Once we reach much beyond the range of the human body, it can be hard to get a meaningful grip on matters of size and scale. Even in simple things, like the distance between two places, we’re quick to resort to relative, experiential measures. It may be thirty miles to get where we’re going, but when describing it, we’ll say that it’s 45 minutes. The corner store is only five minutes away, even though the park, closer, is a ten-minute walk.
And these are only the most basic examples. When we stretch into the realm of the imagination, we often exceed the possibility of consistency. Exactly how big, after all, is the Death Star? How long does it take to cross Isaac Asimov’s planet-spanning city of Trantor? Why is it that when in film a CG shot zooms in on the person standing in a window high in a magnificent imaginary tower, things feel just a little bit off? How is it still so difficult to convey the awe in standing at the foot of a wall that rises a quarter mile into the air and feeling a sense of vertigo on solid ground?
This shift in scale, and the displacement of the day-to-day certainty of one sense of location within the world, drives one of my favorite moments in Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s early in the game, after the player has been shown the foundational myth of the battle between two gods, Bionis and Mechonis, who stood in the endless sea and fought each other to a literal standstill; their bodies then became the world on which the rest of the game takes place. But before the game dives deeper into the convoluted lore of so many JRPGs, it pauses to take note of scale.
After surviving an attack on their home, Shulk and Reyn set out for a neighboring colony. We know at this point that everything and everyone they know lives on the immobile body of one of the two ancient gods, but as Shulk and Reyn emerge from the cavern through which they have been climbing their god-world, they step out onto Bionis’s knee, and catch sight for the first time of the embodied shape of their world.
As the camera pulls back to allow us to share that view, a quick edit conceals that the shift in scale isn’t entirely seamless. In part, this serves to camouflage the almost inevitable disjunction between the challenges of designing a player-scale recognizable and navigable environment and placing that environment on a human-shaped object large enough to contain its own biosphere.
But I still found myself wanting to stay in that moment, to fill as much as I could in my own mind the space between the two sides of that edit. I wanted to trace the edges of my awe, that strange place where we begin to recognize the way in which scale exceeds us.
Fictional time and space are stretchy, slippery things, but most digital worlds are places that can be traversed on foot in dozens of hours. Given an average human walking speed of slightly more than three miles an hour, this translates to worlds maybe a few hundred miles across, far less than the 2475 miles (by air) between New York and Los Angeles. A statue 360 miles tall (120 gameplay hours for a lengthy RPG x 3 MPH, not considering multiple 10-15 minute cutscenes) would be a colossus, but it doesn’t even compare to the 2,159 mile diameter of the moon.
Or the 238,900 miles—an almost ten-hour trip at Earth’s escape velocity of 25,000 MPH, or a little more than a second and a quarter at the speed of light—that separate the Earth from the moon.
Most of which rarely touches us. We may marvel at the way the moon appears larger just above the horizon, or take an extra minute to look up when someone tells us that one of the planets is supposed to appear to be particularly close, but most of the time, the moon is just there, an abstraction in the sky, waxing and waning, tugging gently at the sea, familiar and forgotten.
Because the numbers don’t quite capture everything. The tallest mountain on Earth, after all, only reaches about five and a half miles above sea level. In terms of size, Everest cannot compare to Bionis or the moon, but every year hundreds of people risk their lives to stand on its peak. By comparison, even with its feet resting on the bottom of the ocean, a 360-mile tall statue would stretch more than a hundred miles beyond the orbit of the International Space Station. In an atmosphere anything like ours, assuming that Shulk isn’t meant to be the size of a dust mite, most of Bionis would be uninhabitable.
After all, as large as Bionis and Mechonis may be, it’s hard to imagine that they are meant to be bigger than the non-fictional ball of rock, water, and air that carries us through the solar system, which if placed on an imaginary endless surface would rise 7,900 miles into the sky. Unless, of course, it sagged a little under its own weight.
It doesn’t take quite so much to be glorious and terrifying, for most of us, viewed in absolute vertical, a few hundred feet are much more than sufficient.
In fact, scale alone isn’t enough to invoke vertigo or awe. For me at least, looking out a window at 30,000 feet during a commercial flight doesn’t have the same impact even as standing on a fourth-story balcony. The critical element is the proximity between the familiar and the astounding. It’s the cars and pedestrians next to the skyscraper, a row of folding chairs in the middle of Hagia Sophia.
And this is what games like Xenoblade Chronicles can offer that few other visual media can match—not the speed or the extent of the pull-back shot, but the extent to which the player can inhabit Colony 9 before setting off into the world. We have the opportunity not just to gauge for ourselves the size of the buildings or the space they take up within the visual frame, but to get a feel for the relative, subjective experience of size in the time it takes to walk from one place to another when we (or our avatars) do it for ourselves.
This is not to declare that man is the measure of all things, it is to seek awe by setting scale against humanity in pursuit of both proximity and alienation. To stand just far enough away to gain a sense of the way that the entirety escapes us, and then to place a hand in the air, fingers extended, to get just a little closer.