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.
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.
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.
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.
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Portal. Bellevue, WA: Valve Corporation, 2007. Computer software.