(This is another installment of .exe, a weekly PC-gaming focused opinion column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about “art games” recently, and why I hate the vast majority of them. I don’t hate them on general principle — in fact, an interactive world where atmosphere is its own reward above the usual tasks of jumping, shooting, and swinging a sword, really excites me. Unfortunately, anybody who dares to criticize art games will often be written off as a “COD fanboy” who only ever plays “dumb shooters” and is therefore too stupid to appreciate the nuanced brilliance of something so deep and emotionally engaging. It’s a special breed of sneering arrogance designed to shame any dissent into silence.
I have seen this condescending disregard employed against any who gather enough courage to say that Dear Esther isn’t very good. Even by “art game” standards, it’s a rather boring, tepid, thoroughly unsurprising experience, the kind of “walk forward while a vague story happens at you” attraction that has been seen in the genre far too many times to count. It’s old hat by now, and worse, it commits the grievous sin of rendering the “interactive” portion of interactive art obsolete. I stand by my assertion that Dear Esther would work as a short film, at which point one has to ask what the point of it being interactive is. The only interaction you have is in walking, and it adds very little to the atmosphere. Dear Esther creates a beautiful island to explore, but a fairly straightforward path in which to do it. It’s a handheld guided tour, and your job is to listen to someone else’s story while always being reminded that everything in the game is to be looked at, but never touched. Trouble is, when I’m being asked to spend time in a game’s world, I do not want to feel like I am an outsider, looking in through a window. I do not want to be on a guided tour. If you give me a beautiful island, I want to interact with it. I want the world to react to my presence. I want some motivation for being there.
That’s why, when I played The Stanley Parable, it felt almost like a mockery of Dear Esther. It’s ironic, because the game is more a mockery of the type of game Dear Esther tries not to be like. The Stanley Parable plays with the idea of linearity, of interactive entertainment that nonetheless expects the user to blindly follow orders. Like Dear Esther, it mostly revolves around walking from one place to another, but with just a little dash of humor, and the slightest hint that the player’s involvement in the story has an affect on the world, it manages to be a world apart in terms of a user’s emotional and intellectual investment.
For those unaware of The Stanley Parable, it’s a game in which players take on the role of the titular Stanley, a man who works in an office pushing buttons whenever a screen tells him to. One day, however, he realizes that no commands have been appearing for an hour, and steps out of the office to see that nobody is in the building. We are informed all this by the narrator, who details the story in a way that ostensibly bosses the player around. The narrator declares that Stanley walks up some stairs and the player is expected to walk up the stairs. This works out fine except for the fact that there are alternate routes, all of which can be used to disobey the narrator and break the story. If you go down the stairs, if you take the right door instead of the left door, the narrator will react and a vastly different story will play out. Unlike Dear Esther, where the player’s role is to shut up and pay attention, The Stanley Parable gives players the chance to greatly alter the path laid out before him or her. With six endings to discover, there are some amazingly different experiences to be had.
In practical terms, the difference between the two games is subtle. The player’s input still consists almost entirely of walking, and while The Stanley Parable has a few more interactive elements (pushing buttons, chiefly), they are minuscule to say the least. Fundamentally, both games play the same way. Both games make players listen to somebody else’s story, and both games reduce the avatar’s potential actions in order to make them more attentive. Yet that simple element of cause-and-effect, where players can choose where they walk and create a new element to the story, has a massive impact on one’s feeling of integration with the game world. It’s such a tiny change between the two games, but the difference is blinding.
Dear Esther treats me as a passenger, and regards my place in the world with disregard. I might as well not even be there. The Stanley Parable actually plays with me, rather than without me, treating me like a valued part of the game world as opposed to a dishonored guest. It helps that the game’s narrator is as likable as he is psychologically unnerving, using humor and affability to encourage me to rush to the next bit of dialog. I could barely care about the dreary narration of Dear Esther, nor the undefined characters he drones on about. I’m not saying all art games have to be funny, but if you’re going to make me listen to a story, don’t have a boring man make obfuscating allusions to something that might be interesting if we were given a reason to care.
As I become more interested in the “art game” as we’ve come to understand it, I’ve come to realize that things like Dear Esther are exactly what we don’t need. Such games (and I will keep calling an item packaged and sold on a game service that very thing) feel lazy and shallow, as generic as any military first-person shooter you can name. We need more games that play with the element of interactivity, rather than treat it as an awkward distraction. We need game worlds that players can truly interact with, feel a part of. There’s no involvement in a game where the player is a disembodied, incorporeal entity with zero influence. The Stanley Parable proves that with just a little sense of belonging to a world, the player can become truly engrossed. The Stanley Parable proves that games about walking, and art games in general, can be as experimental, atmospheric, and strange as they like, but they need to acknowledge that they’re interactive products, and acknowledge the people interacting with them. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The Stanley Parable made a gesture toward the player. A small effort that changed the entire experience. That’s why it succeeded, and why Dear Esther failed.