A whimsical and readable blog
Despite living in Vancouver for more than four years, I have been negligent in taking advantage of the beautiful nature that is easily accessible to someone living in the city. University and theatre productions has eaten up much of my time (and my mental health) but today I got together with a friend who loves hiking and we went to Lynn Valley in North Vancouver.
I won’t bore you with descriptions of the scenery or poems about nature. Suffice to say it was quite a spectacle to see, hear and feel. It’s been especially foggy in Vancouver the past few days which created a unique ambiance of mystery and intimacy. The weather also narrowed down the amount of people trudging around because the last thing I want when going on a nature walk is to walk around the same people that sneeze on me on the bus.
My friend and I walked through the valley for a few hours, talking about everything under the stars. As we got further away from the common trails and into thicker forest, I started looking out into the trees next to us. It looked like it went on forever–infinite trees growing closer and closer together the farther I looked, a mesh of bark, branch and leaf, both distant and far, endlessly going on and yet right in front of our eyes. Seeing the trees for the forest, is one way of putting it. We reached a lake and saw the water, trees along the opposite bank and a thick fog immediately behind the first few rows of trees.
“That is what’s beautiful,” I thought. What struck me so vividly was for both sights, there was a seemingly endlessness and yet a limit to what I was seeing existing simultaneously. The trees looked like they went on forever and looked like a wall of trunks as far as the eye could see, but in reality, I knew there was a road or houses or the edge of a city beyond the forest. The fog at the lake revealed some of the trees but hid others behind a grey abyss. All I needed to see was in front of me to appreciate what I was seeing. It looked like it went on forever but was still contained. Infinitely intimate. Or intimately infinite.
Naturally, as a theatre maker and student, I started thinking about how this connects to “art”. I thought of Hamlet: a play that revolves around the conflicts of a family as well as conflicts in the state of Denmark. Shakespeare gives us a lot of the family and yet we never actually see all of Denmark despite that it’s clearly there and has a lot to do with what drives some of the actions of Claudius, Fortinbras and Hamlet. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark just as something is rotten in the royal family. Microcosm and macrocosm. The small represents the large. Shakespeare presents an extremely vivid picture of the family and gives us certain back ground details about ongoing conflicts outside of Elsinor; we take pleasure in seeing the latter and we’re satisfied to have Laertes to represent the dozens of angry Danes rioting outside the castle (spoiler alert). Laertes is the fog for the trees–we see enough of the anger from the riot in him that we don’t need to see the rest of the crowd. It’s elegantly contained within him and the microcosm of the castle.
I was watching “No Country for Old Men” which does the same thing with the film’s initial establishing shots. We’re shown people-less farmland, unpopulated roads, empty plains and sky. We’re given the impression the world’s population is quite small and the only people in it are those in the film. Javier Bardeim’s character is much more terrifying given his talents for murder and subterfuge knowing there is no one around to help the protagonist if he gets cornered. There’s an infinity of places to go but a limit to the help a character can call and receive.
Some of the most popular video games are sand-box games which use this same infinite-limited device. However, the pleasure in this has limitations of its own. Sandbox games allow the player to operate outside a linear story line. Super Mario is an example of a linear story line where Mario can literally only go one direction–to the right of the screen. Non-linear and sandbox games allow exploration and deviation from a story line at the player’s discretion, the Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto being popular examples. Linear games are a lot like watching a movie where you have to accomplish the next puzzle and are doomed to repeat until you succeed. Sand box games allow you to triumphantly flash a bird to a difficult foe and go smash a car into a hot dog stand because you feel like it. Sand box games are extremely popular commercially and present themselves as a world of endless exploration.
Skyrim, for example, was like this. A beautiful looking world of mountains, forests, Thanes and Jarls, dragons and soldiers, peasants and goblins. Everything you interacted with was new and full of potential. The best sand box games keep surprisingly you and don’t allow convention to set in. For a few hours, the game feels unending and the thrill is discovering all the new surprises. Unfortunately, these do actually come to an end as game developers are not gods creating complex universes. In many ways they are but after you explore enough caves and kill enough bandits, you start to see a pattern and how far the developers decided to go. This is why people love video games so much–they love exploring but it’s also why people buy more video games because once they’ve figured out the pattern and that you can’t go past a certain stage or border, the feeling of infinity stops and you’re left killing what feels now like the same dragon over and over.
This is NOT the same as the trees and the fog or Hamlet and Denmark. If I wanted to, I could have walked through those trees and broken my sense of immersion by finding the road or the houses. I know for a fact that I am not actually in Denmark, I am in a theatre and behind that stage door is a black-clad assistant stage manager holding blood packets (again, spoiler). But in theatre, I can’t actually go up to the back of the set and test that out without being murdered by the director or stage-manager. With the trees and the forest, I don’t need to explore to the edges of the forest to see those illusion-breaking houses and roads because all I’d see as I walked through is continual forest. A video game invites the player to explore all of its bells and whistles that it hides but being invited to explore means I’m also invited to see limits and how it is NOT infinite. My need to stay seated and put on the suspension of disbelief hat is what compels me to believe we’re in Denmark, and I have no need to see more trees if what I’m already seeing is a forest.
This is not to say that video games leave you blue-balled after you’ve played them–far from. They have story and quests to do that are satisfying in their own right and you’ll play them again occasionally, just as you would re-watch a favourite movie or play. Obviously the experience is different because you know what’s going to happen and it’s not quite as “infinite” any more. This is why nature, trees and water, so simple, have an endless appeal to me. Being in the embrace of a loved one is similar and why people can sometimes stay in bed the whole day. You’re within the confines of the room but drawn to the infinite possibilities of your lover. Your world is contained and endless at once. Hamlet is contained within the family and yet is epic for its national and wide-spread national stakes–we find pleasure in that. I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s “good” art or what’s “beautiful” and I think this is one of the many things: infinitely intimate. Intimately infinite.