Any gamer will tell you the best game worlds enjoy a second life in the player’s head long after the actual quests and missions have been completed. Other Places, a series of videos created by writer Andy Kelly, explores this idea, using short montages of footage cut together to outline the landscapes and cityscapes of recent titles.
“Games are all about escapism for me, and a rich, believable world is crucial to that,” says Kelly, speaking to The Independent. “Other Places is an ode to the incredibly talented artists, designers, and coders who bring these places to life. It's a way to appreciate their amazing work without distractions.”
“Their job is a tough one, especially when it comes to open world games, because players like me are nosy. We'll scour every inch of their creations, looking for secrets and details; something, say, a film's production designer doesn't have to worry about.”
It’s this element that perhaps makes game landscapes so memorable. They get remembered not just for their visual strength but because they are tangible in a way that traditional landscapes aren’t.
How would it feel to step into a painting by Turner or Bruegel the Elder? It would be a completely different artistic experience – interactivity over objectivity. Some landscapes do ecnourage their audience to step inside the frame (Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog springs to mind) but only videogames actually allow this.
“The idea for the videos first struck me while I was playing around with the developer console in Skyrim,” says Kelly. “With it, you can unlock the camera from your character and fly around the world freely. I was soaring through all these beautiful mountain ranges and forests, and the concept for the series just blinked into my head.”
There are currently seven videos in Kelly’s series, from those same imposing Scandinavian vistas to the unsettlingly clean cities of Mirror’s Edge. The art styles themselves also come with their own character: the cel-shading and thickly outlined edges of the planet of Pandora in Borderland 2 are instantly recognisable, as is the oppressive colour palette of psychological thriller Alan Wake.
The obvious but often unacknowledged truth is that videogames are in fact often beautiful. The industry has always sold itself by emphasising visuals rather than story, and although this is partly for practical reasons (eg it’s easier to market graphics, as polygon counts and the like can be directly compared) it doesn’t take away from the end product.
This is not to say that nuanced story and character have no place in videogames. Plot is certainly a foundation of games’ appeal alongside ideas of fantasy and escapism, but the business of character just isn’t made available to gaming audiences to the same degree as in other art forms. Developers continue to push at these boundaries, but for mainstream titles it’s setting and a sense of place that are often the most successful ‘artistic’ elements.
For Kelly it’s the city of Dunwall, the central setting for much of the anachronistic stealth title Dishonoured, which was his favourite: “Unreal Engine games often look very similar, but the stylised, hand-painted textures and atmospheric lighting in Dishonored are really breathtaking. Arkane's art team [the French studio that made the game], led by Half-Life 2 designer Viktor Antonov, are just incredible.”
Looking at the video Kelly has made for Disnohoured (below) it's not hard to see the attraction. Dunwall is London frozen somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries with the technological leapfrogging of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
There's oppulent interiors that recall the Victorian pomp of Crystal Palace and the smoking chimney stacks of a Dickensian workhouse. There's even moments, when a low sun blots a skyline with smoke and light, that do indeed look like a Turner painting. They're even better when you remember you can step inside.