No, this isn’t a new Electron Dance film but, guess what, I did lend my vocal talents to fifteen seconds of someone else’s video. If you like my films you’ll likely dig this, too.

In this smart 25-minute video essay, Pixel a Day discusses the Romantic concept of “the sublime” in the context of Subnautica and The Long Dark. Don’t worry, we’ve already made some noise in her YouTube comments about Outer Wilds.

Watch below or direct on YouTube.

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6 thoughts on “Fearful Beauty

  1. That was outstanding, and you were the perfect choice for the Voice of Burke. It makes perfect sense that video games are ideal platforms for exploring that “sublime” experience, simply because they put you in the world in a way other media don’t. Subnautica and The Long Dark are great examples of the specific loneliness (that is, being alone along with being in thrall to the existential dread of enormity).

    Some populous games have a pretty good take on it as well, despite the presence of others–NPC or not–in the world. For obvious reasons I found myself thinking about Elite:Dangerous during the video. There we have a scale model of the galaxy, essentially designed to humble the player before the void; yet aside from just the vastness of it, I didn’t feel the sublime as it’s described in this video, and not just because there are other players and characters floating around out there. It’s a little too sterile. Despite beautiful screenshot fodder, once you get close, there’s not much difference between Point In Space X and Point In Space Y.

    Watching the video made me highlight various games on my list that I’ve been meaning to visit or revisit. Great analysis!

  2. Thanks Steerpike. Although you were spared my Irish takes which I attempted because Burke was a Dubliner, it seems.

    As you infer with your Elite Dangerous example, generating the sublime in videogames is also not all that simple – you can’t just put someone in a big space and say, ta-da, feel the sublime! It takes some craft to generate these complex emotions. Miasmata, for example, hovers around the sublime but doesn’t quite nail it. (Does it need to? No.)

    I’m thinking also of NaissanceE which is incredibly unnatural but still throbs with the same, raw power.

  3. The video captured its intended definition of “sublime” in the clip from Shadow of the Colossus, that first moment when you, even knowing generally what the game is about, clamber onto a cliff top and see, for the first time, the majestic enormity of a furry Colossan ankle as it strides by, wholly unaware of you. Where before you had not been a speck, now you are a speck–literally, to this creature–and in that moment you wonder what right you have to be present at all in an existence containing such things.

    Though as she later remarks, many games de-sublimate somewhat by adding the traditional game loop; Nightmare Defeated, Colossus destroyed, etc. Subnautica and The Long Dark really just put you in the sublime environment and leave the rest up to you. You never really have to pursue the objectives of Subnautica, and I’ll bet a lot of people didn’t, preferring to play even the campaign as a sandbox creative. And of course The Long Dark’s “real” mode is just a pure snowbox. Other survival games that have this mechanic often don’t have the overwhelming, transcendental sense of insignificance. And it can be so powerful, developers should experiment more with its uses and the opportunities they might present.

    It’s funny that the meaning of the word “sublime” has evolved, in common usage, into a sort of enervating delight or magical joy. I’m not sure if the origin of the word is Latin, but “sub” “limes” would translate roughly as “below the threshold,” (Roman history degree used for the second time in 20 years!) which opens up a whole raft of discussion about how the philosophers who first coined its use in this context interpreted it.

  4. “Don’t worry, we’ve already made some noise in her YouTube comments about Outer Wilds.”

    Aw yeah!

    It’s funny you mention Miasmata because I so very nearly put that in my response to this on Twitter but… I gave it some thought and it doesn’t quite get there does it? And yeah, it doesn’t need to either. I’ve got a lot of love for Miasmata.

    ‘Snowbox’, perfect!

  5. Due to a lot of noise in my Youtube comments I’ve now played Outer Wilds 🙂

  6. Kat, it probably won’t stop your YouTube comments until you’ve made a video about Outer Wilds with the title “Hello I Played Outer Wilds”. And then, you know, it probably won’t stem the tide 🙂

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