No one else is doing exactly what Rob Dwiar is doing. Dwiar, who works at GamesRadar as an editor, has spent much of his life as a game writer thinking about gardens. Or maybe he spent much of his life as a gardening writer thinking about games. Eurogamer readers may be familiar with his work from his beautiful articles for Eurogamer. But that’s only part of it. Now Dwiar has written a book about the intersection of games and scenery. It’s called Genius Loci and is currently running a campaign on Unbound.
Genius Loci promises “a great tour of the landscapes and gardens of video games”. It’s a richly illustrated thing, a pretty thick hardback, at first glance, covering everything from Assassin’s Creed and Dragon Age to the best of video game landscapes, making sense of design choices, choosing among flora and fauna, and provide a wonderful sense of context.
I recently met Dwiar on Zoom. Among other things, I wanted to know what came first for him – gardens and landscapes, or games?
“Gardens and landscapes first? he wonders, then nods. “Because it seemed like we still had a project in daddy’s garden, my parents’ garden now. My dad is a very passionate gardener, so sort of by osmosis a lot of it was brought to me. so much my brother, but certainly tome. “
Dwiar says he did “pretty ordinary A levels” but didn’t have much of a career in mind until he started his gap year. Then it was dad again. “He sort of said, you know, what do you want to do? What about the design of gardens? I thought: I like it. It’s a little different. for a moment.”
Dwiar had been playing games since he was nine or ten, and it doesn’t seem like putting those ideas together – games and scenery – has been a huge step forward. “So I think on a very superficial side is how good games can be at replicating, showing or capturing known or familiar landscapes? ” he says. (Dwiar’s classic statement is uttered with great force, but has a habit of turning into a question at the end.)
“How good are they at presenting it? ” He thinks. “But then I started writing about it more and more, and playing more and more, and seeing it through that lens and being able to say, oh, yeah, I remember doing that song. from this landscape design job, or in my garden, my show garden, I remember doing this thing that’s in this game. And you can start to see similar design processes in landscapes and in games. . And you realize that when game designers are designing landscapes, they have to make similar choices. “
Dwiar, along with renowned Harvard professor Dr Robert Langdon, is very interested in symbols – in Dwiar’s case, symbols and meaning in the landscape. “Landscape narrative, history, character history, that sort of thing, which is a huge area of research,” he says. “There’s a lot of it. It’s been going on forever, really. And so when I started watching games, and you could see, actually, like, those gardens and landscapes weren’t necessarily just places in the middle of it. tune where you do stuff, actually. It’s a designed place that’s very closely tied to a game story or a character arc or a setting. Or it’s the creation of places. And there is has traditions behind just a house in the garden and things like that. “
Can he give me an example of this sort of thing? He can!
“So a method established in the past: there were a lot of ‘men who wanted to show their dominance over nature’. But show it in the form of what someone with the money could do with their garden, their land or their landscape?
“So the principles were: you’re near your house, probably, because that’s what a lot of your guests and visitors would see more of. Near your house you would have a garden, which was very tidy, structured, maybe even using too straight patterns and arrangements, so that you could see that this person was clearly adapting nature, plants, the water, to its whims.
“And then as you had to get away from, say, the grounds, if they had enough space it would become more and more loose and more natural. There’s a very famous one in Italy that ends in a bosco. , which is a wood, and there are always some weird and grotesque carvings in it. It’s awesome. So go ahead: man is the patron of nature near home. But if you were to travel far from there , you would experience a move away from civilized design and architecture. ”
It turns out that a similar idea is represented in one of Dwiar’s favorite games, Dishonored. Specifically at Brigmore Manor, as part of a DLC episode. “It’s a country manor house, just outside one of Dunwall’s quarters. And just off the front garden and and near the back garden you have some very neat patterned areas of area of ?? ‘hard landscaping, potted plants, some sort of angles, use of focal points, and then you go a little deeper, it goes into this wilder waterfall around a lake of reeds, where it blends into the wider natural landscape around the trees that surround it and the cliffs that surround it. “
What fascinated Dwiar about both examples, I think, is that the artifice never stops – it just changes. The wood he mentions in the Italian real-world example is still as designed as the more obviously structured garden near the mansion. It’s just designed to look like it wasn’t designed – it’s an ideal version of the wilderness. And in Dishonored it’s even more of a gimmick, because everything in the game is done by hand, everything is placed with intention.
This in turn is what is so special about Dwiar’s work, and why a book of his thoughts is such a beautiful prospect. He can see things that a lot of people don’t. His horticultural background has allowed him to read the landscape in a unique way – it has given him a lexicon of meaning which he is then able to share with readers. (Again, much like renowned Harvard professor Dr. Robert Langdon.)
One of the things I often wonder when reading Dwiar’s work is: what does he think of designers working on the other side of the screen? Does he think they understand the history of landscaping themselves, or do they – excitingly – come to the same conclusions about how landscapes can create meaning and storytelling, but arrive? to these conclusions from their own route through game design?
“It’s very interesting,” Dwiar said, shortly before we finished talking. “One of the things I keep saying is that this or that garden looks so designed and has all this meaning, it must have been designed by someone who knew about it. stuff. But! It couldn’t have been, right? So yeah, I really think there is enough gray area in garden design and landscaping. Make a great frame for a level or a mission, can actually create an ideal garden, just in terms of, how do you get from one end of it to the other? What is there to do? collectibles? What makes up the place? ”
He’s laughing. “It all adds up over time, doesn’t it? And it’s a good mirror between the two design processes. “