In this video, I’ll explain what the ideas of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant can bring to video games to enrich them, especially his ideas on the sublime.
The great philosopher Immanuel Kant produced an endless stream of deep ideas from his critique of reason to thoughts on metaphysics. One of his most overlooked ideas is the sublime.
Before we see how his ideas can affect video games let us first understand them.
Kant puts aesthetic experiences in two categories, the beautiful and the sublime.
In the English language, both words have a similar meaning, sublime would mean unparalleled; supreme or being of a high standard.
But this has nothing to do with Kant’s definition of the sublime. kant means those rare experiences when we are in awe of something bigger than our small size in relation to our surroundings like violent storms, volcanos or being in the presence of huge mountains which seem to overwhelm us.
If our ability to intuit is overwhelmed by size or the ‘dynamical’ – if our ability to will or resist is overwhelmed by force then we are in a state of the sublime.
In these circumstances, a feeling of fear or at least discomfort might be expected but in the state of the sublime, these become pleasurable experiences.
When we look at the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican we might describe it as beautiful but we don’t mean the same beauty one would use to describe a flower or a human face, there is something more to it, something different. our presence there and the overwhelming size of the dome is something pleasurable but definitely different than beauty.
That’s why I prefer to use the German word “Erhabenheit’ that Kant used to describe that state because no German would confuse it with beauty or superiority.
Kant speaks of two forms of the Erhabenheit experience: the mathematical one, like staring at huge numbers of people in crowds or being absorbed in a scene of the endless horizon.
The other form he spoke of is the dynamic Erhabenheit, like storms, volcanoes and the wrath of nature.
Kant says two conditions are essential to reach the Erhabenheit state. the first is safe distance. If we were unsafe in the presence of a storm or a volcano then we would be filled with fear instead of Erhabenheit.
Only the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction from a safe distance transforms the dreadful fear into a pleasurable experience.
The second condition is that The Erhabenheit happens only in nature. His reasoning is that we don’t know the explanation behind these phenomena and that is an integral part of what makes them sublime.
For Kant, the moment we understand how it works, it loses its sublime effect on us, like a magic trick that is not surprising anymore once we learn the slight of hand behind it.
Here is where things have dramatically changed since Kant made the second condition of the sublime being that it is exclusively experienced in nature.
First, after the invention of the steam engine and other technology, we lost our fear of nature and started to adapt nature to our needs. Mathematics is the language we used to decipher the unknown building blocks of the universe.
Gottfried Leibniz, the mathematician, and philosopher was the first to suggest that the universe could be understood through mathematical equations, which is what Isaac Newton did, and that made us see nature as predictable and measurable which led to the loss of our awe of nature.
This new way of looking at nature baffled philosophers and thinkers for a while and made them rethink their position on defining things such as the sublime.
The English Poet John Keats said that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it into a prism.
Did science and knowledge kill the sublime in our lives as kant predicted?
I don’t think so, which leads us to the second change that happened after Kant’s death. The exponential growth in the complexity of things we produce.
No single person knows all the technical details of how an airplane functions, with all the equipment inside it, navigation systems, engines and the laws of aerodynamics. Only collectively are we capable of knowing all this, but not as individuals.
This explosion in complexity of the things we make changed the equation in how we see non natural objects. Now it’s possible to get the Erhabenheit feeling from unnatural objects.
The Junkers Ju 87 is a clear example of that, the German dive bomber designed by Hermann Pohlmann had a distinctive sound specifically designed to fill the hearts of those who heard it with fear and dread.
Christopher Nolan focused on its sound in his latest film Dunkirk.
(I’ll show a scene from the film)
Watching that scene and hearing the sound of the Junkers has something pleasurable to it once we do it from the safe distance of our seats in movie theaters, and we don’t describe it as beautiful. In pop culture, we would call it goosebumps and Nolan uses that feeling to the maximum in Dunkirk.
Movies have done that very well, especially in recent years. They know how to implement Erhabenheit scenes and make us feel pleasure consuming dreadful scenes from a safe distance.
The shooting Scene between Moss and Chigurh in “no country for old men” is another example of Erhabenheit excellence in cinema. We are motionless throughout the whole five minute scene. The Coen brothers masterfully transformed what would be, in the real world, a really dreadful incident into a sublime one consumed by the viewers.
The shooting scene in Heat is another famous example that many of you may be able to recall.
The million dollar question is: can there be a digital Erhabenheit? A sublime that has no existence in the real world, composed of algorithms and lines of codes.
Could something that is purely abstract instill the pleasurable dread of the Erhabenheit in us?
I think so, and Video games more than any other medium are capable of that.
I don’t see many video games take advantage of this feature in the human spirit.
The ones that do are rare.
I still remember the moment I met the first giant in Shadow of the Colossus. It was a pure Erhabenheit moment. A mixture of a mathematical sublime, because of the giant’s size, and a dynamic sublime created by the safe distance of the player who forgets all the algorithms, polygons and C++ codes behind it for a moment and sees a person struggling in an epic battle with a giant.
For some reason, I didn’t get the same feeling when I climbed trico for the first time in the last guardian. The mathematical component of the sublime was present: the size, but the dynamic one was missing, fearing the creature and seeing him as a threat.
Edmund Burke the English philosopher proposes another condition for the mathematical Sublime: the proportions of the big object must necessarily display its huge size.
If we simply upscale a small object and make it bigger, the eye won’t recognize that it’s big. Therefore he proposes that giant churches should use many thin columns instead of fewer big ones, the ratio of the building to the thin columns would instantly make it visible to the eye how big the church is.
In other words, add something small next to the big object to make it’s size visible.
Let’s move to the dynamic Erhabenheit in games. There is one scene in Metal Gear Solid 5, right at the beginning of the game when snake can barely walk where we witness with snake how atrocious terrorist acts were being carried out in the hospital against patients, doctors and nurses.
Our natural reaction to terror, if we are in the spot in the real world, is fear and trying to run for our lives. Even from a safe distance, when we watch these atrocities on the news, our reaction is anger, sorrow for the victims and a desire to show unity and resilience with our fellow humans against these attacks
But in that scene from Metal Gear 5, our reaction is different, its pure, dynamic sublime. It is pleasurable but not beautiful.
I still remember how many critics praised the first hour in the game and greg Miller called it the best hour in video Game history.
None of them called it beautiful or talked about any beauty in that scene, so what is it that they liked but couldn’t put it into words? It’s Kant’s Dynamic sublime.
If a designer is not careful, designing an Erhabenheit scene could easily become comical.
A recent example I saw is Jotun, the game is beautiful from an aesthetic point of view but the giants in the game failed to inspire the Erhabenheit feeling one gets from Shadow of the Colossus.
All the blood and killing in Wolfenstein 2 is not creating any dynamical Erhabenheit inside of the player’s head, just like any blood filled scene from a Tarantino film. We are expected to laugh at the killing scene instead of being filled with Kant’s sublime.
Do I think all games should implement the idea of the Erhabenheit? no, it’s not suitable for all games and we want some games to be comical and funny. Not all of them should be serious and heavy.
But, can some games gain a lot from implementing these ideas? Yes, pretty much all of Ubisoft’s games and modern day shooters too.
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