Sinziana Velicescu, AKA @casualtimetravel on Instagram, is a very good photographer. She takes photos of architecture, but without a lot of the architecture in it. In her words, it’s about “abstracting architectural details” and putting “shapes, form and composition before the actual subject”. Basically, in my very, very limited understanding of the craft, it’s sort of about doing architecture back to front.
For the longest time, I really struggled with this kind of art. The abstract is often too abstract, the thing I’m seeing too far away from the thing I’m supposed to be seeing when I look at it. Pictures of scabby, semi-obscured building tops and flaky garage doors can easily escape your understanding. You’re left looking for the meaning and the message and, most of the time, you won’t find one.
Over time though I’ve grown fond of that feeling, and even grown to love it. It might be an age thing – or rather, a maturity thing, which I’m sure much of my life has lacked. The more time you spend on Earth the more the usual messages are repeated, and the more the world becomes a little easier to read. Nowhere do I feel this as much as with games, surely because they’re the place where I spend the most time. Games, especially the big ones, in the traditional sense, are all sort of built the same. This is by necessity: big games are magic, great acrobatic feats held together by a million invisible wires. They have to be familiar, at least in some sense, because it’s catastrophic if they don’t sell. They have to be readable, and their message has to be easy to see, because it’s catastrophic if they’re misunderstood. They have to put the subject first, because that’s how they’re built. The subject is literally attached to a rig.
That is the nature of the industry, and it won’t change because it’s effectively baked into their definition. But there are little hints at more, here and there. Games are occasionally putting architecture first, at the very least, or at least giving it some presence and some of its own space. Remedy’s Control is an obvious one, a total gold mine for aesthetes and the brutalism-obsessed. Manifold Garden is another, with its stunning, infinitely foldable world also making for the game itself. They’re the explicit answers to this problem, at least in part. They’re explicitly about architecture, at least.
But there’s one more step beyond those, I think, that I feel as though I know to exist, even if the way towards it can’t really be imagined by someone like me. Velicescu’s work, and the work of photographers and designers and architects like her, might be a decent signpost. Her photographs are transportive. They take you from Los Angeles, Iceland or Romania to a kind of abstract, alien non-place. The Simpsons in 3D. Much of it is parallels and contrast, playing with perspective and context, hinting at a location but taking all the usual signifiers away from the frame. Sometimes it’s just pretty.
Most of all, though, all of it creates space: there is room here, in every photograph, for you. You need to stop, you need to look at it, and if you’re like me you’ll then need to spend a fair bit of time with your eyes closed turning it over in your head. And even then you might come up with nothing – an ineffable feeling, maybe, at best – but that’s still enough. It would be nice to see a game do that, or more games do it more than some already have. Imagine a game that sits between punch-on-the-nose allegory and empty titillation. Somewhere around stimulation, but without the need for any great, overarching point. Games that are provocative without being traditionally “provocative”. I think they can do it, but it might mean making the game back to front.