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The Men Who Stare At Mountains

Rick Lane | 8 Feb 2012 15:00
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One of the major advantages videogames have over other art forms in terms of evoking sublime emotion is their sense of scale. For example, watch this incredible video of an iceberg forming in the BBC series Frozen Planet. The iceberg is claimed to be larger than any man-made building, yet without a frame of reference it is difficult to appreciate this. While this video of an iceberg looming from the mist in Skyrim is much less dramatic, the scale of the iceberg is far easier to comprehend. There is enormous potential for games here, because sublime experiences depend heavily upon an individual being capable of understanding the scale of an object in relation to themselves.

How we express ourselves regarding games is inextricably linked to how we perceive them socially and artistically.

Alongside his ruminations upon landscapes that could cause these emotions, Addison also linked the sublime to freedom and choice, theorizing that "a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to range abroad, to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views, and to lose itself amidst the variety of objects that offer themselves to the observation."

In other forms of art, such as visual art and films, the individual is limited in this experience by the designs of the artist. In a game like Skyrim however, the landscape can be experienced by the player from any distance and any angle, and in ways that might be entirely unique to that person. It removes a level of abstraction between a work and its audience, allowing us to experience the sublime from within an artifact, rather than being forced to stand outside it. Skyrim is particularly good at this, allowing an unparalleled level of freedom to explore its mountain ranges, its woods and forests, its geyser-strewn tundra.

Indeed, the link between Skyrim and the sublime becomes even more apparent when we discuss the later theories of the sublime as a negative pleasure. Both Burke and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant described it in this manner. Burke articulated the sublime as "being founded on pain", whereas Kant, in his Critique of Judgement more specifically describes it as "a feeling of displeasure that arises from the imagination's inadequacy, in an aesthetic estimation of magnitude". Kant later goes on to explain that this displeasure is simultaneously a pleasure, because "the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place."

Interestingly, many players of Skyrim have described a form of "choice paralysis" while playing. Even some games journalists have made mention of it. The sheer immensity of the game, combined with the level of freedom it offers, becomes overwhelming and ultimately mildly frightening. This negative pleasure is not dissimilar from that which Kant describes, as we are initially imaginatively inadequate to appreciate the game in its entirety.

Eventually though, we overcome this feeling of paralysis at the scale of the game, and begin to explore it properly. Kant wrote, "In order for the mind to be attuned to the feeling of the sublime, it must be receptive to ideas." Indeed, after that initial sense of being overwhelmed, we become attuned to the game, we receive its ideas and in turn create ideas of our own. For players, games like Skyrim are story-engines, just as the Grand Tours became story-engines for the men who stared at mountains.

How we express ourselves regarding games is inextricably linked to how we perceive them socially and artistically. These theories are now hundreds of years old, and understanding of the sublime has moved on significantly, covering urban environments, social and political implications, and feminist perspectives. Nevertheless, because gaming is such a young and highly impressionable art form, it is important to consider it in relation to these foundational theories. In doing so, we can picture more accuractely how videogames are evolving and maturing.

Rick Lane is a freelance contributor and mountain-watcher for various magazines and websites. He has a website but its rubbish, so follow him on Twitter instead.

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