Game of the Week: Dear Esther

Are arts game?

If there's a semantic argument even more aimless than "are games art?", it's "…but is it a game in the first place?" The question has swirled around a couple of our reviews this week, and will no doubt rear its head again next week on the release of CyberConnect2's gloriously unhinged Asura's Wrath - a madcap interactive anime whose superficial resemblance to a technical action game has wrong-footed a lot of people.

It's a matter of definitions, but going to the dictionary doesn't really help. At the highest level, the New Oxford dictionary defines a game as "a form of play or sport", with the relevant sub-definition of "the equipment for a game, esp. a board game or a computer game". But whilst the idea of play is one you can never get away from, even these loose definitions don't begin to encompass the unique for,ms of narrative and visual art that (among other things) have sprung from the video game medium.

To a kid, though, all this is boringly self-evident, and a game can just as easily be an exercise of storytelling, role-playing and imagination - "let's play doctors and patients" - as it can be a matter of chucking a ball around or abiding by a set of rules. That's what Dan was forcibly reminded by his young daughter when playing Double Fine's wonderful pre-school play-pen for Kinect, Happy Action Theater.

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Happy Action Theater: does actually make you happy.

"'Is it a game?' The question, in the end, proves laughably redundant," he wrote in our review. "Ask my daughter if she's playing a game and she'll look at you like you're an idiot (I get this look a lot) because of course she's playing a game. What else would you call it? The difference is, it's a game on her terms and, crucially, it's a game that takes place in her head, for the most part.

"Games theory is full of talk about the ways in which the story unspooling on-screen in cut-scenes and voice-overs isn't necessarily the real story, which is what happens in your mind as you play. Most games - the games we adult players recognise and consider 'real games' - are skewed towards the former, with its structure and rules and goals. Just like a child, Happy Action Theater tips the balance the other way and acknowledges that, at its purest level, play lives in the imagination."

This struck a chord with me, because a couple of years ago I'd been left thinking the same things by Keita Takahashi's surreal slapstick folly, Noby Noby Boy. "You can't consume Noby Noby Boy. You can't complete it. It offers you no validation or sense of accomplishment. This was the game that dared to wonder why I wanted to be told what to do in order to have fun; the game that dared to ask me what I felt like doing myself; the game that dared to ask me what I thought a game was, rather than telling me what it thought I wanted to hear."

Our game of the week, though, is the polar opposite of these two formless playthings. Or is it?

Dear Esther

Beginning life as an academic exercise, Dear Esther is an experiment in (not so) interactive storytelling created using Valve's Source engine. It's short, it's mostly linear, it's impossible to influence with your actions and it's largely composed of a narrated script and some mostly inert, if hauntingly beautiful, locations.

On the other hand, if it's not a game, what is it? You download it from Steam and control it with WASD and a mouse. It's made with gaming technology and, more importantly, in the idiom of games, using their design and storytelling techniques. Dear Esther wouldn't exist without games, and owes far less to other media than, say, Heavy Rain does to film and TV. It draws most of its meaning and power from the exploration of virtual space - a quintessential gaming device.

Furthermore, while it offers little for you to do, it offers a lot for you to think about. In this sense, it's a more sophisticated interactive experience than the scripted beats of an Uncharted 3. This is where Dear Esther joins up with its supposed opposite, Happy Action Theater - it's a game that lives in the mind as much as in its code. It's the story that happens in your mind as you play.

"Ultimately, Dear Esther is an interactive fiction - one which you can never derail or change by your input, only interpret," wrote Marsh Davies in our Dear Esther review. "But if the act of interaction seems slight, then the act of interpretation is far more complex, confounding and enriching than in most other games you might care to name...

"Is it a game? I can't say I know the answer, but I do know that unless you're an IGF judge or a prissy dogmatist who sets out to pedantically define the boundaries of an extremely fluid medium, then you shouldn't really care. All that matters is that Dear Esther is worth your time - and that its two-hour long chill will remain in your bones for a long while after."

Dear Esther might be stretching the definition of "a form of play or sport". But it's an interesting, moving and captivating experience (and a commercially successful one) that belongs to no other medium more than it does games. It's up for grabs, waiting for us to take ownership of, to call it our own. Why would we turn it away?

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