Pinsof appears to mildly buy into Ebert’s idea of authorial control. He questions the medium in which the story of “Dear Esther” is presented and wonders if it is better suited to film in order to abbreviate the part of the game he distastes. “You can also explore parts that aren’t worth exploring: Pathways that lead nowhere, caves with the same assets copy-and-pasted, and dead-ends that will make you curse the game’s painfully snail-paced walking speed.” He also goes on to imply that he would rather see the game as an animated film using video game engines (Pinsof). This would end in complete authorial control; however this has the dangerous possibility of sacrificing the necessary immersion. No film format could entirely pull an audience in as video game format because of the lack of control the player has and thus destroying identity with the avatar. While films may invoke empathy and emotion, this is an insufficient means of portraying the story that the developers intend. Pinsof’s criticism of “Dear Esther” as boring are highly subjective, and as creator of the original 2008 “Dear Esther” mod to “Half-Life 2” might respond to claims of its entertainment value, “sometimes you want Chuck Norris and sometimes you want something with a different mood or flavor,” (Pinchbeck). The effect of slow-paced walking may be tedious to some population of players should not insist that the game loses player control and resort to a film media. The consequence of losing identity with the character would be severely counter-productive on the artist format of the video game.
While many games from “Castlevania” to “Dear Esther” allow players to imprint their own unique comprehension on the story, the game play of “Dear Esther” is uniquely able to go beyond and draw the player into the avatar inhabiting the generated world. This collaboration between the developers and players in creation of a story is, for many, the defining factor of art in video game format. The Chinese Room created a game in “Dear Esther” that is pure in its intent to draw in an audience through an interactive fiction and give players the ability to use their own creativity to bring life to the corpse of a work of art.
Gee, J. P. "Why Game Studies Now? Video Games: A New Art Form." Games and Culture 1.1 (2006): 58-61. Print.
Pinchbeck, Dan. Interview by Cameron, Phil. "Moved by Mod: Dear Esther's Dan Pinchbeck." Gamasutra. July 1, 2009 2009.