Dear Esther: Games as Art
Up till five years ago, discussions about games as a form of art, were largely considered as non-important. There was a more or less clear distinction between the "higher" arts, and the more "commercial" games, although many of those used elements from several arts (in-game music, often symphonic and with a classical feel to it, being just one example). With the rise of the Indie game-scene around 2010, things started to evolve fast. Since indie-developers are not bound by contracts to large (and indeed often very commercial) publishers, they found themselves in a position where experimenting with the medium of games itself turned into something viable.
One of the almost immediate consequences of this huge shift in focus, was the rise of what many have called since then "artistic games": games as the newest form of art, following in the footsteps of literature, music, architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, cinematography and the likes. This idea has generated some debate during the last five years, but it's still an underrated aspect of gaming. The one game that really stands out as maybe thé flagship of the artistic games, would surely be Dear Esther
. Released in February 2012 by the small indie-company The Chinese Room
, it made a huge impact on the gaming scene by the radical way in which it changes the entire concept of what a computer game is all about.
In this game there are no "goals" the player has to achieve, there is no such thing as "winning or losing", there is not even the possibility of playing well or badly, or of interacting with the environment. Actually, the gameplay is extremely limited: the player can only walk around on an abandoned island in the Scottish Hebrides in first-person view, with no running, jumping, climbing or crouching as in most first-person games. This immediately gives the game a very leisured pace, which may not be to the liking of everyone. Dear Esther
has even been called a "walking simulator" - it's the most prominent of its tags on the Steam store at the moment. But it's nothing like that, in my opinion. Thsi game is not about the physical walk around the - extremely impressive and atmospheric - island. Dear Esther
tells another kind of story: a story that happens within the main character, and one that is told with such emotional force that I as a player not only identified myself with the character, but also started to actually FEEL like he does. Now that's a rare experience in any game up till now: the feeling that the entire game, with all its components (visuals, story, music in this case) got under my skin in such a way that I got emotionally involved to a very, very large extent. I won't spoil anything from the story, but it's nothing light-weight to be sure and the game has stayed with me since I first played it three weeks ago.
And there is not really much more to say about this amazing, almost genre-defining piece of art. Actually, the debate may not be if it's a piece of art (most will agree to that), but to whether it's a game or not. To my opinion, it's certainly both, and as such stands proud as one of the prime examples of artistic games that give as rich and rewarding an experience as reading a novel by Daphne du Maurier, looking at a painting by Turner or listening to a sonata by Mozart. But be advised: this gem calls for your complete attention, so headphones and a dark environment are recommended. Especially so since the soundscape the game provides, be it from the howling of the wind to the eerie, haunting music by Jessica Curry, deserves every inch of attention.
Overall score: 9/10