Saturday, March 29, 2014

Revision 2 - Dear Esther as an Evolutionary Step for Games

  Dear Esther is an unusual piece of software. Superficially it defies easy categorization. In many ways it functions like a video game, but omits some of the most basic tropes of the medium, which make some critics reticent to call it a game. The label of art has also been withheld from Dear Esther because it requires player input. However, what these groups fail to recognize is that Dear Esther represents an evolutionary step in the medium of video games into the realm of completely unique art. The defining character of this new medium is a significant artistic message conveyed through the collaboration of the player's choices and the designer's systems.
  The first step in defining Dear Esther as an game with artistic significance is to define it as a game. As Allistair Pinsof of Destructoid says of Dear Esther, "yes, it is a game. There are rules and keys and narrative triggers and all those things we come to expect of a $9.99 purchase on Steam" (Pinsof). The argument made here is that Dear Esther should be defined as a video game because that is what it is in form, if not function. Dear Esther is built on the Source video game engine, uses the same control schemes as most first-person shooters, and, superficially at least, asks the player to approach it in the same way they would any other video game (Cameron). In form, Dear Esther takes only the parts of mainstream, or "entertainment" games that it finds relevant to its purposes (Bogost).

  While it eschews some of the trappings of entertainment video games, Dear Esther maintains one of the most important elements of a game, which is player agency. Interactivity is held by many game critics to be the cornerstone of the medium and the mechanism through which games differentiate themselves (Deen). This conceit was actually developed in response to film critic Roger Ebert's declaration that these two states, art and game, are inherently exclusive. Ebert states that, "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control" (Ebert). This definition limits the scope of art to static media such as film and literature, assuming that the work of art must retain its artistic qualities even when unobserved. Dear Esther, however, applies techniques borrowed from art and film to the narrative waiting to be discovered by the player.

  The art of a video game is in the authored design, which accounts for the players choices and invites the player to experience the narrative in the way that the designer intends. By giving the player control, player action is expected. The game needs to react to these actions and then give the player meaningful responses. It is in these responses that the author has space to make the player understand the consequences of their choices. This effect is used usually for immediate gratification in entertainment games, but Dear Esther is what Bogost calls a "proceduralist game" because it uses these responses to invite player introspection. Portal, another proceduralist game, has a moment that showcases this effect very concisely.
The player has spent the level with the Companion Cube, and after possibly developing some attachment to it, is told by GLaDOS that to proceed, the player must incinerate the Cube. The player's choice is then to burn the Cube or stand in the room with the Cube indefinitely. If the player burns the cube immediately, they are told that "You euthanized your faithful Companion Cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations" (Portal). This response seems designed to make the player question their own empathetic ability. However, if the player chooses to stall without burning the Companion Cube, GLaDOS encourages them to incinerate the Cube with a phrase every few minutes. When the player finally does incinerate the Cube, as this is the only way to continue playing, GLaDOS still tells the player that they had the fastest time. This makes the player examine a different part of their personality, wondering if they abandoned their own values to external pressure. This same response, paired with a different player action to create new meaning, proves that the elements of the game that cause emotional resonance are a product of both the authored design and the player's input.

  To create meaningful outputs to the player's inputs, there must be an author's intent behind the design of the game. The hand of the author is felt throughout Dear Esther in moments when, as described in a review, "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" (MacDonald). Moments of subtle guidance define most of the experience of Dear Esther, giving the player both the feeling of exploration and the guidance of a narrative. As an example, the initial stretch of beach includes a staircase that blends into the mountainside from the player's initial perspective, but is obvious from the reverse angle.

This guides the player down the beach to a dead end, gives them more narrative content, and guides them to double-back to the staircase. Shades of lighting also give the player clues about what to explore; warmer colors attract the player to the next significant clue like in the circular stalagmite cave. The exit is clearly visible but illuminated in green light, while the yellow-orange glow of the candle and the promise of return make the stalagmites the instantly appealing path.
In truth, all of the architecture and geography on the island is designed with the express purpose of guiding the player through the narrative. These invitations to interact with the world allows the author to deliver the narrative in new, creative ways that maintain the player's feeling of agency. As Nathan Grayson describes in a piece on Dear Esther "taken in conjunction with the option to explore and digest the world as we saw fit, it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it" (Grayson). By creating systems that respond to the players actions with the intention of providing an emotional and potentially self-reflective experience for the player, the developers of Dear Esther act as artists, and their creation, art.

Dear Esther's authored design shows that in form it is art, but its content proves that it is also, maybe more importantly, art in function. According to Marcuse, "In its advanced positions, art is the Great Refusal -- the protest against that which is. The modes in which man and things are made to appear, to sing and sound and speak, are modes of refuting, breaking, and recreating their factual existence" (63). Dear Esther engages in this refusal by delivering its narrative in a disjointed, non-linear fashion, as well as through the symbolism of objects in its world. The juxtaposition of the realistic, believable environments with the narrator's descent into insanity show the Marcusian refusal at work. They highlight the difference between the fictitious world of Dear Esther and the real world.

  Dear Esther moves video games towards art because it does not simply allow interpretation, it demands it. The narrative is delivered visually through biblical allegories and repetition of symbols like circuits, chemical formulas, gulls, broken spirals and parallel white lines. All of this is accompanied by the disjointed thoughts of the narrator as he seems to slip into insanity, giving fewer answers than questions. These elements are only present to attempt to deliver a message to the player which must be deciphered. It is an artistic expression from the designer to the player delivered by every element of the medium of the video game. The introspection caused by the interaction of player and systems in Dear Esther is incited by all of these devices, and it shows that Dear Esther acts as art through the same mechanics that define it as a video game.
Works Cited:
Cameron, Phil. "Moved By Mod: Dear Esther's Dan Pinchbeck." Gamasutra. UBM Tech, 1 July 2009. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Bogost, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2011. Print.
Deen, Phillip D. "Interactivity, Inhabitation and Pragmatist Aesthetics." Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Games Research. Game Studies Foundation, Summer 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Ebert, Roger. "Why Did the Chicken Cross the Genders?" Roger Ebert Digital LLC, 27 Nov. 2005. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Grayson, Nathan. "Dear Videogames, Stop Telling Me Everything." Rock Paper Shotgun. Rock Paper Shotgun Ltd., 29 Aug. 2008. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
MacDonald, Keza. "Dear Esther Review." IGN. IGN Entertainment, 14 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1991. Print.
Pinsof, Allistair. "Review: Dear Esther." Destructoid. N.p., 13 Feb. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2014.
Portal. Bellevue, WA: Valve Corporation, 2007. Computer software.

1 comment:

Adam said...

Is your introduction awkward, brilliant, or a bit of both? I guess it's a little bit of both, but I certainly do like the closing sentence. The form of video game vs. function of video game distinction is very good (with good, subtle use of research). What I want to see now, ideally, is a clear (no matter how long) explanation of what the function of Dear Esther is, and how that leads you to the claim you make in your thesis statement.

I'm used to people using Ebert as a counterpoint, but you have the clearest explanation of why we should bother doing so that I've seen. Your screenshot to prove that Portal is a proceduralist game (what does Bogost think of that claim, I wonder?) is wonderful - it does a lot of work for you.

"As Nathan Grayson describes in a piece on Dear Esther "taken in conjunction with the option to explore and digest the world as we saw fit, it created a perfect environment for both building this all-consuming curiosity and slowly but surely sating it" (Grayson). By creating systems that respond to the players actions with the intention of providing an emotional and potentially self-reflective experience for the player, the developers of Dear Esther act as artists, and their creation, art." This line of argument is compelling. You made it compelling, especially, by the excellent discussion of how we are lead through DE (warm vs. cool colors, etc.). So I liked all of this a lot, but I do have one criticism, which goes back to the destructoid review: is player choice real or an illusion here? If it's an illusion, your argument falls apart. If it's real, you should be able to demonstrate how it's real - e.g., by showing how player choice leads to difference. Difference in interpretation, difference in meaning - I'm not sure what kind of difference. But I think some kind of demonstration of the diversity of player responses and therefore in the kinds of artistic experiences we have while playing the game are crucial here.

Your discussion of Marcuse is abbreviated. For Marcuse, negation/refusal is always political (without ceasing to be artistic). If you really believe what you're saying, what are the politics of Dear Esther? As an aside, I kind of agree with what you're saying - but I'm not convinced that *you* agree with what you're saying here!

I have one thing to say about the conclusion. If DE demands interpretation, how do you interpret it? The proof is in the pudding. To say that interpretation is necessary and then to not interpret is obviously a shortcoming. Granted - we can't do everything in one essay. But giving us some understanding a) of the range of interpretations possible and b) of your interpretation as a starting point would have made your argument much more convincing.

This was, in many ways, very good - but if you say we must interpret, you must interpret.