Dear Esther: Games as Art
Since graduating from college I have long tried to reconcile my two passions: games and art. I'm not trying to use one to justify the other, I love what I love and it is as simple as that. More than simple consolidation, I have long used the debate about video games as art more as a mental exercise than anything else. I have mused on this subject before, after being spurred on by Ebert's bold statement and subsequent article regarding the matter. I would recommend reading both my first article as well as Roger Ebert's to see both where I am coming from as well as the criteria Ebert used to respond to the concept of games as art.
I very recently found a game that left me feeling emotionally sensitive, pensive, but overwhelmingly inspired. The game I'm talking about is Dear Esther, currently part of the Humble Indie Bundle. This game could arguably be considered an interactive book, or boiled down even further to simply an interactive experience. The player traverses a strange island while having letters to an unknown "Esther" narrated to them at various intervals. Unlike most games, the player has very little control over the world they're in. The only means players have to interact is by controlling their pace through the environment. There are no items to collect or checkpoints to pass and it is devastatingly beautiful.
For the sake of considering the wider whole and emphasizing the evolution of the games medium, I will also be looking at two other titles: Thomas Was Alone and Proteus. I was inspired by art critic Lucy Lippard, who used a three-prong analysis in considering Andres Serrano's work "Piss Christ" in an article written for Art In America in early 1990. The criteria Lippard used were 1.) A work's formal and material properties, 2.) Its content ( the thought or meaning it expresses) and 3.) Its context, or place in the western art tradition. I felt these criteria would allow me to narrow down the factors which I felt contribute to primarily Dear Esther's role as art in video game but can also be applied to my other two titles as well. For the sake of transparency, I will also refer to these game titles as "works" for sake of brevity.
Formal and material properties
All three works are of the digital medium and consist of some type of environment created by artists and programmers. Dear Esther is an immersive 3-D environment that allows the player to traverse the environment in set paths but has full range of visual motion. Thomas Was Alone is a side scrolling, platforming game where players only see the environment in profile and traversing the environment is part of the puzzle to be tackled. Proteus is a 3-D world that is randomly generated when a player starts a new game. Unlike Dear Esther, players in Proteus can go anywhere they choose as the environment folds out before them.
All three works heavily emphasize line, color, light and sound to realize the environments. In the case of Dear Esther, the island environment almost leans towards the surreal, bringing to mind Salvador Dali in its meshing of the real and unreal. Thomas Was Alone is simplistic in that its environments and protagonists are all shapes varying in size and color. This game also features rudimentary light sources to create a sense of drama and emphasize movement over the terrain. Proteus is equally simple in terms of shape and color. This world is realized by highly pixelated shapes that hearken back to the earliest beginnings of video games, but instead of a top down, or side scrolling perspective the player traverses the world in full 3-D. Proteus also has very little in the way of shading, relying on simple "cardboard cutout" style rendering.
It is in the content of these works that the argument of whether they are art or not gets interesting. Dear Esther's content is a story told through disjointed narration of letters written to an "Esther". Depending on the playthrough, some of these letters change in various fashion and form and the collection of them creates its own narrative for the player to extrapolate from and come to their own conclusion. Thomas Was Alone is told via narration that occurs in the process of playing through the game levels. Each shape is given its own personality complete with biases that elevate this game from being a simple platformer to a game that causes players to think about aspects of their own personalities. I also found myself relating to these characters, which was initially confusing due to the fact that these are shapes I'm looking at. Humanizing shapes, which we learned while in kindergarten, is quite a feat. Proteus has no story to speak of and, like Dear Esther, it has no goals. The player is simply traversing a dynamic environment where the feel of the game changes based on the time of day and the environmental effects that trigger associated sound effects to create a unique soundtrack that makes exploring enjoyable.