Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Curated Outdoor Spaces

I visited the Chicago Botanical Gardens the other week and had a sort of a weird experience.

I'm used to parks and gardens which strive for a veneer of plausible wildness, if you will - sure, there's a paved trail cutting through it, and yes, they're a bit organized, with a grove of cherry trees (in a variety of labeled types) here and a grove of a variety of magnolias there, but there's still a fair bit of undergrowth and the groupings of plants could have occurred naturally, and you stay on the trail mostly because you don't want to get into the weeds (and the "beware of hornets' nest" signs).  Obviously these environments wouldn't fool an experienced outdoorsman used to bushwhacking, but I don't think they're intended to.  Maybe a better description of what they're aiming for is idealized, Edenic - the woods you used to play in as a kid, where your parents told you the names of the trees and where the hornets' nest was.  Not wild wild, but an environment kinda doing its own thing with limited human intervention to make it suitable for human enjoyment.

The Chicago gardens weren't like that - there were lots of "stay on the trail" signs and art pieces in among the plants.  Parts of it (like the aquatic plants exhibit) reminded me of The Witness - I kept expecting to find puzzles to block my progress rather than just art objects.  There was no escaping the artificiality; a veneer of nature was not a design goal.  Chicago's garden felt like a heavy-handed exercise in power, in control, in making appearances just so.  The outdoor environment as a canvas, something to be written to before it is read from.  When this succeeds, as in their Japanese-style garden exhibit or the desert greenhouse full of crazy cacti, it can be quite beautiful.  But parts definitely fell flat or felt forced.

I think there are a couple of points of relation to D&D and the design of artificial environments.

I don't think I've ever attempted to design an outdoor adventure site that was heavily-modified by its inhabitants (beyond, say, fortresses), but Gardens of the Elf King does sound like a TSR module title.

I think on the other end, it's probably worth distinguishing between attempts to provide a simulated wilderness as it would actually be in a fantasy setting (with eg simulated migration of monsters) and aiming for an idealized wilderness of myth and fiction, full of dragons and treasure and talking birds.  The latter is more compatible with the Tiki Style of Early D&D - the players are tourists into this mysterious place and we don't need to have everything that happens in the "backstage" worked out because it's more important that it feel right than that it be right.

Maybe part of my interest in the wilderness game has been that wilderness is almost by definition unmanaged - it does not require simulating minds/agents to build a plausible wilderness, whereas a dungeon wants for explanation and justification for its construction.  And then the gauntlet funhouse dungeon appeals to me in part because it is a rejection of in-world explanation, design, purpose.  Rather than making a dungeon of the wilderness, it makes a wilderness of the dungeon.

1 comment:

  1. Gardens of Ynn is a bit of a randomised depthcrawl/pointcrawl, so there isn't really cartesian continuity to the map, but it does try to get across the idea of a heavily curated magical garden.