2 March 2012

Author Joseph Fulton

The age old debate of, "Are video games art?" has been bandied around for years now. While some may be steadfast in their response of, "No," it is a poorly constructed argument. Games from the very foundation up can be seen as collaborative efforts from skilled and talented artists and programmers who are working to both stimulate your senses and immerse you in a world that is not your own. They use art to create an instrument of entertainment.

Dear Esther is a game freshly released on the PC, which blurs the boundaries between art, interactive fiction and gaming. The player is transposed to an Hebridean island and left to explore it from a first person perspective. While drifting between haunting locales, the player is imbued with snippets of narration, with the concept being to slowly get you to piece together an obfuscated story. Depending how you arrange these snippets, you will end up with a completely unique experience, divorced from what both the game may have intended or what any other person may have concluded. This concept can be seen as truly unlocking the potential of video-games to create a deep, emotional experience, wholly unique to the genre. Just the very notion of presence in this game world affects how you perceive and feel about the events as they unfold, particularly when the narration is timed with, and reacts to, your actions.

This is a connection that cannot be established via the format of, say, a book or film. It breaks the industry's status quo by not overwhelming you with information, and instead relies on parts of the game to take place in your imagination. It can be seen not as a game with limitations, but rather gets to the very core of what a game could be.

This escapism from the constructs of the industry as a whole, is not limited just to Dear Esther, there are other games also pushing the boundaries of what we commonly perceive as video games. Another example of this is Oíche Mhaith, a 'game' only in the sense that you control an avatar within a virtual world. The very title of this short Flash adventure means "Good Night" in Irish although you will have anything but a pleasant night's sleep if you try to unravel the lessons of morality behind the 8-bit graphics. In its simplest explanation, you play a girl named Eimear who is in her family home with her apprehensible parents, every action and good intention you make results in a beration and put down of such by these guardians that it belittles you in every way. Interacting with your toy doll results in Eimear repeating what her parents have said to her, showing how she is conditioned in such a way that she has no other idea how to interact.

Her parents then kill themselves and it is at this point that the player is first given a choice of options to take, as you use a computer program to resurrect them while using a variety of options to shape their personalities. Reconfiguring them as kind patriarchal figures only causes confusion and distrust within Eimear as this breaks every convention of her life up to this point, yet to restore them to how they were will in turn lead to their suicide once more, trapping her in a cycle. The player is then left to empathise with Eimear and dwell on the concept of free choice, that even if given a second chance to change what has happened, events are so preordained, and the negative concepts of child abuse and confusion so ingrained within her, that there is no chance of escape from the life she inhabits.

While the lack of control within games such as these can be seen as jarring and serving only to remove the player from the worlds they create, they should also be embraced in that they offer a fresh means by which to convey a story of which we have yet to take full advantage.

Image: Ben Andrews