I spent two months travelling around Eastern and Central Europe, exploring the art and culture of many places. One place that was especially interesting to me was KunstHausWien, a museum in the Landstraße district designed by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. On entering you notice a lack of straight lines immediately — uneven floors and staircase, curved walls — and a central pillar adorned with a quote by Hundertwasser from 1991:
“The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines — not human beings. […] An uneven and animated floor is the recovery of man’s mental equilibrium, of the dignity of man which has been violated in our levelling, unnatural and hostile urban grid system. […] The uneven floor becomes a symphony, a melody for the feet and brings back natural vibrations to man. […] It is good to walk on uneven floors and regain our human balance.” — Hundertwasser, April, 1991
Quite simply this made me think in a way I never had about the modern world. First I thought about how city streets extended to turn the outside world completely flat. Not only within buildings but within the city, at almost all times, we stand on a level surface. My thought process ended there. It was simply an interesting thing to consider, although what effects, if any, it actually had on me and others I couldn’t tell.
Then, a few days later, on a coach to Bratislava, I pull out my Nintendo Switch and start playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I had already read in reviews and think-pieces about the ‘verticality’ of the game; the numerous climbs and falls necessary to complete each objective and explore the world adequately. But with thoughts of KunstHausWien and the world of Hyrule before me, I drew a link many may have before and is downright obvious: ‘verticality’ is vital because we don’t experience it in the real world. We use lifts to go up and down, climb even staircases, ride trains or cars around the city and rarely experience uneven ground. Within this game, we are allowed to experience these feelings that are absent from our everyday lives.
And that’s the aim of a game like this; to give you an experience of exploration and role-playing in a fantasy — ‘verticality’ is key to that fantasy. Again, sadly, my thought process stopped there. More recently I read an article documenting a thread of tweets by Matt Walker about the game design in Breath of the Wild. The key point I picked up from this article was the triangle rule — they create intrigue and a challenge. You can never see all of your destination if a triangle is in the way, to do so you must go over or around. Furthermore, there are no straight lines between you and your objective. This happens constantly in Breath of the Wild.
Simply reading that made me remember the KunstHausWien. Perhaps this game isn’t just a fantasy escape but actually connects to something intrinsic, instinctual, and noticeably missing from our lives. Perhaps that is key to what makes it so great.
Now, to think more about how important ‘verticality’ is, an essay by Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective is useful. In short, this incredibly interesting and detailed essay highlights the shift from linear perspective to vertical perspective. As Steyerl says, “Our sense of spatial and temporal orientation has changed dramatically in recent years, prompted by new technologies […] One of the symptoms [being] the growing importance of aerial views: overviews, Google Map views, satellite views.” Linear perspective — a single perspective in relation to the horizon — has been replaced by vertical perspective, due to the multiple layered God’s-eye viewing options we have of the world. She continues, “Linear perspective has been supplemented by other types of vision to the point where we may have to conclude that its status as the dominant visual paradigm is changing.”
Firstly, we must highlight the difference between vertical perspective and game ‘verticality’. Vertical perspective is a viewpoint from one of the vertical points on an imaginary axis, i.e. perpendicular to the horizon line. Verticality within a game “relates to the scale of spaces in a game and the player’s ability and freedom to traverse them. It implies that a player has freedom of movement that extends to vertical planes through abilities, vehicles, or level design,” but from a linear view.
So, to extrapolate on Steyerl’s essay, not only do we lack ‘verticality’ in our day to day lives, we also have a shifting perspective away from utilising the horizon to show us our position within the world, instead to top-down views in which we imagine the height of buildings and are supplemented with a virtual floor — a 2D viewpoint that portrays little of our interaction with the real world. Not only is ‘verticality’ lacking in our physical engagement with the world (because of our design of the world), it is also now lacking due to alternate layered viewpoints of the world.
“…many of the aerial views, 3D nose-dives, Google Maps, and surveillance panoramas do not actually portray a stable ground. Instead, they create a supposition that it exists in the first place. Retroactively, this virtual ground creates a perspective of overview and surveillance for a distanced, superior spectator safely floating up in the air. Just as linear perspective established an imaginary stable observer and horizon, so does the perspective from above establish an imaginary floating observer and an imaginary stable ground.” — Hito Steyerl, In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective
As she says, “this establishes a new visual normality — a new subjectivity safely folded into surveillance technology and screen-based distraction.” So, to bring it back around, Breath of the Wild gives us an ability to utilise linear perspective within an uneven world full of ‘verticality,’ something not only sorely lacking from our day to day lives but also something we pine for. And while this may all seem a bit obvious, the key thing to highlight is that there is so much more that this offers than merely an escape from reality. It offers an escape to something that we are naturally drawn to.
“The flat floor is an invention of the architects. It fits engines — not human beings.” Maybe, if we can’t change the world we live in, we can escape to a fantasy that does fit human beings. And it makes me think that the irony of it all is that we must escape a world built for machines through a machine. Another thought for another time.
02 November 2017