Genius Loci

By Rob Dwiar

A grand tour of video game landscapes and gardens

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Landscape exploration and discovery - and Elden Ring

One part of pretty much any landscape discipline, at any scale, is the combined concept of exploration and discovery. From hidden elements designed into a garden’s layout - that you perhaps get glimpses of but then have to round a corner or two to fully discover - to semi-hidden spaces in wider landscapes that promote privacy.

And you don’t need me to tell you that there’s plenty of exploration and discovery in video games and their landscapes too! Particularly in open-world games, and more so in some particular open-world games. I have recently started playing Elden Ring which has a beautiful (and dangerous) world that beckons you to explore it and discover things in it. Its world of the Lands Between is so rich and detailed and full of different areas that you can stumble across things you didn’t even notice after playing it for dozens of hours.

And there’s always an unwritten and unguided element of encouragement to discover any new, optional, or side areas that you find. This only serves to heighten the sense of exploration and, especially if you should be successful in surviving the area, the discovery of a new place - as well as any rewards you obtain. Unlike in other open-world games, in Elden Ring there’s very little signposting or flagging of what you might find - or even if you need to go somewhere in the landscape; it’s all down to your own desire for discovery and exploration. And this work, with magic, secrets, and enjoyment (and multiple deaths to your character) hiding in every corner of the world for you to find and move between.

As ever, I have found myself drawing parallels between this concept with real landscapes and did so in two places I experienced in the past couple of months. Places and spots in the landscape that would encourage exploration and have a sense of discovery - if you can get to them or not. The first place was in Wales, in the Brecon Beacons near Abergavenny. While on a walk (uphill) we stumbled on a small lake with an island in the middle. I immediately thought: ‘if video games have taught me anything; there’s treasure or a secret on that island’. However, with it being in sight, but not accessible, we had discovered it but not quite explored it; even though it was begging to be explored. That’s a tangible feeling the landscape gave us.

Then, on a short stay in Dartmoor for our anniversary, my wife and I took the dog on an adventurous walk to and around Wistman’s Wood. This is a ‘properly’ ancient woodland, and, arguably, how all woodlands in the UK would (should?) look if they were totally left alone. With the added atmosphere of foggy weather, when I walked around the woods there really was a sense of wanting to go into the depths of the woods, and see what beauty and landscape secrets it (and the fog) was hiding. Once again, I had discovered it, but couldn’t quite explore it, despite having explored all the way around it, and it was calling out and pulling me in, so to speak. And perhaps, maybe that heightens the sense of exploration - the unfulfilled element that means the place remains a little mysterious.

Among others, this kind of impact and concept, the beautiful way that video games deploy it, and the parallels between that and the real world, is something that's going to make Genius Loci such an exciting prospect to write up entirely, and for everyone to read and explore… Keep sharing and we'll get there soon!

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