The claim made in the title of this post acts as somewhat of a microcosm of the video game community. Certain individuals, be they involved with the industry or not, have made the games as art debate central to legitimizing the medium to those that see games as simply a childish distraction from reality. Unfortunately, having this academic issue at the forefront of games analysis leads to the co-opting of games to provide further proof either for or against the issue, almost as if teams for a pick up basketball game were being decided.

I believe that Dear Esther is one such game. First of all, there seems to be some kind of mass trepidation in calling Dear Esther a game. If it looks like a game, plays like a game, competed in a gaming competition, and is sold on a gaming marketplace… then guess what? Dear Esther is most definitely a game. Sure it might be a little light on the gameplay side, but qualifying it as something other then a game is a disservice to the medium and the creators that populate the industry. Dear Esther is not a fun game. This idea that it is more of an experience then a game may spring from this observation – but that opinion operates on too many assumptions, namely that a game has to be fun to be qualified as such.

So what about Dear Esther provides such a bevy of ammo for the proponents of games as art? First off, Dear Esther is a remarkably good looking game. A well realized and painstakingly detailed world makes Dear Esther feel like it had an absurd art budget despite being the work of only a handful of individuals.  Each environment feels unique and purposeful, something I think could provide a better example for level design then the Mario method which sees games incorporate lava, desert, and underwater landscapes as if checking off boxes on some imaginary design manifesto.

Dear Esther’s narrative presentation has also been praised as another component of its artful design. Oddly enough, I found the minimal presentation to not be minimal enough. The way in which Dear Esther combines environmental and dialogue based clues in service of the bigger picture is well intentioned but doesn’t go far enough in either direction to be particularly effective. I think that Portal sits as a shining example of how a mix of environmental clues and spoon fed narrative can work in harmony to solicit analysis and personal interpretation, without leaving the player empty upon its conclusion.

Dear Esther goes out of its way to show what it is not, which I suppose is a shining example of a game whose development was an exercise in restraint. Conversely, the development of Saints Row The Third was an exercise in insanity. By making the most video game-esque video game, the folks at Volition proved that a game doesn’t need to be overbearing in it’s pretentiousness to become artful (see Braid, Limbo, Flower, etc).

By wholly embracing the medium, Saints Row The Third represents a watershed moment for both camps of the games as art debate. While it may not fit the classical definition of what constitutes art, to a gamer there is no way to describe Saints Row The Third other then as a work of art.

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