Genius Loci

By Rob Dwiar

A grand tour of video game landscapes and gardens

Saturday, 23 October 2021

Sacred and spiritual landscapes

I’m not religious at all but I have always been interested in religious, sacred, and spiritual landscapes - this mainly comes from my interest in meaning, narratives, and stories in landscape design. From sacred olive groves in the Mediterranean to western Christian cemeteries, and from ancient sacred landscapes (like Stonehenge in my previous update) to natural landscapes which humans have imbued spiritual qualities on, they can be as rich in meaning as any.

A recent trip to Wells Cathedral brought this back for me ‘in the flesh’. The main star of the show is of course, the beautiful cathedral itself, but there are pockets of landscape around it that make up modern open green spaces (that used to be the cemetery), an inner cloister-like cemetery landscape in the middle of the cathedral’s site, and parts like the Bishop’s Palace’s own gardens and landscape. It was an inspirational trip, and even those snippets bring a landscape’s character and meaning to the fore: big yew trees - synonymous with cemeteries, stand in the middle of graveyards, enormous specimen trees are scattered across the land, and the peaceful and uncluttered landscape makes a fine approach and setting for the intricate architecture. Though said architecture also features interior elements which evoke the sense of trees and canopies.

Such places are also great examples of how architecture and buildings have to work beautifully with the landscape and the design of outdoor spaces. This can be considered right down to the literal point where a building’s vertical walls meet the landscape’s horizontal plane and often makes for interesting design questions.

As a landscape designer this is an area of research and history that really interests me, but as a games writer, writing Genius Loci, it also greatly interests me; after all, a spiritual quality or element is key to a place’s Genius Loci and this can readily be found in games. A spiritual element like a god or creator can sometimes appear in games places - Andrew Ryan and imposed philosophy over BioShock’s Rapture immediately comes to mind as an example, the religious architecture that‘s woven into the landscape in Dragon Age Inquisition another, and the clearly designed-in reverence, sense of journey, and sacredness of temple or church gardens in the Assassin’s Creed series as one more. Such examples and the concept of sacredness in video game landscapes is something I’ll definitely be exploring in the book and it promises to be an interesting, and beautiful, exploration.


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