Yesterday I played Dear Esther on my Descrutoid Live stream over at http://www.twitch.tv/destructoid I stream at 6pm GMT, Midday US Central, 10am Pacific, Monday to Friday.
Trying to comprehensibly explain 'what is art?', or make a reasoned argument for why something is artistic, is tough. What is beautiful, inspiring and thought-provoking to one person can be a pile of pretentious nothing for others. It is the very nature of trying to define the undefinable, or explain in words something that cannot be described, that is the biggest problem. Art is a number of things, and yet the simplest thing of all. It is everything and nothing. It is exactly what one individual sees through their own eyes, and is resonate and inspiring to them alone. How can anyone possibly try to cheapen such a profound emotional, mental and physical reaction in an easy to read sentence, paragraph or article. Why would someone even attempt to do this?
Released on Valentine's Day on Steam, Dear Esther is a Source mod that has existed in a free-to-download form since 2008. The recent release on Steam ties in with a major graphical update, and will now set u back £6.99. The update and re-release has once again started debate and controversy amongst gamers, as they find it hard to accept whether a game can be art, the limitations and expectations of the medium, or whether it is a game at all.
Dear Esther has no real central game-play mechanic, there is no need for twitch reflex or pattern recognition, and there are no bosses to fight or weapons to unlock. The only thing you actually need to know is that its set on an island, and it might be the prettiest, most bewilderingly beautiful game you have ever seen. Literally, that's all you need to know. Seriously. Go play it now.
Actually, that should read 'Go EXPERIENCE it now.' This is not a game. So, what is it then? That's were the problem arises, much like trying to define what art itself is, trying to categorize or define this experience ultimately cheapens and lessens it. Even the simplistic constructs of words and sentences would defile any attempt to explain what makes this experience great. However, like a rambling drunk ranting over a piece of wordless music, sometimes mindless opinion cannot be ignored. In that case, its time to drink up and get back to the ranting...
There are moments in Dear Esther where just the beauty of the world created overwhelms the 'player' like a painting by Monet. There are vistas and views that you stumble upon that rival the composition of any film of Kubrick or Malick. There are events in the game that will send shivers up your spine, make your hair stand-up on end and start you heart-racing. This is all done with a subtle let explicitly realized cinematography, location and design. Like an expert magician, Dear Esther uses a 'smoke and mirrors' technique to lead you down interesting visual paths, and mental highways. There are echoes of 'proper' games like Half-Life 2 or Wind Waker, where you will be following a direction or gaining your bearings, and the beauty of the environment before you will just hit you like a storming epiphany. Comparisons to these games are unfair as this is not an experience to try to categorize or define, it is something to be lived, to be breathed in, like the chilling wind on an abandoned beach or the view from a top of a mountain.
Dear Esther does suffer from overly-wordy dialog at times, something that many of these art games are guilty of. This is however a nature of the limitations of words, especially when set against a backdrop of ethereal and transient delights. This is an experience that doesn't fall into lazy definitions where we can set the parameters of our expectations based on what genre it falls under, or what category it fits into. You cannot explain why the Mona Lisa is beautiful, or why Pink Floyd can take you breath away. Sometimes the best lyrics are those that cannot be explained, the best paintings are the ones where you don't really know what your looking at. The most vibrant emotions are often the ones we cannot decipher or rationalize.
The overwhelming feeling Dear Esther gives off cannot be surmised in an article, or explained in any literal way. Just go and experience it. It is truly a stunning, emotive and ultimately up-lifting journey that you will not regret taking. Either that or it's a load of overblown, pompous waffle with some nice graphics.