The Men Who Stare At Mountains

“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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But the most interesting thing about the mountain is not its size, or its power, but how it is perceived by the individual. I am not just anyone; I am the Dragonborn, perhaps the most powerful individual in all of Skyrim, even able to bend the weather to my will. Despite this, despite all my power, all my ability, I am subject to the mountain. No matter how I push, it will remain unmoved. I must come to it and go around it, and if I wish to view it wholly, I must stand well back, or look up.

But the most interesting thing about the mountain is not its size, or its power, but how it is perceived by the individual.

Three hundred years ago, this kind of introspection eventually evolved into a comprehensible theoretical concept. It was based on the writings of the Greek philosopher Longinus, whose foundational work On Sublimity attempted a rationalization of the emotional reaction to grand scenes in poetry. Longinus describes “real sublimity” as “difficult or rather impossible to resist, and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory.”

Vital as they are to sublime theory, Longinus’ ideas are rather abstract, and focus largely on the qualities a person requires in order to experience the sublime. Though this would remain a feature throughout the neoclassical age, eighteenth-century theorists also helped to ground the sublime in reality, how the outside world affected interior experiences.

The essayist and co-founder of The Spectator, Joseph Addison, was one of the earliest contributors to sublime theory at that time. In an essay on the subject, he considered the emotional effect that grand or immense landscapes could have on an individual. “Such are the prospects of an open champian country, a vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters, where we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight, but with that rude kind of magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of nature.”

The neoclassical theorists also narrowed the definition of the Sublime, and distinguished it from objects that are Beautiful. In his famous Enquiry, Edmund Burke wrote “sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great, rugged and negligent.”

In terms of its design, Skyrim bears a strikingly close resemblance to the accounts and reflections of the early sublime theorists. Of Addison’s list, only the vast uncultivated desert is missing, though in its stead Skyrim has frozen wastes and barren marshes. Moreover, the landscape is precisely as Burke describes it – rugged and negligent. The particular similarities between Skyrim‘s design and the neoclassical theories of what can inspire sublime emotions make it an excellent example of how the sublime can be experienced in gaming, because the chroniclers of the sublime were not merely concerned with the emotional reaction to such grandeur, but how to replicate these sensations in works of art.

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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