Art games are a bit of a controversial topic. On the one hand, they sometimes offer beautiful visuals with the potential for an emotionally moving experience. On the other hand, they sometimes don't offer anything resembling worthwhile gameplay. Balancing the two is always a difficult task, and many art games often wind up sacrificing one for the other, for better or for worse.
Since I've recently played a number of more prominent, artistic indie releases, I figured I'd examine the relative strengths and weaknesses of each one. How do indie games like The Path, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable compare to one another, and how does each one represent the "art game" genre? How can we improve future game design by learning from these three examples? Continue reading to find out.
The Path > Dear Esther > The Stanley Parable
Visuals are a very important element in any game. The visual design is a major factor in establishing a game's overall style, and it's perhaps the very first thing to impress upon you when you start playing. With a lot of these indie "art games," their graphics tend to be the primary stand-out feature. People want their games to be like an interactive painting, and so a lot of work goes into crafting the visuals. For this section, I should mention that I'm referring to the 2012 retail release of Dear Esther, not the 2008 mod.
I don't think anyone should wonder why I've put The Stanley Parable last in this category. Its visual design is quite obviously not the emphasis of the game, and when you get down to it, a lot of the graphics are arguably bland and repetitive (although that could arguably be by design). There are also a lot recycled models and textures from Half-Life 2, so it's not entirely original. This is of course not a major criticism--it's a free mod, after all. Its visuals are effective for what the game strives to accomplish, but they don't stand out in a particularly interesting way.
Technically speaking, The Path's graphics are actually worse than the other two, but it has quite a lot of distinctive flair and variety to its visuals. It implements some pretty stimulating color contrasts, ranging from deeply saturated and colorful (when you're on the path) to the lower saturation, bleak imagery of the forest. Then you've got all of the fairy tale imagery splashing on the screen and interesting overlay effects. It's fairly unique in this regard, with poignant simplicity and evocative artistry, as if it's coming straight out of a storybook or something.
Dear Esther is also a very beautiful game. The island is rendered in super high detail and looks fantastic. Even the ruined buildings, which are supposed to look decrepit and miserable end up looking beautiful in their design and attention to detail. The caves midway through the game are especially evocative and stimulating, as most people will tell you the scenery of the caves chapter can sell the entire game on its own. But, as impressive as the visuals in Dear Esther are, I have a slight preference for the more fantastical design of The Path, which feels more original and inspiring.
The Stanley Parable > Dear Esther > The Path
Each of these games is supposed to have a deeper meaning to its story. The Path has its use of visual and symbolic metaphors, Dear Esther has its disjointed storytelling with the air of mystery, and The Stanley Parable offers a deeper critique of both playing and designing video games. They're each notable in this regard, but a deeper meaning is almost worthless if it's not conveyed in a compelling manner.
The Path suffers from an incredibly meandering pace. There's virtually no actual story in it, and even less story-telling. It's really difficult to care about its metaphors when the game doesn't present any kind of overt narrative, and although the metaphors are kind of stimulating, they're not especially satisfying because there's not a whole lot of meat to the experience. Any kind of deeper meaning that's divined from it is generated by the player, and not necessarily prompted by the game itself.
Dear Esther presents a more overt narrative. There is actually a concrete story here; if you pay close attention to everything and play the game a few times, you can piece together a fairly solid theory on what happened in the past and what's going on now. But much like The Path, it feels like it's trying a little too hard to be clever and steeped with hidden meaning; it's intentionally vague and disjointed. The nature of the story doesn't really compel you forward, and there's not much of a revelation or final pay-off for everything. In the end, even though the story is very artistic, it just doesn't have a lot of momentum to it.
Meanwhile, in The Stanley Parable, it's clear from the very beginning what kind of story you're in for. The narrator specifically tells you "this is the story about a man named Stanley," and your brain synchronizes with the experience. He tells you things in clear and specific terms, and you know what's going on as you play. And then you encounter strange turns and things start to get curious, but since you're anchored in a very firm setting you can keep up with it and reflect on it as you go. Not to mention, it's far more to-the-point, with a short story told in a short amount of time, instead of feeling needlessly drawn out with superfluous padding.
The Stanley Parable > The Path > Dear Esther
Finally, we come to the interactive nature of these three art games, and to what degree they actually benefit from the interactive nature of video games. Video games are supposed to be interactive, with a sort of back-and-forth pattern of game stimulus, player response, and game feedback -- that's the basic psychological pattern that makes video games fun. Now, these games aren't conventional games and so they're not going adhere to traditional conventions, but they're all interactive and they all implement interactivity with varying degrees of success.
Dear Esther brings up the rear this time around because, quite frankly, there's absolutely no interaction. You just move forward along a linear path looking at the scenery and listening to the narrator. But if you're just there for the sights and the story, then why not just make it a 20 minute cutscene? I guess being in control of the first-person perspective helps you identify with the narrator, but this intention is kind of meaningless when the story is intentionally vague and disjointed. Otherwise, having the freedom to explore doesn't really benefit you when, more often than not, you just encounter dead ends that don't even prompt more elements of the story.
The Path isn't much better, but it does have some interactive elements when you explore the forest (even though it has the unintuitive control scheme of taking your hands off the controls to interact with the environment). The forest is a non-linear place that you can explore at your own pace, finding different things depending on where you go, that each have some kind of effect on the final sequence. It gives you a little bit of feedback when you find something, which makes it a little bit more rewarding to explore, in this case.
The Stanley Parable takes the cake when it comes to interactivity because your input has a very significant impact on the course of the game and the overall experience. The game actually changes and reacts to your decisions -- you do something, and the narrator reacts. It gives you feedback for your actions and provides a general sense of significance, that what you do in this game actually matters, even though you're really just walking around, just like in the other two. I can't really say anything more on the matter, because it should be pretty obvious how this is an important element to have in an interactive medium, and that The Stanley Parable has a lot more going for it than the other two contenders.
When it comes down to it, all three of these games (if you even want to call them that) chose to explore their stories and themes through an interactive medium, and it begs the question if they actually benefit from the interactivity at all, or at least, from the interactivity they chose to implement. Gameplay-wise, The Path is pretty boring and tedious, even though I really like its artistry and certain elements of its design. The limited interactivity of Dear Esther is almost pointless and only serves to exaggerate its slow pacing.
I'm not here to say that these games suck because they're not like traditional games. I'm always one to like things that are weird and unconventional, and I do believe these games have some kind of redeeming value that makes them worthwhile experiences, even if they are flawed as far as video games go. I do feel, however, that these "art games" don't always use the medium to its full potential and ultimately hurt themselves when a player enters into the experience with even the most basic of expectations.
When you add an interactive element (such as controlling the movement of a character) to an artistic expression, a lot of gamers will wonder "what does this interactivity contribute to the experience," and in the case of Dear Esther, I feel I have to argue that it doesn't really add anything at all. I actually had a more enjoyable time watching a "let's play" video series of it than I did playing it, which just goes to show that it might have been a more moving experience for me if it were just a short movie, because the "gameplay" really just ruins the pacing of the experience.
That's of course not to say that games shouldn't experiment with unconventional elements. I think the industry is better for having these kinds of experiences around that explore themes beyond traditional gameplay. But I think that these indie art games become even better experiences when they're able to weave responsive feedback and interactivity into the experience. On the surface, The Stanley Parable isn't much different from Dear Esther, and yet the experience of playing it is just so much more grand and remarkable because of its interactivity and the narrative thrust of its story.
So to any indie devs out there, keep making these art games. I really appreciate them, even if I'm not always having "fun" with them, because some of these things are worthwhile even if they're not inherently fun. But at the same time, if you're going to make your artistic expression in a game engine, coming up with some kind of interesting gameplay mechanic will generally add a lot more salience to the experience.