Dear Esther

I just finished playing “Dear Esther,” (1) a game, if you can call it that, about the the death of a man, and I have to write about it (Warning, spoilers ahead). He is sick, or so he says. He was friends with a man named Donnelly who suffered from syphilis and abused laudanum, or so he says. He pines for his lost love Esther, or so he says. The player’s character narrates the game, but is he a trustworthy narrator?

In the game, you wander around an island, witnessing sights of beauty while listening to the forlorn tale of the island’s inhabitants. There is Jakobson, a poor man who tries to raise himself out of poverty by herding goats, and Donnelly. Who are these two people, and how do they relate to the player? We gather that Donnelly was the player’s friend but that there was a falling out.

Why is the player on the island? We hear that the player has cordoned himself on the island to isolate the sickness from others. Perhaps. When we first start out, we can see a communications antenna on the peak of the central mountain on the island, with it’s pulsating light at the top drawing us in. We immediately know that this tower is our destination. What awaits us there? Why must we traverse the island to get there? The narrator tells us that the seagulls have all left the island, and that the original inhabitants of the island have left as well. There is nothing left, just the remnants of buildings and the sickly, scraggly plant life, rocks, and sand. The feeling of loneliness and emptiness is palpable.

A beautiful cave

A beautiful cave (2)

There is a tension between the idleness of the island, the feeling of inevitable death, and the drive to reach the top. The narrator calls it his Damascus. As we travel through the island, we come across sights of true, awe-inspiring beauty. We come across paintings on the walls of caves and cliffs; paintings of hydrocarbon chains, alcohol compounds, and electrical schematics. Perhaps this is symbolic of how Esther died? Then start the messages…at first they tell the tale of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, but they start to take a subtle turn. “Was Paul’s conversion the result of brain trauma?” it hints to us. Is our trip also the result of brain trauma? Is any of this real? We start to feel more and more that we are being led to the top, not going there of our own accord. It is nighttime now and the moon is up, and there are candles lighting the way. Who lit these candles? We catch glimpses of a hooded character in the shadows, but nothing more. Who is this stranger?

The drive to get to the top gets stronger. We are moving faster now. The messages on the walls start to hint at something less hopeful. We aren’t heading to our salvation at the top, but rather to the inevitable conclusion of our fate. We get to the top, to the communications tower. We climb to the top of the tower and look out over the island. We look down, past the tower, past the cliffs, to the ocean below, and we jump. We fall in slow motion, pas the tower, past the cliffs, and begin to fly across the ocean. Our shadow is that of a seagull. We fly out over the ocean, soaring, and the screen begins to fade until there is nothing left but the sound of the ocean. We are dead.

I sit pondering the game. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is supposed to be a story of redemption, but that is not the fate of the character. The continual references to the story seem to say many things, but never confirming. Perhaps the story is a sort of wistful hope that the character clings to in order to avoid dealing with his fate. Perhaps the game itself is saying that stories such as there only serve to divorce ourselves from reality. It certainly shows a sense of desperation in dealing with death…and perhaps even in trying to find meaning in life; some sort of sign that this journey has some revelatory meaning.

The lonely island

The lonely island (2)

Just what was the journey? Was the island real? Was there really a person leading us to the top, and if so who was he/she? Was it Esther? Donnelly? The narrator himself? We never really find out. The narrator refers to “Esther Donnelly” a few times; are they actually the same person? Was Donnelly really the narrator’s lost love? Are they perhaps different parts of the narrator himself? Does the narrator even exists for that matter? These are not questions that the game answers.

It’s amazing to see how indie game devs are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done with games. Games such as “Dear Esther” show that there is such a huge potential for telling meaningful stories in the medium. While it may sound strange at first to use a game to convey a story like this, it actually was the perfect choice. The story is one of discovery (as much as you discover anyways), and by using an interactive media, we are actually making the discoveries for ourselves. As the drive to reach the top increases as the game moves on, it is not just the character that is driven, but ourselves that is driven. We aren’t just contemplating the death of a character, but the death of ourselves. By using the format of a game, it becomes much more introspective, and much more personal.


Dear Ester Trailer (1)

(1) Briscoe, Robert. “Dear Esther.” Dear Esther. Available: http://dear-esther.com/
(2) [H|G]~Modred189~ “Dear Esther Screenshots”. Steam Community. 19 Februrary, 2012. Available: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Modred189/screenshots/?tab=public&showdate=1&filter=app_203810

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Art is for everyone, you just have to know where to look.

I really do believe that art is for everyone, but many people don’t get into it because they are intimidated. I can understand the (false) perception that you have to have this encyclopedic understanding of art history in order to appreciate art, and that if you don’t just absolutely love every piece cited as a masterpiece, then it’s your fault and you just don’t “get it.” It’s unfortunate that this perception is so prevalent because it is patently untrue.

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt (1)

Art is, almost by definition, subjective. It is emotional. When experiencing art, we are going on a journey, one in which we bring all of our past experiences and values in to our understanding and appreciation of a work. Given the huge diversity of experiences, it seems obvious (to me at least) why everyone experiences art differently, and thus appreciates different art.

I do think that there is an objective answer to the technical qualities of a work. Some pieces are just simply painted/written/composed better than others. I don’t think that anyone would claim that Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto’s are less technically accomplished than The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or that the Monet’s On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt is less technically accomplished than Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup.

For me personally, though, I prefer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band over the concertos because I just don’t respond emotionally to Baroque era pieces. Similarly I like the Warhol piece over the Monet piece because the impressionistic period, well, kinda bores me. Most impressionists painted subjects who were well off, usually in a state of leisure. I don’t get the sense that impressionists were trying to really say anything with there pieces, but rather were trying to push the boundaries of technique. This approach just doesn’t invoke the same response in me that the idea-focused works of Picasso or Dali do.

Campbell's Soup Cans

Campbell's Soup Cans (2)

I don’t mean to diminish the importance of Monet or Bach; they were both pivotal to the growth of their respective meanings, and were very talented artists. They just aren’t my cup of tea is all, which is fine. I recognize that many people don’t share the same tastes that I have. Shostakovich is one of my favorite composers, but critical opinions of him are mixed. For example, French composer Pierre Boulez was critical of  Shostakovich, dismissing it as “the second, or even third pressing of Mahler.” (3) That doesn’t really matter to me though, because when I listen to his work, I love it. I also recognize that Boulez doesn’t like Shostakovich the same way that I don’t like Monet. Everyone is different, and that makes it interesting.

So what about someone who isn’t in to art and doesn’t know where to start? My advice is to try and sample as much as possible. Go to a varied and all-encompasing museum (such as the de Young museum in San Francisco), instead of a more focused museum (like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). Museums like the de Young make it easy to see a lot of different types of artwork. The same thing for music, film, and literature: just experience as much as possible. There is so much variety in the art world that there is most likely something for everyone. Finding out what one likes is the hard part. Once you know what you like the rest is easy, and rewarding.

(1) “On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Available: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/exhibitions/Impressionism/Monet
(2) “Andy Warhol.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andy_Warhol
(3) “Dimitri Shostakovich.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dmitri_Shostakovich#Criticism

P.S. My banner for this site is a cropped version of a photo I took of a piece at the de Young museum in San Francisco.

Self Portrait by Francesca Woodman

I was at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently where I saw the collected works of Francesca Woodman. It was a truly amazing exhibit! SFMOMA puts it best in describing Woodman:

Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) was an artist decisively of her time, yet her photographs retain an undeniable immediacy. Thirty years after her death, they continue to inspire audiences with their dazzling ambiguities and their remarkably rich explorations of self-portraiture and the body in architectural space. (1)

Woodman was only active for a few years, starting in 1975 and ending when she committed suicide in 1982. She focused primarily on self-portraiture, intending her work to be a sort of dialog with herself. (2) While others focused on the world around them, Woodman look inward. Her work has an ambiguity about them that is endlessly fascinating. The meaning of her work is very non-obvious, and I’m sure has generated much discussion. She explored a variety of themes, such as occupation of space and differentiation of the self from one’s environment. She has a number of pieces where she almost appears to be disappearing into the space itself.

There is one piece that spoke to me more than the rest. SFMOMA had the title listed as “Untitled,” but I have also found the title listed as “Self Portrait,” so I am going to use that title going forward. While studying this picture, I started talking with one of the museum staff about it, and our interpretations of the piece were quite different; a perfect example of the ambiguity of her work. Before I discuss our interpretations, take a moment to come up with your own. It’s hard to see in this copy of the image, but the sheet of paper on the wall is a birth certificate, and the scarf around her neck is a mink scarf.

Self Portrait

"Self Portrait" by Francesca Woodman (1) (3)

The staff member and I both agreed that the birth certificate plays an important role, but we differed on what that importance was. The staff member viewed the birth certificate as an unnecessary reminder that the subject is alive…i.e. that there is this beautiful woman filled with complexity who is very much alive, and the birth certificate is only necessary for those who can’t see it. It makes a statement that people get caught up with image and how they think society wants them to look and that they needed to be reminded from time to time what real beauty is. My interpretation is subtly, yet dramatically different. I don’t think that the birth certificate is superfluous for the subject but necessary for others, but rather that it is superfluous for others but necessary for the subject.

When this picture was taken, Woodman was attempting to become a fashion photographer in New York. It seems reasonable to assume that she was aware of the superficiality of the industry. Look how the mink scarf serves as a sort of border between the superficial and the real. Her face is very done up; covered in makeup, perfect hair, that “modelling” expression that looks like there is no emotion. It is practically lifeless. Contrast this with her body below the scarf. Her body is very natural, with skin blemishes, armpit hair, and a more natural skin tone. To me, this represents a woman who has forgotten that there is a real person below the facade of superficiality thrust upon her by the industry/society, and needs the birth certificate to remind herself that she really is still alive.

Which interpretation is correct? I’m not sure, and I’m not even sure if there is a “correct” interpretation, or even if the question itself is valid. It’s also interesting to ponder that the photo was taken in 1981, the year that Woodman committed suicide. Could this have been an expression of how she saw herself at the time? She never said while she was still alive, so we’ll never know. All we can do is ponder her magnificent work and discuss, as great works of art are wont to do.

(1) “Francesca Woodman.” San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 151 Third Street, San Francisco, California. Visited January 15th, 2012. Reference: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/430
(2) Romano, Gianni. “Francesca Woodman on being an angel.” PhotoArts. October, 1998. Available: http://photoarts.com/journal/romano/woodman/
(3) “The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery.” The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery. Available: http://www.friendsoftheuffizigallery.org/gifts.html