Lined Up In A Row

What did people do to amuse themselves before video games? They looked at the wall, they lost themselves in the little nooks of interest therein. I can remember being lost in stains, wallpaper, other people’s little cartoons; shallow caves of interest. I haven’t been bored in years and I don’t miss it; but maybe it was good to have places to stop in with no answers forthcoming and so none asked for.


Wasn’t it boring to spend all day in Versailles? The lack of surface detail in formal gardens seems remarkable, looking back. Especially in comparison to the protected world inside the manor house, the world of finely wrought objects, the forms of the hedge and the terrace seem blunt and accidental. You can focus on any one vegetal object, but if you try to look in it any detail will only repeat itself, as surely as a swatch applied in a digital rendering. It strikes me that while they defaulted to treating hedges like rammed earth, piles of single material, the designers might as well have increased the surface resolution of the garden by arraying various sorts of plant or mineral through it along equally orderly lines. But then, maybe I’m being fooled by posterity into thinking that any one plant was made to stay where it was.


In practice, the ideal for most seems not to be pure spatial sculpture, as much as the purists might want it to be; but instead a bare skeleton of spatial structure, kitted out with endless portals of meaningful detail. From the perspective of the human in luxury, all this detail exists for you to glide through and project yourself into as desired. Given enough leisure time, any tree’s bark will become visible as its own little world, unspooling perhaps at the wrong speed but in an otherwise agreeable fashion. The only little given is that you should know a few of the players, borers or bee-eaters, and something about their tendencies.

In this sense, then, the digital world is dangerously close to reinventing the wheel; like everything else people have done over the last few centuries, it’s mostly a matter of growing people where there weren’t people before. The digital world means to improve on the mute template of the forest, replacing the stag with a talking NPC.


The charm of bird’s-eye-view video games, for me, is that they do not try too hard to immerse you anything. They do not model being in a situation yourself, but seeing the situation at a remove; looking down into a miniature garden, having chosen an avatar to be half-projected into. Maybe it has that same quality of following a beetle over bark.

Has anyone yet thought of flying a drone over an old formal garden and having it trace an actual walker through, and posting the result as though it was a Let’s Play?


A Series of Rooms posted recently on Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening. Langley, a devoted labyrinth-maker, complained of the “stiff regular Garden; where after we have seen one quarter thereof, the very same is repeated in all the remaining Parts, so that we are tired, instead of being further entertain’d with something new as expected.”

You know, it wouldn’t be so bad to encounter the same place twice in two different spaces; the problem is that the whole run-up to the place is duplicated as well, from the left wing of the garden to the right. That is to say, you could handle any amount of repetition provided that each instance in space kept changing relative to the others.


Game space gets repeated on a few different levels. First, it is made of repeating elements that always behave the same, and have a relatively small repertoire of possible life histories (say, a wall is either intact, being breached, or broken). Second, the space itself is meant to be repeated in time through your action; that you should essay the same space over and over again to solve or resolve it. As you travel it again and again, you get to know this shrunken world better and better; rarely does it “get away from you.” Varying the world indefinitely by algorithm only leads to better knowing the algorithm. This sense of repetition starts out as an amenity but goes on to sap the experience of play; you always get sick of the repetitions in the end. A landscape, on the other hand, supplies what a digital environment lacks, which is the ability to culture, or rot, without human presence; such that repetitions in time add up to differences in kind as well as degree.

All that is to say: the one thing lacking in a formal garden is that it should be left alone to grow a history.

(March 2021)