A Digital Diorama

I’m sure many Dutch people will feel a spark of recognition when I say that De Efteling was my favourite theme park as a kid. What set the place apart from most of the others in the Netherlands at the time (and arguably still) is its consistent fairytale-inspired atmosphere.* *The Efteling nostalgia is not without racist blemishes, however. Few European nostalgias are. This aspect wasn’t without international recognition either, as this wonderful Kate Bush video series will attest to. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the park is a large indoor diorama of mountain landscapes, with train connections running through it all. Something about the display fascinated me as a kid. Perhaps the calm tempo of the trains running around, waiting for the gentle turnaround of the day/night cycle, as you strolled around the displays, looking at all the little people and buildings.

When I recently started playing the urban planning/management game Cities: Skylines, I quickly got the idea — after trying out the game’s basic functioning — to create a city and surrounding mountain villages with railroads connecting them. It was only after starting to build it that I realised where the inspiration had come from: the Efteling diorama, as well as a smattering of impressions of Austrian villages I had vacationed in as a child. Hence the city of Bergersee was born.

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As I continued working on the city in Cities: Skylines, I started contemplating what it was about dioramas that fascinated me (or people in general), and what the history of the phenomenon was in the first place.

As recounted by R. Derek Wood in an article for History of Photography [archived here], dioramas were invented in the 19th century by Louis Daguerre as something of a distant ancestor to the cinema. By lighting a large transparent painted display from different angles, a change of scenery could be created, for example shifting a landscape from daytime to nighttime. It was a whole new way of representing, for example, landscapes to people.

Daguerre’s aim was to produce naturalistic illusion for the public. Huge pictures, 70 x 45 feet in size, were painted on translucent material with a painting on each side. By elaborate lighting – the front picture could be seen by direct reflected light, while varied amounts and colours of light transmitted from the back revealed parts of the rear painting – the picture could ‘imitate aspects of nature as presented to our sight with all the changes brought by time, wind, light, atmosphere’.

Daguerre himself coined them name by fusing greek διά– and ὅραμα ‘through-view’. Over time, dioramas came to be used in various ways to educate and entertain people in museums, hobby displays, and indeed theme parks.

L. J. M. Daguerre. The Effect of Fog and Snow Seen through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade (Oil on canvas, 1826)

It is worth considering Cities: Skylines (and similar games) as diorama construction kits that offer some great opportunities. First of all, of course, it is a game of resource management, where your growing city present challenges related to power, traffic, citizen demands, natural disasters, etc. Beyond that, the game provides the tools to create a diorama without needing any physical materials or building skills. You can mould a landscape to suit your vision, and continue by planning and executing a city in it. You’ll only need to familiarise yourself with the way building works in the game. Using the “infinite money” mode even eliminates some of the game-like aspects of it, allowing you to plan and build freely.

Players of the game have also created a plethora of custom assets for the game, including new buildings, vehicles, roads, and such. Many users re-create such assets on the model of real-world places and objects. This allows for a vast customisation of the way your city looks beyond what the game offers out of the box.

Both city-building and asset-making, then, are forms of working on digital dioramas. At the same time, you are also a viewer of the diorama. What is built in the game is also immediately displayed, and there is contentment in viewing your creation that is probably parallel from the digital to the physical medium. That is to say, part of the fun in building a diorama — or anything, really — is seeing your creation grow, and watching the finished product in action.

Even if you don’t build cities in Cities: Skylines yourself, through YouTube you can take the role of the traditional diorama visitor, often with voiceover comments by the creator on both the creation of the diorama and facts about what the diorama represents. Take this example of YouTuber Silvarret presenting his quite realistic rendering of a Dutch provincial town:

People have a penchant for creating images of landscapes from memory or fantasy — or a combination of both; the two are interconnected anyway. Digital diorama-building allows us to express our inner landscaper and release the perverse yet creative human need to shape our environment according to our own vision. Digital diorama-viewing transports us in a (virtual) physical sense to the landscapes we and others have shaped in our mind–memory.