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The Men Who Stare At Mountains

Rick Lane | 8 Feb 2012 19:00
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"Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them."
- Joseph Addison, The Spectator no. 412. Monday, June 23, 1712

For some years now, videogames from Modern Warfare to Mass Effect have been exploring ways of portraying grandeur and spectacle, with varying degrees of success. Astonishing architecture, dizzying set-pieces, and vast open landscapes have become staples in a gamer's diet. In response, gaming culture has attempted to define this phenomenon. The word we seem to have settled on is "epic." Strictly speaking, however, "epic" defines an object in its entirety - originally derived from epic poetry. The concept of an "epic moment" is fundamentally a contradictory one.

The concept of an "epic moment" is fundamentally a contradictory one.

There is another term, rooted deep in literary and aesthetic theory that describes such moments far more accurately. As yet it has not entered the gaming vocabulary in any meaningful way. Now, however, the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, has provided a unique pathway for the discussion of videogames' relationship with "the sublime," for Skyrim both embodies sublime theory in its design, and evokes sublime moments as a creative work.

The current understanding of the sublime has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Between 1660 and 1850, it was customary for the young aristocratic men of Europe to embark upon a tour of the continent. It was deemed a cultural rite-of-passage, a mark of their graduation into full adulthood. Ostensibly educational, these tours often made their route through the Alps, and it was their reflections upon this often difficult and occasionally perilous journey that paved the way for the sublime. In short, posh people began to stare at mountains, and wonder what it all meant.

Nowadays, you don't have to be offensively wealthy or so much as leave your bedroom to experience this sensation. A couple of clicks and a few loading screens, and I'm standing by a river in a forest glade, looking up at a mountain. It's the largest mountain in the country, dominating the landscape for miles around. I'm a fair distance from its foot, and yet I have to crane my neck to view it in its entirety. Even then, I cannot see the summit, for it is obscured by swirling cloud and the sheer craggy bulk of the mountainside.

The actual size of the mountain is incomprehensible to me. Potentially, the mountain could stretch on infinitely, piercing the atmosphere, poking into space. Even more unfathomable is the potential power bound up in this great spike of stone and snow. If this situation were slightly different, if I am not careful when braving the paths on and around it, it could pose a great danger to my personal well-being.

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