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1.2: Perspective

Edible, adj.: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm."

— Ambrose Bierce

Perspective is a critical characteristic of narrative, but there are at least two kinds of perspective; emotional (or cognitive) and dimensional (or visual).

If you look at most buildings made with 90-degree angles, the lines that are parallel with the ground appear to be angled to one side. When you look at these angles you know they're made of 90-degree angles but, if you hold a protractor out at arm's length, they don't look 90 degrees. And as you look down the street you notice that the roofs of the buildings are slanting toward a single point on the horizon where everything seems to collapse into itself. That "vanishing point" is a strange place. It identifies where you are standing. This is where your "perspective" ends.

The vanishing point is a point in linear perspective at which all lines that are parallel in an environment collapse and at which all elements in that space cease to exist.

It's also a place that we learned about only relatively recently.

1.2.1: A Genealogy of Perspective

At the end of the 13th century a painter named Giotto di Bondone would sit with his teacher Giovanni Cimabue, spending their afternoons on street corners in Rome, staring at buildings, stretching strings in the air, and drawing.


Giotto, born in Tuscany circa 1267, lived until 1337 when he died in Milan. Cimabue, his instructor, died circa 1300, but his birth date is not known.

When Cimabue and Giotto looked at the buildings across the street—wood and glass boxes made of 90-degree angles—they saw roofs that appeared to be twisted and bent to the side. Despite the appearance, they knew these buildings were made of right angles. As they held string in the air and followed these angles they began to see spatial relationships and their understandings of what they were seeing was sharpened.

This invention (or discovery) of perspective had a deep impact on Giotto. While he was painting the fables and myths of his time, he was doing something very new with the discovery (or invention) of vanishing point from both a dimensional and emotional standpoint. He was depicting the physical and geometric location he was standing in, which put the viewer in Giotto's dimensional perspective while he was painting.

Prior to this time, paintings of the Western tradition lacked this sense of location, the visual vocabulary to achieve the relocation of the viewer, and the sense of actually being there as a witness to the events. Putting the viewer in a new dimensional perspective also affected the viewer's emotional perspective.

This is something we still see today in most forms of image presentation. Traditional western movies, such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or Shootout at the OK Corral, show characters from knee level. Clint Eastwood towers over the camera, a giant of a man, dust on his boots, six-shooter in his fingers, twitching for battle. But he's seen at these moments from a specific dimensional angle. These camera angles present a character that's meant to be seen as important or dominating when viewed from a lower dimensional perspective. We're meant to think "He's bigger than me" which then gives the character an emotional perspective of importance or power. Mystery, another kind of emotional perspective, is also built this way. When we can't see around a corner we're left wondering.

Thus dimensional perspective affects emotional perspective. This is old news for most film directors, architects, and sculptors.

Giotto spent a tremendous amount of time painting facial expressions. So while putting the viewer in his own dimensional—or visual—perspective he was also putting the viewer in his own emotional perspective.

Doing this increased viewers' participation in the work on both an emotional and visual level. There is a relationship between them. One is outside the skull—it's what's presented on the canvas or screen. The other is happening inside—it's what the viewer is imagining or feeling. Both relate to what is being seen.

Meanwhile, as Giotto was working in churches, busily mixing his paints, other inventions were crackling into existence. The glass mirror was discovered, spectacles were invented, block printing was the hip new trend in Italy, Thomas (The Bull) Aquinas was quietly scribbling the "Summa Theologica," and highway tolls were making a big comeback in England. Things weren't so different then as now—change was underfoot and mainstream society was fascinated, watching it unfold.

What was different then, though, was how people—and specifically visual artists—viewed people. Giotto was working at the sunset of the Medieval Ages, just prior to the dawn of the Renaissance. He was working at a time when the invention of stories mattered less than their interpretation. The people of this era were interested in the retelling of stories (rather than the invention of new ones, as we are today). The Annunciation or The Passion, for example, were stories that had been interpreted and re-interpreted thousands of times by as many people. Each interpretation presented a new angle on the story they already knew.

Giotto was obsessed with individuality and the pathos of the individual. These ideas give his painting a subtlety that's still touching and somehow both familiar and alien. The faces of his characters are soft; sometimes a lower lip is pooched out, a hesitant hand is lifted, or a forehead is wrinkled.

The perspectives being painted are those of both the painter and of the subject.

Giotto wasn't simply interested in the visual perspective of an individual in a story—he was obsessed with it. Giotto was equally obsessed with the emotional perspective of that individual. For him the dimensional and emotional perspectives were linked and even informed one another.

It's worth looking at the Church of San Francesco, in Assisi, where Giotto did some of his best work. His obsession is most evident here. Each bay of each nave in the church is divided into three sections by columns that stab into the ceiling. This makes for an architectural division of the space and Giotto put each of these divisions to use as a painting surface. It's a physical division. When seen from an angle the paintings appear to be scooped or slanted, resting at an odd angle. If you stand about two meters in front of the painting, with your head in just the right location, the geometry of the painting aligns with the geometry of the church. Suddenly the oddly angled lines snap into a horizon, walls lift out of the jumbled geometry, and a virtual space falls back into the wall in front of you. It gives the distinct impression of looking into a series of virtual rooms.

But you have to have your head in the right spot; quite literally. These spaces are about the size of a shoebox. It's a specific location where you need to stand to see it, but its clearly what the painter had intended. It's as if Giotto's ghost is there, standing behind the visitor, guiding them, telling them where to stand, his fingers gently on their temples, his voice whispering in their ear, "Fermi li, rimani in piedi li." (see note.)


"Here, stand right here."

It was this approach—let's call it a Perspectivist Approach—that allowed Giotto to depict for the viewer both the dimensional perspective and the emotional perspective of the people in these stories he was painting. But it's a four-fold perspective: the point of view of both the subject matter and the visitor, represented dimensionally and emotionally. This crossroads of architecture, the church, painting, and mathematics, were the crossroads where Giotto worked. And it was at these crossroads that Giotto, sitting with his strings in the air, next to his teacher Cimabue, discovered the vanishing point.

And vanishing point gave us perspective. And perspective is a point-of-view.

The curtains rise on the 16th century. We're still in Italy, though now a bit north, in Florence. Booksellers, printers, and type foundries are now distinct industries. The postal service is the new privilege of the middle class, and a German sailor named Martin Behaim (an interface designer) has made a spherical map of the earth called a "globe.*"


Herr Behaim's globe is on display at the museum of Nuremberg, in Germany.

The greatest hits of Aristotle and Aristophanes were making a big comeback with their recent reprints, and italic print was invented to facilitate the new burst of translations. In 1504 Raphael Sanzio, a painter and a contemporary of Michelangelo, used mirrors and a primitive photographic device (called a camera obscura) to shed enough light on the mysteries of perspective to continue the work Giotto had started. These events all changed how people saw the world and inventions such as the globe, camera obscura, and mirror were the tools that have since affected our modern perspectives.

In retrospect, the work of these people and the effects of their technology is evident:

Despite the bouts of famine, syphilis, and plague, this was a reassuring period. First, this dramatization of linear perspective and vanishing point put the observer on par with the observed. This was risky business when you stop to consider that the mother and son of God were the images being depicted as if the viewer was somehow in the same room or on the same level. The church was known to have severe reactions to unapproved methods of interpretation. Second, because the observer was being considered by the painter as the painting was composed, or laid out, it also gave the observer the perspective of the painter which was, in those days when painting was in some cases actually prayed to, quite powerful. Third, and most importantly, the invention of linear perspective gave humanity an appropriate point-of-view where everything could be seen at once. With this introduction of perspective, the entire world that was depicted in the painting was presented from the best possible vantage point to provide the densest information at an appropriate moment.

It was the beginning of a kind of telescoping. It was the beginning of a compression of information—a form of interface design that allowed the most important information to be presented at the most appropriate time from the appropriate angle. Which is what everyone still wants; to be able to see it all, from our single point of view, at the just the right time, and know that we "get the picture."

These trends that developed out of the first half of the millennium influence how we see the world today. Our modern means of telling stories are the children of these parents of perspective.

1.2.2: Objective Linear Perspective

By the 1700s interest in the perspective of the individual shifted to interest that was outside of sense-based perception such as sight and sound. This was, at the time, one of the primary roles of mathematics. The three Laws of Motion* had been published, the pendant barometer invented, and the Rococo period was in full bloom filling the Western world with the cloying trends of domesticity, mathematical harmony, and the taming of nature. Times were changing and our interest in control was increasing.

This interest in control and mathematical rigor had much to do with a perspective that belonged to no one in particular, but everyone in general. It was an objective perspective. But, ironically, it's the individual perspective that allows perspective to exist at all. Millions of people can't all stand in the same place and still view the world from the same perspective.


Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion:

LAW 1: Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

LAW 2: The change of motion is proportional to the motive force impressed; and is made in the direction of the right line in which that force is impressed.

LAW 3: To every action there is always opposed and equal reaction;' or, the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal and directed to contrary parts. Less notably but of equal importance for some of us, billiards was introduced just a few years later in bars and coffeehouses of Berlin.

It didn't seem to matter—we had new inventions to keep us busy. In the mid-1800s Monsieur L.J.M. Daguerre was dabbling with silver-coated plates of copper and capturing—as if by a butterfly net—actual light.

But something was missing through the 18th and 19th centuries and it was something that Giotto had started to introduce hundreds years earlier; something to which we're only now returning; the importance of the individual's perspective.

1.2.3: Subjective Linear Perspective

The more things change, the more they become their opposite. First, Giotto helped push the Medieval Ages out of a period of authority and objective authorship (namely, that of the Church's) into a period of humanism in which the individual perspective came to be seen as an entity of its own. Then the Renaissance took advantage of that shift and, by extension of those ideas, pushed it into increasingly extreme arenas until the clergymen and clerics became scientists and mathematicians. The objective approach to perspective came back in fashion at that time of the 1800s. Fast forward another one hundred years, and now, as a population of over six billion people, flying over the planet's surface, communicating across massive distances at instantaneous speeds, delivering addresses over the television, firing TCP packets back and forth across continents, are all presenting individual opinions. And it's happening in a way where there no longer appears to be a single authority, author, or authorization needed to get the opinions and point of views across the globe. We now are all authors and readers in a tangle of communication and multiheaded interaction.

The arrival of new technologies and their use in our culture has seen, especially in the course of the last 50 years, an increased emphasis on the perspective of the individual.

We know about this. This is the time is where contemporary—and interactive—narrative begins.

1.2.4: The Perspectivist Approach

Earlier we called Giotto a "Perspectivist." This is to say that Giotto had an approach that allowed him to consider the painting's multiple viewers from both an emotional and dimensional perspective. The painting was then composed with that person's specific emotional and dimensional perspectives in mind. These perspectives were not separated, but parts of the same unit.

The Perspectivist Approach is the fundamental mindset of any author of interactive narrative. This approach comprises two principles.

First, it bridges foreground to background. It resets the spatial relationships between people and their surroundings. The integration of the imagery with the walls of the church is as good an example of this as any. The place is a part of the experience. This is a way of looking at dimension and image from a holistic point of view. It doesn't necessarily separate the painting from the wall, but considers the totality of the environment as a single mode of communication.

Second, it bridges context to decision. The Perspectivist Approach looks at the environment and its context as being a thing that braces the actions of the occupants of that environment. A fish swims because it is in the water. A bird flies because it is in the air. St. Francis expels the demons because they're inhabiting Arezzo.

If you have foreground, background, context, and decision, you have the bricks of which the plot structures of interactive narrative are built.

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