About 15 years ago when I received the Sony PlayStation I was absolutely amazed by the world of video games. I was instantly addicted and often played for hours nonstop. From that moment on I was enthralled by the entire experience from beginning to end. At no point did I ever consider the protagonist or even the scenery placed in front of me as art, though. It wasn’t until playing Dear Esther that this all changed for me. Prompted with a question like “should the video game Dear Esther be considered art?” made me reflect on my understanding of what art actually is. According to the Merriam-Webster definition of art it is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” Of the infinite interpretations that exist for the word art the aforementioned definition best fits what Dear Esther is. It is a creative game which relies heavily on its imagery, symbolism, and poetry to be beautifully expressive and artistic. Thus, Dear Esther should be considered an artistic experience which transcends the classification of a mere video game, and instead should be seen as an exceptionally crafted artistic gaming experience.
Enter the world of Dear Esther. We begin our journey by standing on an unknown and uninhabited island just a few feet from the shore. There are instant subtle cues right in front of us that any gamer would embrace, like walking toward the decrepit old cabin. At first, MacDonald felt just as I did, saying “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.” We are plunged into this game with no directions, and for me at least, no clue how to even move at first. But once we learn how to walk it’s quite easy to be struck by the captivating scenery that surrounds us. This is where the beauty is really exemplified to the player. The sweeping sound of the shore, the mammoth Cliffside in the distance, and the skyline torn open just enough to emit a beam of sublime light, which alone, and to some, could provide as much realism and beauty comparable only to a museum painting. But this beauty is even more demonstrated when the narrator begins his poetic monologue from what can only be understood as fragmented journal entries to someone named Esther. The music provided with our journey can be quite moving and sometimes even quite eerie when the dark piano score begins to play. The gaming reviewer Pinsof felt “Dear Esther is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played at points, overcoming any sense of dullness the rest of the experience put me through.” The latter segments, especially when inside the cave, felt like pressing the “W” key was giving us the ability to explore the objectified canvas of our computer screens.
Since Dear Esther really puts its masterful landscapes and emotionally striking monologue at the forefront, this must prompt mindful players to deliberate whether it should ascend from the ranks of sheer video games and into the category of art. Over the past decade many artists, developers, critics, and fans of video games have been making a push for these beloved interactive forms of entertainment to receive the credit that they are due, to be seen as a form of art. Recently, the Smithsonian American Art Museum put out an exhibition entitled The Art of Video Games which chronicles the past 40-years of gaming. The Smithsonian is documented saying they have an “ongoing commitment to the study and preservation of video games as an artistic medium" (McCormick). Museum’s acknowledging the gaming industry’s creations are vital for altering the perspective of an art community that still remains somewhat ignorant towards games being viewed as art. Curator Chris Melissinos has a unique perspective on games and the daunting task it can be to transform them into art. He testifies "all that technology does is provide the artist with a canvas with which to paint. Unless the story and mechanics are good on their own, it will never be a good game.” (Palm Beach Post). Mark M. Johnson, Director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, draws parallels between the two forms and feels a video games imagery and interactive nature create a unique story to help with that engagement between gameplay and player. Johnson believes “like film or animation, video games are considered a compelling, influential, and engaging form of narrative art.” These acknowledgements alone are groundbreaking and could very well be considered a revolution in both the world of art and gaming. It doesn’t end there, however, while video games continue to gain recognition from museums, schools like MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Cal Arts, UC Irvine, and NYU have created programs solely for concentrating on the development of these games, supporting the notion that art oriented schools are showing supreme interest with video games as a means of electronic art (Smuts).
In Dear Esther, even with its simplistic, yet attractive form, it can at times take a semi-conventional approach as a game. First, the controls are rather simple and common and can be summed up abruptly. You can walk forward, backward, and laterally at a rather snail-like pace, zoom in minutely, swim up when in the water, and when you embrace the darkness of some of the buildings and caves a flashlight automatically comes out. As Pinsof so bluntly puts it “you literally hold down the “W”-key for 70 minutes -- even ducking, the only other action, is automatic.” His statement is not too far from the truth. We may be simply guiding our player through this Hebridean Island picking up pieces of the story as we go, but this isn’t just walking with no cause and you’re surely not spoon fed the entire game. Like many other games, you must in fact find and walk along the correct paths in order to advance in the narrative portion of the game. If you feel like venturing into the dark waters like I did, you’ll find that you can even die by drowning. When we begin to drown in the water we see a dark flashback to what looks like a shipwrecked boat, thus providing a rather powerful message. Our shipwrecked protagonist is barely holding onto life and reality without his dearest Esther. So, the point is, it takes some work to unwind the artistry behind the game. You must move in the right directions to prompt the narration and observe the entirety of the scenery in order to evoke the deep, artistic qualities to this game. In the end it’s the imagery and story that make this a powerful piece of art, not its controls.
A very critical piece in justifying Dear Esther as art is through the use of narrative qualities throughout the game. Consequently, the plot and gameplay would seemingly become entirely one-dimensional and devoid without the storytelling from our mysterious narrator. As Pinsof eloquently puts it, “even when the words fall flat, voice actor Nigel Carrington makes them come alive with a rare spirit. He adds a weight to the syllables that make them sink into your gut,” and the heart. Some critics have heated contentions that video games are only a form of gameplay and nothing more, but there are “narratologists such as Janet Murray, [who] argue that video games can and should become more narrative-driven in order to realize their artistic potential” (Smuts). Dear Esther accomplishes just that by forcing the player to piece the cryptic narrative together in order to form a vivid understanding of the events that took place prior to our protagonists inhabiting the island.
When the narrator relays to us a disjointed story of a car accident it almost seems random and may be written off. However, later in the game during nightfall as we climb from the caves we see candles scattered along several parts of the beach. They only become revealing when we approach them intentionally surrounding several pictures of a woman, and later more candles enclosing various parts of a car. Here, the narration and the the mournful scene in front of us are essential to us to interpret the game as art or just another game. Dear Esther and its narrative interactivity is important to note because “some game styles make story and characterization an integral part of the experience they give to the players” (Ince 17). Dear Esther is a one-trick pony of sorts where it relies primarily on its symbolism to give momentum to the game and ultimately to the player by assuming the perspective of the protagonist and by gaining background knowledge through the detailed journal entries; without it we would be just as lost as he is. It is constantly relayed to us through our shipwrecked narrator’s feelings of anguish, despair, and hopelessness as we arrive closer to the final moments of the game. Maybe it was the view from the top of the radio tower before the final leap or the sorrowful poetic words which preceded when emotion and sympathy become evoked from us, the player. This is eerily similar to viewing a painting and actually being capable of understanding what the artist meant to convey with his brushstrokes. This is when a game transcends what it means to be a medium of entertainment and becomes coupled with art.
Even with compiling evidence that could make the weary begin to side with games being art, there still remains a large majority who are still very critical of that acceptance. In 2005, Roger Ebert, a prominent film critic, shocked several gamers around the world when he claimed "the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art." Close-minded and only interacting with limited video games, Ebert was quick to write off games as an artistic medium. Of course it can be safe to assume many others followed suit as well since the words of a prominent film critic make him an authority in all art, right? Wrong. Many responded often outraged by Ebert’s statements. People like Josh Jenisch responded in a methodical manner by compiling numerous examples to counter Ebert’s argument, and in his case, by writing a book entitled The Art of the Video Game. In the preface alone Jenisch writes “I’m here to make the argument that video games should be considered art. I believe that great video games can move and excite and inspire people, that they are every bit as worthy of our attention as great films, great paintings, great novels and great symphonies” (Mulrooney). His words are powerful, deliberate, and deliver a message to those who are willing to listen. If others like Jenisch would continue to deliver that message to the masses then there is no reason why Dear Esther could not be seen as art, too.
Video games are a very powerful tool. Today, they are a means to escape reality, provide entertainment, relaxation, and to some, inspiration! Cory Arcangel, Mark Essen, and Eddo Stern are all artists who draw their inspiration from video games. Cory Arcangel is famously known for his work “Super Mario Clouds.” Super Mario Brothers is primitive and yet a Nintendo classic, but it was influential enough for Arcangel to become inspired to create such a famous work. His “Super Mario Clouds” artwork has been seen in museums and on display in exhibitions all around the world. If Super Mario can create inspiration for some artists, then surely we will begin to see Dear Esther rise above the negative connotations associated with it as a game and ultimately will be viewed as art because it exceeds most video games creative expression. But, the age-old saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder rings true here. Beauty, whether statue, painting, architecture, or even Super Mario has its own place as art. About 14 years ago a website called Deviant Art was created. This website was a venue where artists could post their artistic renderings for millions to see. Unsurprisingly, when you enter the website some of the very first artwork you encounter is video game art. Halo’s Masterchief, Solid Snake, Pikachu, Gordon Freeman, and even Dear Esther are just some of the art renderings you can view within a click of a button. This is in part why I must vehemently disagree with Ebert’s view on art because if something so childish as a game can’t be art, then why do so many artists devote their efforts in creating an expressive interpretation of their favorite games? The answer: inspiration!
Incredible fan art pulled from Deviant Art
In recent years art games have been an emerging genre of game. Dear Esther, Tomb Raider, Flower, and even classics like Super Mario Brothers and Tetris have drawn inspiration for artists to create their works. These artists and their works have been featured in museums and many art exhibitions across the world proving that video games have been redefined in someways as being considered art. If the same people who preserve, value, and critique art are willing to open their doors to video games in their museums, then there is no reason why it can't someday be widely accepted as a viable form of art.
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"Are video games art?; Chris Melissinos believes so, and is out to prove it with an exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art." Palm Beach Post [West Palm Beach, FL] 17 Dec. 2012: 1E. Business Insights: Global. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.
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Ince, Steve. Writing for Video Games. Norfolk: A & C Black, 2006. Print.
Johnson, Mark M. "The Art of Video Games." Arts & Activities 151.4 (2012): 16-18. Academic Search Premier. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." Rev. of Dear Esther. IGN. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 24. Feb. 2013. < http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/02/13/dear-esther-review>.
McCormick, Rich. "Smithsonian Calls Video Games Art, Adds Two to Permanent Collection." The Verge. N.p., 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/18/5222932/smithsonian-adds-flower-halo-2600-to-permanent-collection>.
Mulrooney, Marty. "BOOK REVIEW – The Art of the Video Game by Josh Jenisch."Alternative Magazine Online. N.p., 9 Sept. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. <http://alternativemagazineonline.co.uk/2010/09/09/book-review-the-art-of-the-video-game-by-josh-jenisch/>.
Smuts, Aaron. "Are Video Games Art?" Are Video Games Art? N.p., 2 Nov. 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/ca/7523862.0003.006?view=text;rgn=main>.