header is screenshot from Dragon's Dogma 2
The Stone Garden
Lewis Gordon

A mine, a miserly slave master, and glistening muscular bodies lugging huge boulders. Dragon’s Dogma 2 opens with aesthetic camp and earthy fashion before dropping you into the game proper, a realm called Vermund which swaps ugly, brown dirt for narrow paths of slate gray and silver stone. These winding channels inevitably spit you out at a vista: woods, water, perhaps a castle shimmering in the distance, and there, in the farther distance, massive sheets of rock that form the cliff face of some insurmountable massif. The lo-res texture of these stony surfaces capture something of their tangible, real world counterparts—the way, in some places, protruding rock can make it feel as if grass and turf have been stretched too thinly over the planet itself. 

Rock also speaks to age and the passing of time, and the open world of Dragon’s Dogma 2 feels as if it has been chiseled from the hardiest of elements: glaciers, wind, rain, snow—rather than the 3D environment tools in RE Engine. Within the undulations of this terrain are the well-trodden paths that you spend countless hours walking, and which, as the game gradually unfolds, give the illusion of having been shaped by centuries, if not millenia, of constant use—the footsteps of work, trade, and, most relevant to the game itself, adventure

The most memorable open worlds tend to be anchored by phenomena that seem to speak to their entire personalities. The swaying grass that catches the sunlight in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, beautiful and ephemeral; the billowing wind in Horizon Forbidden West, picking up and carrying eddies of detritus from one ecosystem to the next; the soft, wet moss of Death Stranding, a symbol of primordial newness amid post-apocalyptic turmoil. In Dragon’s Dogma 2, the key component is rock: sturdy and durable. 

The first area, Vermund, might evoke the ancient mountains and prehistoric woodland of Snowdonia in Wales, the landscape that partly inspired the quintessential fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth works, but it is more than homage. This rocky place mirrors the game’s central thematic concerns—the way both this realm and the archetypes of myth which the narrative toys with are sculpted over deep time. We tend to tell the same stories over and over again, just a little differently; our heroes tend to walk the same figurative paths again and again, only with minor deviations in route. 

The Pawns talk about these paths incessantly. “While in another world, I happened across a treasure chest rather close by here,” they say, keen to show you a route discovered while in another player’s game world (if they were hired at a riftstone). These Pawns galumph about their own adventures with such energy, with such robotic devotion, and in such great numbers (there’s three million out there according to sales figures) that it’s tempting to think that their passage makes the furrowed paths of Dragon’s Dogma 2 even deeper. 

This insatiable energy of the Pawns in trekking across this virtual terrain summons (in my mind, at least) Richard Long’s seminal land art piece, A Line Made By Walking (1967). On a bright, sunlit day on the outskirts of London, the artist tromped back and forth in a field of grass and daisies until the light illuminated the flattened grass in such a way that it revealed a line. His photograph of this line in black and white made two quietly revolutionary points: that the foot is capable of producing art alongside the hand; that the act of walking itself is an art. 

There’s something unconventionally artful about the Pawns. The rotten food and meaningless trinkets these NPCs return with are the equivalent of Long’s ambulatory record-making—the proof of their adventures and curious, programmed existences. 

More concretely, the realms of Vermund and Battahl—the former lush and green; the latter arid and orange—are akin to vast works of land art shaped by the flow of nature. Often your only way across a ravine is over a stone bridge constructed from the rock presumably hewn in the local vicinity. What the dense, geologically heavy world of Dragon’s Dogma 2 offers is an anchor for its thrilling action, a counterpoint of stability against the eruption of emergent movement that ensues whenever a pack of enemies lurch on screen. Ogres bound between chasms all while goblins hurl arrows and wolves skulk behind trees. Out of nowhere, a griffin picks you up by her talons, swooping you across the country in such a way that it affords a rare bird’s eye view of the intricate topographical ebbs and flows below. 

The beauty of land art is that it often documents a brush with nature. Materials tend to be found in situ: rocks, pebbles, turf, trees, even water, rearranged in uncanny ways that simultaneously honor the outdoors while disrupting it. As much as it is the meticulously designed open world of Dragon’s Dogma 2 that one can view as virtual land art, it’s the encounters that happen within it that are perhaps closer to the spirit of the artistic movement. Enemies, the player, Pawns, and NPCs are the in-situ materials to be arranged and rearranged in this stone garden. The roving movements of these agents foreground two crucial elements of the game: time and space. Time is expressed explicitly elsewhere: the day-night cycle; resting mechanics; the duration an ox cart takes to pass from one town to the next. Space itself conjures a slew of associations: space meaning distance, distance meaning journey, journey invoking adventure. 

After nearly 30 hours, when the first set of credits have rolled, Dragon’s Dogma 2 flips its pretty straightforward fantasy script, dropping you into the Unmoored World, a place that exists on the verge of cataclysmic oblivion. You’re tasked with evacuating all of the game’s settlements in a set time limit, battling across a reskinned version of the open world which has been emptied of its water and engulfed by an iron-red storm. It is hollowed-out, the empty rivers, lakes, and the ocean leaving great reliefs of canyons, craters, and rocky beds. 

Even more than the primary portion of the game, the Unmoored World reveals the extent to which the game space is one hewn from rock and which we, as players, are destined to roam in perpetuity. This feeling is compounded by the new game plus mode, which transfers all of your stats and equipment, yet returns the world, unchanged, to its comparatively blissful former state. What are we meant to take away from this? Not that this place is actually unchanging, or that the cyclical mythic storytelling at the core of Dragon’s Dogma 2 is, too. Rather, each new cycle yields almost imperceptible differences, a world simultaneously in flux and the same as it ever was, like a band of glittering quartz coursing through a great slab of exposed mountain rock.

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The RingerVultureThe Verge, and Wired.