The Dear Esther Question: Is This a Game?


A video game was once a relatively simple thing to identify. Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders; these were/are simple games that possess an undeniable gaminess and self-awareness of this fact. Modern games have largely turned the tables on this trend, using advanced technology to create visual landscapes and narrative tools that work to immerse players in the worlds of games, to make them momentarily forget their reality much in the same way many claim to “lose” themselves in the world of a novel. Games like “Bioshock”, “Fallout 3”, “Mass Effect”, and various other titles in the late 2000s pushed the bar of narrative immersion and interaction, but still possessed significant, deep systems of traditional gameplay woven throughout. The narratives of these games cannot be fully experienced unless the player chooses to engage quite thoroughly with its various components of traditional play such as defeating enemies and gaining experience points. In these cases, the narrative is entirely contingent on gameplay. More recent games (a term that quickly loses specificity in such a discussion) have continuously pushed dynamic gameplay further and further to the background, focusing instead on crafting an immersive narrative that is experienced more so than truly played. Popular games such as the recent “Tomb Raider” reboot, a series long known for its intricate, interactive puzzle solving, have been lauded for the beauty of their presentation and plot, but have also been heavily criticized by fans for being devoid of true, interactive gameplay. Further pushing away from true gameplay is a niche genre of modern “games” known by a variety of vague, ambiguous titles such as “art games” or “interactive stories.”

Recent years have seen a heated discussion build over the validity of video games as a true art form, a topic notably discussed by the late film critic Roger Ebert.The presence of any sort of traditional gaminess in a title is often looked down upon by critics who argue against video games as art. Surely nothing that includes basic elements of play can be real art, right? Thus, the term “art game” was born to specifically indicate to the masses which titles are going out of their way to forgo gamey characteristics and embrace a style of experiential interaction distinctly different from the common video game. Though not always necessarily under the same umbrella, the term “interactive story” is merely a more elegant, all-inclusive form of art games that does away with the “game” label and resists inexplicably telling its audience, just in case they were confused, that it is indeed art.

There remains however, a large uncertainty among the general game-playing public as just how to classify a number of titles that fit under these conventions. To what extent are these games (again, for lack of a batter word) actually still played? Does it matter? Should they still be marketed as “games” to potential buyers?

“Dear Esther”, a “game” released in 2012, developed by The Chinese Room is one such notable title that continues to spark fervent discussion across the internet as to the nature of its genre classification. The base purpose for players of Dear Esther is to guide an unknown character through a series of different settings while listening to bits and pieces of narration at predetermined settings. There are no player control options beyond the single-speed navigation of the main character, a simple zoom option, and the occasional flashlight cue. As players progress further through the world, the story of a man writing letters to his deceased wife, Esther, from a deserted island is gradually uncovered. On paper, this is clearly not a game, but something like a movie where pressing a button makes the story start and stop. The confusion arises in “Dear Esther’s” relative freedom of choice and exploration.

Though the core narrative of Dear Esther’s story is experienced regardless of how a player navigates through its world, there are numerous instances where the story is expanded if the player chooses to travel off of the beaten path and explore the game’s crevices. Thus, from a literal sense, different players of “Dear Esther” can experience different understandings of the narrative, which is already presented in an intentionally ambiguous style.

...or take one of the two paths to the left.

…or take one of the two paths to the left.

The first location in "Dear Esther." The player can choose to explore the building...

The first location in “Dear Esther.” The player can choose to explore the building…







The title is then unlike most other forms of narrative in terms of the control it gives to its players and the extent of variety in its potential interpretations. So, oddly and inconclusively, “Dear Esther” isn’t a non-game, but it still isn’t “gamey” by any means.

As is likely evident throughout this post, a major problem is with the word “game.” It means drastically different things to different individuals. Technically speaking, in a world where Chess and Pong define the extent of a game, “Dear Esther” is not one. The ambiguous definition of “game” as it stands today however, which essentially boils down to little more than player interaction within a virtual world, most definitely includes titles such as Dear Esther. An odd, undefined middle ground has been struck where these experiences, including other such notable titles as “Gone Home” and “Heavy Rain”, are dismissed by popular gamers and cherished by niche players and critics. One side insists that they’re not games, while the other is wary that agreeing with that classification labels a game distinctly as something that can’t be narrative art. It’s all very confusing, and it’s made the marketing of such titles a difficult thing. “Games” sell, but will customers be satisfied with their purchase as a game experience? Hopefully as the niche genre grows and becomes further defined, a clearer, more distinct understanding will come to light.

*Images are taken in-game and protected by the fair use policy.

  5 comments for “The Dear Esther Question: Is This a Game?

  1. January 22, 2014 at 3:23 pm


    This is an interesting “game”, and one I’m considering assigning for this class later on in the semester. I think there are two questions at the heart of this post, and therefore, two different ways to begin responding, if not necessarily answering either question.

    Surely nothing that includes basic elements of play can be real art, right?

    You pose this question rhetorically, of course, in light of Ebert’s objection that the unpredictability implied in play precludes the authorial control and vision necessary for “art”, but in fact playfulness and interactivity have been part of various non-digital art movements especially in the 20th century. Ebert’s notion of control, by contrast, is almost Victorian in its insistence on the artist compelling the audience by force of idea. Within the broader contexts of postmodernism, though, you get groups like Fluxus where many of they key “works” are more properly “events” or performances where things happen in often unpredictable ways. Or consider John Cage’s famously aleatory compositions. So clearly, it’s possible for art to exist without the static authorial sense of control Ebert’s definition seems to need — we just need to be clear which definition of “art” we’re working with.

    The other way to respond to your question is the more problematic definition of “game”, along with the corollary question of what’s really at stake in any definition of that term. In other words, why does it matter if Dear Esther is a game or not?

    I think one way it really does matter is in a commercial setting, as you suggest in your closing sentence. If it’s a game, then it becomes the kind of thing that buyer’s assess in terms of the quality of their experience. If it’s something they can buy through Steam, it’s something they can complain about through Steam, and therefore, as a “game”, it’s “market” could suffer as a result of it’s not being fungible enough. But we don’t typically assess art in terms of its market and the value it adds as a consumable good or service. Should we? I imagine some people in an audience of John Cage’s 4’33” might feel cheated, but that doesn’t change that work’s aesthetic impact, does it?

  2. Robert
    January 25, 2014 at 7:57 pm

    There’s a whole genre of games similar to what you describe, called “Visual Novels.” They’re a primarily Japanese style (hesitate to call them a genre), but are becoming more common in the United States thanks to a few recent breakthrough productions. VN’s (shortened term) are very similar to “Dear Esther” insofar as there is rarely anything in the way of actual gameplay. They usually consist of reading narration and dialogue as the scene is dramatised on the screen using character sprites and backgrounds. There are occasionally animations, but only in higher-budget productions, and they’re very rare even then. A key element of most VN’s is an element of choice: there are usually moments where you, playing the protagonist, can make choices, and those will decree the narrative’s proceeding, and often the ending.

    That said, I’m not sure what to consider something like “Dear Esther,” as I’m not sure if it would qualify as a VN. As a game, I guess it could qualify, in that it’s about controlling a character in a virtual world. Perhaps it must be clarified as a “literary” game, ie a game more about literary elements like plot than gaming elements like, well, gameplay?

  3. Cameron Hodge
    January 26, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    I agree with your assessment that the definition of “game” is in need of deeper literary consideration, but I’d argue that Dear Esther makes fantastic use of things we already consider belonging to the medium as-is. Usually, when we think of interactive fiction, we think about being active participants in the fiction–e.g. making choices, influencing outcomes and ourselves being a variable in the algorithm. While Dear Esther does not offer that sort of interactivity, it does use interactivity to its benefit. The sort of slow, contemplative tone of the game is set by the pace at which the player walks. You could hypothetically “speed-run” a poem or a book, though gaining little from it. An author or a poet generally either has to assume the reader is going to read it at the desired pace or write it in such a way that it encourages the desired reading style (with recursive stanzas, verbose language, etc.)

    Dear Esther forces a certain pace, which in turn sets the tone of the piece. You can’t really “speed-run” the game or gloss over parts of its world. The game places a limitation upon the would-be reader in the same way a poet would do with stylization which encourages a contemplative play-style. That is to say, you’re going to spend three minutes walking to the next thing, so you can either stare blankly at the screen or you can look around and think. Most players would unconsciously start doing the latter, which benefits the overall presentation of the piece, and it does so in such a way which is otherwise unique to this sort of interactive storytelling by imposing limitation rather than freedom.

  4. karmakona
    January 27, 2014 at 12:21 am

    At the beginning of your post, you mentioned other games, of similar variety, where there were “various components of traditional play such as defeating enemies and gaining experience points.” Perhaps Dear Esther cannot be considered a game because it has no elements like this, you cannot progress to upward levels, you can’t gain points or skills, and you can’t win. Even if the story is presented to the viewer in a slightly different way depending on the chosen course, it is ultimately the same static, single-realm story.
    It comforts me to think of Dear Esther as art, because if i were to buy it under the assumption that it was a game, i would be disappointed and eager to complain to my gaming peers. But I agree with Whalen in that i do not determine the value of other forms of art on the availability and satisfaction of consumers. So i am torn.

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