Here are two roughly similar paintings from the New Deal Gallery. Both of them look out from a rocky coast toward the ocean; both are composed along a diagonal from lower right to upper left. Yet their effects are different because one is a seascape and the other is a terrain for human actions. Probably a painting with pirates—Pirates!—wouldn’t be taken as seriously because it’s a genre associated with pulpy tales like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). In Humbert Arcamonte's painting, three seaman and presumably their captain have come ashore with guns, a wooden chest, and implements for digging...it’s a little corny. But consider how, even after they bury their booty and return to plundering, you can’t really un-see them. A hidden treasure now animates the landscape. In a way Treasure Maps are just as important to pirate mythology as the buccaneers themselves, Stevensen including that of Captain Flint on the inside cover of his novel.
Most open-world games contain hidden treasures—they’re called easter eggs instead—and they usually feature overview maps. Navigation consists of a sort of double perspective: at ground level, players experience immersive actions; from “overhead,” both literally and cognitively, players orient themselves on the terrain. It’s not as though video games invented this centuries-old practice, but its pleasures are integral to the medium and can help us see what we do in landscapes.
At Letchworth Park visitors navigate trails and roads through forested areas, but pause longer to appreciate overlooks. We might even say those are the destinations, judging from their emphasis on maps and the number of photos taken at locations like Wolf Creek or the Tea Table viewpoint. The park is a popular area for geocachers, who use GPS devices to locate hidden treasures, but overviewing is a kind of search available to anyone: visitors find a place where some expansive terrain comes together as a landscape. And that’s fun! Landscape paintings at the New Deal Gallery generally don’t include spectacular locations—such as Adirondack Mountains or the Grand Canyon—but examples like Simon Fidaroff’s Vermont Hills show how overviewing works. At first things appear natural and untouched; however, the grassy fields at right imply human use, and a dotted line of trees along the river makes visible its serpentine boundary between one space and another. John Nichols’ Wash Day in the Country at first glance appears to be primitive folk art. But notice how its tree branches and branching footpaths align, how it occupies an uncanny valley between two- and three-dimensionality. Nichols has created a sophisticated, navigable map.
It’s hard to say whether overviewing is “natural” or a human invention. Evolutionary biology might invoke the so-called arboreal theory of primates developing traits in treetop habitats: a privileging of sight over smell, a vista imparting crucial information as to food and predators. Overviews in Letchworth Park and landscape paintings at the New Deal Gallery both are organized in that same, pleasurably empowering way. But it's also true of observation decks on any skyscraper, suggesting humans build environments to create viewpoints.