The Evolving Landscapes of Video Games

by Allison Meier on August 13, 2013

Skyrim's the Elder Scrolls V

Skyrim’s the Elder Scrolls V (screencaps by the author)

We are a long way from the panning 8-bit landscapes of early video games into fully immersive other worlds that can be explored as places in their own right. Some of these digital destinations are documented in a new online series called Other Places.

Created by YouTube user ultrabrilliant, aka writer Andy Kelly, the vignettes aimed at “celebrating beautiful video game worlds” soar through the beautiful places that gamers may be too busy speeding or shooting through to take a moment to view, or those who don’t play games may never visit.

The places chosen are as epic as any Turner vista, from the idyllic Bright Falls from Alan Wake where a haunting fog settles over pine trees and empty diners, to the more obviously fantastical locales like BioShock Infinite‘s Columbia, a city-in-the-clouds with a buoyant dreamscape of sunlit streets and steampunk monorails. There’s the decay and dark hues of Dunwall from Dishonored with its Victorian-like industrial wear, and the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim landscapes where the aurora borealis descends over sweeping vistas dotted with ruins and waterfalls. For each, you’re totally removed from the character perspective of these games, and the constant escalating need for killing, puzzle solving, or whatever the gameplay entails, to just witness these as landscapes.

Dunwall from Dishonored

Dunwall from Dishonored

Columbia in BioShock Infinite

Columbia in BioShock Infinite

I first remember getting really entranced with the landscape of a video game when charging through the Hyrule Field of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on Nintendo 64 (this was my first console, so I missed exploring the more pixelated predecessors). In retrospect, it was really nothing impressive, just a flat green field you run through, but the fact I could go anywhere, and the space was endlessly explorable with angles that gave different perspectives on the sky and the scattering of static trees, transfixed me.

Justin Berry, "Lone Tree on Rocks" (via Justin Berry)

Justin Berry, “Lone Tree on Rocks” (via Justin Berry)

And as these landscapes have gotten more complex, more dimensional, more like actual places than sequences for gameplay, artists have started responding. For example, Justin Berry uses composites of screen captures from war-centered video games to capture a moment, like a single tree on a rocky slope, with as sharp of eye as any landscape photographer. There’s an uncanny quiet to them, appearing both hyperreal and also with tellings signs of fantasy.

Mark Tribe is similarly inspired by these video game landscapes for his Rare Earth series, where he focuses on the moments of overlooked beauty in these places of virtual violence, as well as the real world landscapes of actual militia training grounds. As Tribe writes on his site:

“It occurs to me that video game landscapes may be a significant new phase in the history of landscape representation. They are certainly a sign that video games are coming of age, and yet another indication of the convergence between what used to be known as virtual reality and what I still think of as real life.”

Dunwall from Dishonored

Dunwall from Dishonored

Pandora from Borderlands 2

Pandora from Borderlands 2

There’s also James Barnett whose Fauxvism series plays off of the representational style of fauvism with landscapes painted from video games like Half-Life 2 and Grand Theft Auto IV. Yet while all of these artists are responding to the transportation of place that has become a greater and greater focus of video games, even those where gory war clashes over the serenity, the Other Places series is much more about the often under-appreciated game designers themselves.

It’s the incredible depth, detail, and vision of epic space that makes these game places so compelling, even when the game action is entirely removed. Decay, disaster, and abandoned spaces have long been a preferred gaming landscape, for their eerie nature and instant mood, and it’s easy to compare the frequently ruinous places and meticulous landscapes to old 19th century Romanticism, and wonder if video games will continue to experiment into places more based on abstraction than reality. But it’s likely a mistake to parallel painting with games, as no matter their visual connection, the games’ emphasis on personal experience and, in the end, interactive action, will continue to cause them to evolve into their own realms.

Click here to view all of the Other Places videos

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