Playing in the Garden of Earthly Delights: Exploring Bosch’s Symbolism through Gameplay

Elizabeth Goins, USA , Isabelle Jouve, France, Shaun Foster, USA, Sarah Thompson, USA

Objects connect us to culture. More specifically, they can evoke a particular culture and time by the silent expression of form, function and decoration. Digital objects can be used in virtual worlds to reconstruct not only objects or architecture but also the intangible aspects of the culture that created the original objects. This talk briefly reviews a new collaborative project that explores the intersections of high art, popular and material cultures, history, digital technology and games.

In honor of the 500th year anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, the project focuses on the enigmatic triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights, from the Prado collection. The concept is simple: build a three dimensional interactive space that effectively engages the players, thus encouraging them to experience and learn about the painting and Netherlandish art of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Garden of Earthly Delights is filled with obscure symbolism that has fascinated viewers since its creation in the early 1500s. Bosch’s work bridges the thematic constructs of medieval Christianity and popular Netherlandish culture. The painting may seem surreal, but is firmly rooted in 16th century thought, custom and technology, contexts that can be understood and explored through gameplay. The construction of narrative through the curation of objects is a familiar concept to the museum world. Less clear is how to bring ideas of narrative construction, educational and material culture into the spaces of games and virtual interactive experiences.

The design approach adopted by this project incorporates some of the latest techniques in using material objects, historic texts and ideas of place to construct narrative driven games. These approaches, used successfully in recent independent and commercial games such as Dear Esther and Gone Home, allow players to participate in narrative construction as they explore a game world and encounter objects and text distributed throughout. The prototype for the project is currently being constructed at the MAGIC center at the Rochester Institute of Technology in collaboration with Ysalide Studio. Built with the Unity game engine, the prototype will allow players to explore a three dimensional world of the painting. Players will interact with objects not only from the Garden of Earthly Delights, but from material culture and texts relevant to the time period. A narrative driven, open world experience, the game incorporates adventure and puzzle game mechanics in order to express educational goals and narrative content. This talk will describe the integration of narrative driven gameplay, art asset creation and educational content into an interactive game that will add to contemporary viewers’ understanding of Bosch’s work and the questions it raises about human nature.

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