Eastshade is a 2019 game about being an artist, where you wander around painting shit in the woods. Like all the best games, it’s from a small indie developer who used to be in the triple-A industry and jumped ship to make his own stuff. There are so many interesting things I want to chat about with this game – for instance, as a game about painting, it obviously draws on the idea of the vista, which we discussed years back with The Witness. The basic idea is that as a player, your experience of game environments is often dominated by spatial or architectural principles, even though the principles of art or photography remain important. In the two images below, for instance, we have two different perspectives on a toll bridge early in the game.
The first image shows the bridge framed as part of a vista, like you might see in a painting. The second shows the bridge in a first-person perspective during a crossing – which is usually closer to your actual gameplay experience. The difference between the two is important. When you’re looking at a picture or a painting, you’re often evoking ideas of certain environments. With the picture of the bridge, you imagine yourself crossing it, and you imagine the broader set of impressions and associations that go along with that context. It’s a shaded grove, the river is quiet, it’s peaceful, the sunlight dapples through the trees – it’s less about the historical or physical reality of the wood and more about the things that it makes you feel or imagine. The act of crossing the bridge, on the other hand, is more concrete, almost mundane. It’s less about your imagination, and more about a very practical moment-to-moment experience. To offer another example, it’s the difference between a shot of Shadow driving down the highway in American Gods, and your own experience of driving between cities in Euro Truck Simulator. One is evocative, encouraging you to imagine a broader set of activities, and the other has you actually move through those activities in real time.
There are other differences, too. The image flattens space into two dimensions, while the spatial allows you to view something from multiple perspectives. We can see this principle at play with Cerith Wyn Evans’ C=O=D=A, a light sculpture made from neon tubes. You can look at photos of the piece, but they’re all flat. They can’t capture the experience of your changing perspective as you move around the sculpture. It’s not that one form is necessarily better than the other – really this is just to note that the principles of the flat image and the principles of spatial design have certain differences, along with their obvious similarities. They require different things – and so game designers have to work in really sophisticated ways to manage both within a game environment.
Some of these methods are a little more heavy-handed, and less well-integrated – for instance, the cutscene, where control of the camera is taken away from the player and often disconnected entirely from the player’s first-person point of view. There are other, more subtle methods too – for instance, the Dark Souls games are quite good at using doors or openings to frame your vision. The placement of a door dictates your field of view as you enter a room, meaning the developers can direct your attention to where they want it. In the two images below, for instance, doors are used to frame the most important aspects of those given areas – Heide’s Tower of Flame, and the dragon skeleton in Aldia’s Keep.
Other games, like Wolfenstein: Youngblood, will allow you to visit areas multiple times, with the hope that you’ll take the time to look round, and others again will simply offer vistas embedded into a spatial context – for example, the recent Hitman titles, which will give you a great view from a balcony, or from a lookout, or from some other architectural feature that’s already specifically designed to allow people to enjoy a view.
Eastshade takes a third option, positioning you as a painter – that is, as someone who’s whole job is to wander round considering vistas. It’s a really unique experience – often in video games, we’re considering the environment and the things that we can see in strategic terms. How pretty something looks is a second consideration to whether or not it will kill you. That’s how games work: we focus on and prioritize the most relevant gameplay components, thinking about the things we can see in terms of how they help or hinder our ludic goals. The demands of gameplay therefore often dovetail with a spatial perspective – to return to the bridge from earlier, from a gameplay perspective, the bridge is there to be crossed. It’s a spatial component that you need to navigate in order to proceed. In that sense, its function outweighs its form – its major relevance to the player is as obstacle to overcome. However, by making the player into a painter, Eastshade reverses that dynamic. Form becomes function: the gameplay purpose of the bridge is to be considered through the lens of painting or flat image, to become aesthetic rather than strategic. The game is art, and art is the game, with rewards and extra dialogue if you paint certain things and bring them to the right people. What you see becomes an end in itself. It’s not even that the game is necessarily that much prettier than certain other titles – but because it asks you to consider what you see from a flat, aesthetic perspective, instead of our normal spatial function-centered approach, Eastshade is experienced as a much more beautiful game.