Art has long since been a standing tradition among all societies. It has been something that many attempt, but traditionally has been reserved for the few. It has been argued that art and a work of art are not exactly synonymous as we might think in today’s society. Art is the creation of works of art, which are defined in the descriptive sense as artifacts, “upon which some society or some sub-group of a society has conferred the status of candidate for aesthetic appreciation.” (Dickie) (For simplicity, I will just use art as an all-encompassing broad word to discuss art, the creation of it, and the final outcome). The appreciation is gained by way of meaning. Traditionally, artists have a vision of something which they construct to mean something, and the viewers are invited to appreciate this, but free to their own interpretation. Just as a museum can offer an exhibit of art that is a maze of navigation, like those of the Mattress Factory of Pittsburgh, where you physically walk through the precisely constructed spaces, the work of art itself is a maze to the viewer. The viewer searches the art for the intended meaning by the artist in making his own detours at thoughts inspired by the art. The maze of the viewer then is personally centered on discovery. The route of the mind is inconsequential.
In modern society, there has been a staggering increase in artful depictions using videogames. This is not to say all videogames are art, but similar to the development of other representation techniques in various forms of art, the digital artists and people who construct these digital mediums, “are now producing results arguably equal to the other representational arts.” (Tavinor) It is somewhat obvious that this advancement owes itself to the vast growth in technology in modern society, which has been seen in various consoles and personal computers, which have produced, “gaming devices that are able to create sophisticated, responsive, and increasingly beautiful fictional worlds into which players stop in order to play games.” (Tavinor) The most interesting part about this advancement is the fact that it has occurred substantially faster than refining techniques of traditional art mediums, it doesn’t seem to be slowing all that much, and it has occurred virtually in front of the eyes of the modern society generation. This substantial differentiation bleeding into the world of art in the transformative nature of technology, which is ever evolving, leads to but one important conclusion. The conclusion then is where does it stop or does it ever stop? It is possible that digital media, being as powerful as it is in a society so heavily reliant on technology already, could or will occupy a dimension of art not possibly with traditional mediums, thus leading to a shift in art creation? That is not to say that traditional mediums would all be eliminated, but the threat of virtual reality is interesting to think about. A viewer could be connected to art thousands of miles away instantly or completely create something not possible out of the traditional means. The dynamic of the lasting impression of this form of art and what it meant to society would also change. It is not like a painting that can hang on any wall, but a digital form that might not be able to be run compatibly on software developed in the next 100 years, for dramatic effect. Art has stood the test of time, but this is much different: potentially problematic, but also extremely likeable and enticing.
Dear Esther is one of these technologically advanced representations worthy of distinction. Its modern technological medium is represented as a videogame, but is art. Dear Esther offers the viewer a combination of computer generated images, something different, something unique in which, “There’s really not much else like it.” (Indie Nation 63) It is not an interactive game, but a surreal experience that can be described as a mobile story. The construction of Dear Esther is an art, and the gameplay, or lack thereof, is to navigate this mysterious environment with narration to discover. In a review of Dear Esther, Keza MacDonald notes that, “Dear Esther asks nothing of you but to occupy this world,” and, “if you’re at all interested in exploring what games can do outside of the traditional genre templates, Dear Esther offers an unforgettable two hours…” Simplistically, this is what makes it an art rather than a game. There was never meant to be a vast game-play. There was only meant to be the subtle confusion of finding your way through a winding maze to uncover scenery and facts amounting to an ultimate end. The facile limitation of movement is purposeful and empowering to the expanse of the atmospheric presentation. The “play,” metaphorically, is the flipping of the page in the story by walking through the exhibit as the maze. It is not traditional due to the, “stripping out most interaction, combat, and immediate threat.” (Pinsof) The choices have already been laid out for the person in charge of manipulation. “You can explore this world with your own eyes. You can also explore parts that aren’t worth exploring.” (Pinsof) Though the artistic assemblage provides but one means to the progression through the work, its wonder in engagement propels you to look into avenues that are subconsciously known to yield no further progress. They are important however, because they can provide information and confusion, thus adding more to the construction of it as art as a whole. The “game” itself is discovery within the context of the artistic world. Walking to unfold the story by examining objects that are not meant to be disturbed disallowing the alteration of the overall exhibit, doesn’t always amount to enlightenment initially, which can be the case in an art museum setting.
This maze, as paralleled to the previously discussed personal maze navigation of the viewer and the one within the art itself, goes even further in Dear Esther. It not only heightens its artistic character, but defines the grandeur of what it can represent. The maze of the island coincides with the ongoing metaphor of the exploration of the island as a whole. The exploration of the island is the navigation of the internal self (of a human body), physically represented by the maze of the island and the caves. It is spiritually, emotionally, mentally, represented by the narration of the story and the relationship between the body and the spirit or soul.
Physically, the island of Dear Esther represents the human body. Part of the story is the exploration of the depths of the body, while slowly ascending up. There has been evidence for centuries of statues, sculptures, and paintings that have exemplified the human body. Figures of people were represented to indicate power, worth, and descent. It varies among cultures, societies, and religions, but the figures of man and woman was something that was revered for its purity, sometimes depicted nude, dating back from Greek and Roman times until now. (Apostolos-Cappadona) The female body has always been a focal point of art, of which fertility and gender held power. For example, Leonardo da Vinci, a famous Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, and academic was not only interested in the production of art, but conducted anatomical research via dissections on humans and animals. In doing so, he did not directly advance anatomy, but provided academics further insight into the human body with his artistic capabilities, drawing the organ systems and internal anatomy, which led to his new way of drawing, one called the exploded view. His drawing and desire for academia was applied to other pursuits, but ultimately, the advancements started from the connection of art and the human body. (Zwijnenberg) From the exhibit, Teaching the Body, the representations show, “how the human body has been fertile ground for both artistic and scientific knowledge for centuries.” (Tiao) Dear Esther takes this exploration of the body, artfully depicted, a step further and fully envisions this connection between art and the human body. From the beginning the narrator says, “The mount is clearly the focal point of this landscape; it almost appears so well placed as to be artificial.” This immediately brings into question where the viewer and narrator are, and what it means to be there. It is lead on to be part of a shipwreck, but it seems like there is more to it. Even if the isolation on the island was in fact due to a shipwreck, the story plays out as the narrator slipping away from reality in isolation, sickness, and an attempt to understand possibly repressed emotion. The island serves as a physical representation coupled with a psychological aspect. The narrator says, “I am traveling through my own body, following the line of infection from the shattered femur towards the heart. I swallow fistfuls of painkillers to stay lucid.” The caves are the blood vessels, covered in microbes that light the way of travel, others riddles with crystals in the walls, relating to the narrators kidney stones of which it is noted, “when I first looked into the shaft, I swear I felt the stones in my stomach shift in recognition.” The walls of the caves are covered with organic molecule representations of the painkillers in his system, and vast circuits and neuronal cells, some connected to nothing, a depiction of severed synapses. Thus, the mazes of caves represent the maze of the body. The interesting part about the maze, is that it’s defined. It is indeed constructed as a maze, but the movement through it is singular. As with the navigation of food through the digestive tract, starting at the mouth and ending at the anus, there are places where the food can travel and get stuck as it twists turns, runs down up, around and back, but as with the caves, there is one start and one finish. The narrator also says, “…I have stolen them away to the guts of this island where the passages all run to black…”This doesn’t take away from the way that it is crafted, however.
Further adding to the maze of the game and its metaphorical relation to the human body, there is a question of the spirit or soul and its relationship to the body, which is represented in the narration of the story of Dear Esther as a whole. “My lines are just for this: to keep any would-be rescuers at bay. The infection is not simply of the flesh.” This indicates that there is something more going on with the character, which is emphasized in the repression that is seen throughout the story. The viewer is always uncertain of what is really going on, even with insights into things like the car crash and deaths of people close to Donnelly. While descending through the caves of the body, there is part where you jump down into this cave that is much deeper with water than others, and once you are down into the water, you come to the intersection, presumably where the crash happened. There is a parallel between going deeper into caves with descending into the body while still climbing the body structures. “To climb the peak, I must first venture even deeper into veins of the island, where the signals are blocked altogether.” This ties together the mental investigation of the intricacies of the metaphor of the body. The viewer and narrator go deeper into the body and thought until a time of enlightenment is reached, where the mind can be free at the top, which is when the ascension then takes place. There is a further complexity to all of this intellectual entanglement, however. There is little to no distinction of character between the narrator and Donnelly, noted at the conclusion of the game adventure through the art, not knowing if Donnelly or himself had made the island and the markings, but knowing that Donnelly, “became his syphilis, retreating into the burning synapses, the stones, the infection,” like that of the narrator. The viewer thus becomes these personified depictions, and the narrator himself, no longer from an external source, but also the navigator of the environment, just as one becomes when staring deeply at a painting, walking through an exhibit, or in virtual reality constructions. This subtlety is interesting when considering Dear Esther as art. On the gallery wall of an exhibit of the story of American artistic anatomy is written, “An artist sees things not as they are, but as he is.” (Tiao) This interconnection of character and problematic narration, limited to mental stability displays this. This ultimately leads to the developing conclusion of the story, the isolation, heath issues, and psychological turmoil too much to bear for the narrator, the viewer, leading to the proclamation, “I have run out of places to climb. I will abandon this body and take to the air.” This gives the explicit disconnect of the soul from the body, the narrator from the viewer. “This is engaging above all, coupled with music that, “fades in and out with exquisite timing to emphasize moments of narrative significance,” (MacDonald). In this perfect coupling of music, narration, and movement along the flowing landscape, there is significant thought into what this experience is and should be: an expression of a person, or people beautifully crafted as an art in the form of a full-body [out of body] immersion by the hands of the programmers, to incite feeling and emotion. Dear Esther is art physically, metaphorically, and emotionally ground.
Dear Esther might not necessarily be an artistic videogame that gamers would show any interest in, but it is noteworthy purely for its complexity and artistic intricacy. It is an art: a maze on two levels, as art is personally and from creation, represented by the physical and psychological aspects of the island caves and connection to the adventure of personal self-exploration. It is one of many modern technological representations that continue to evolve visually in experience. It is an artistic expression and a visual auditory experience. Its goal is purely an occurrence of exposition and revelation that is discounted for what it isn’t rather than revered for what it is. Dear Esther is a flowing modern-day work of art.
“When this paper aeroplane leaves the cliff edge, and carves parallel vapour trails in the dark, we will come together.”
– Donnelly, The Viewer of the personal relationship and the island maze
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Human Body: Human Bodies, Religion, and Art." Encyclopedia of
Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 6. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
4168-4174. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Dickie, George. “Defining Art.” American Philosophical Quarterly. Vol. 6. Illinois: University of
Illinois Press, 1969. 253-256. JSTOR. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Indie Nation 63. “Dear Esther.” 29 May 2009. Web http://www.destructoid.com/indie-
Liao, Joshua. “The Human Body at the Intersection of Art and Science.” Teaching the Body:
Artistic Anatomy in the American Academy. Boston: Boston University Art Gallery,
2013. Ebrary. Web. 2 Apr 2014.
MacDonald, Keza. “Dear Esther Review”. 13 February 2012. Web. http://www.ign.com
Pinsof, Allistair. “Review: Dear Esther”. 13 Febraury 2012. Web.
Tavinor, Grant. “The Art of Videogames.” 1st ed. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell. 11-206.
Ebrary. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.
Zwijnenberg, Robert. “Body Within: Art, Medicine, and Visualization.” Brill’s Studies in
Intellectual History. Vol. 3. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2009. 31-138.
Ebrary. Web. 2 Apr. 2014.