I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcade’s curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past.
—- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
The biggest hurdle for convincing someone that games can be meaningful is explaining interactivity. To someone looking over your shoulder while you play a game, gaming probably looks very mindless. If you stop playing and try to explain the design, you end up rattling off equations and rules, which just makes it sound dull. Since video games are a bit complicated, handing someone a controller and insisting that they just go at it doesn’t really work either. Interacting with the content and design simultaneously is what makes a game engaging. There is, however, something that everyone interacts with daily that communicates meaning like a video game: architecture.
Phenomenology, or the study of how we experience things, works on the assumption that numerous sensations make-up our personal experiences. In games there are three basic ways we experience architecture: as game design, as a personalized space, or through a hybrid of the two. An excellent essay by Laurie N. Taylor highlights the difference between an actual experienced space in a game and one where the space is purely an exercise in design. (”Toward A Spatial Practice in Video Games”, Gameology, 21 June 2005) In the game Super Mario Brothers, you largely only move to the right. Everything in the game exists to impede progress, usually requiring you to jump around. All spaces in the game are hostile, and we never have to conceive of them as anything other than obstacles. Contrast that to a game like Metroid where you will be traversing two long hallways in between zones for most of the game. You get to know those hallways. You think of them as a hub, a spot that means something besides just turn right to avoid danger. That’s when the transition from design into personalized space begins to happen.
From Modern Warfare 2
The Lead Designer of Raven Software, Manveer Heir, puts it this way in an e-mail interview, “It comes down to having a space that has form and function. The form being the parts of the space that work well for gameplay and the function being the narrative piece, the set-dressing that makes it work.” The action that you are performing in a structure will adjust how you perceive and appreciate it.
In Experiencing Architecture, Steen Eiler Rasmussen uses an example of a cathedral’s stairway entrance of how spaces become personalized. He describes a wide set of stairs that crest at a platform that leads into the main church. To a tourist, there isn’t really anything remarkable about it. You go inside, look at some frescos that you’re told are important, and check it off your list of stuff to see.
Yet to a group of children playing wall ball that Rasmussen observed, it was an entirely different experience. They bounced the ball off the cathedral wall and had to catch it before it went down the stairs. The intricate curve of the platform, the difficulty in catching a ball on the far corners, and watching your footing on the stairs made this spot completely different for the kids playing. To put this into video game terms, when you are describing the ”No Russian” sequence from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to a person do you first say that it takes place in an airport or that you’re shooting innocent civilians? One statement belongs to the tourist, one belongs to the kid playing wall ball.
Another way to examine engaging with space is described by Gaston Bachelard in the book The Poetics of Space. Rather than a study in architecture, the text is an examination of how writers depict buildings in literature that gives them meaning. How does an author make you think that a building is really huge or scary with words alone? In reading a text, Bachelard argues that we are actively engaging in the creation of the space in our own minds. He writes that the reader, “brings the image to the very limit of what he is able to imagine. However far from being a poet [. . .] he tries to repeat its creation for himself and, if possible, continue its exaggeration.” (227) While in today’s graphically advanced titles we are not imagining a space like we used to in the 8-bit era, player engagement is still essential. Projecting ourselves into the game’s abstract elements still means that the player is engaging by reasoning with an image.
How does your mind reason with the existence of a structure so that it perceives it? Rasmussen explains this process by pointing out that whenever we describe a building it is always through symbols. When you ask me what makes something a church I might say the steeple, cross, altar, priests, or the graveyard beside it. None of these things individually are a church but instead are parts of a whole. (32) Everyone perceives this combination of symbols differently, “There is no objectively correct idea of a thing’s appearance, only an infinite number of subjective impressions of it” (36). As you approach the building, you slowly observe these details, first the buildings overall structure in the distance then things like construction material and other details. Deciding that this building is a church is thus a creative act of the mind, you are slowly compiling each symbol until you have enough to create a complete image and understanding.
Think about the opening level of Half-Life 2 and its tour of a dystopian world. The level projects this world through multiple tiny moments: people being arrested, guards harassing you, and disturbing information being broadcast over loud speakers as you wander the city. All of these details are layered on top of the garbage, spray painted walls, and masked guards. Then the player experiences these details directly when he is interrogated and flees from the police in the opening moments of the game.
From Half Life 2
Bachelard expands on this point by arguing that even our conduct and emotions are a part of this process. While a church might induce reverence or happiness in us, Bachelard explores the classic fairy tale concept of an “immense forest”. It doesn’t feel immense to us based on the actual number of trees there or its literal geographical size. It’s being lost, seeing nothing but trees in every direction, and feeling uncertain. He explains, “We do not have to be long in the woods to experience the always rather anxious impression of ‘going deeper and deeper’ into a limitless world. Soon, if we do not know where we are going, we no longer know where we are” (185).
Steve Gaynor elaborates the basic principles of inducing emotion through level design in an e-mail, “Larger and more vertical might give a more looming or regal feel, tight low ceilings makes a space feel more claustrophobic, winding passageways can make the player feel disoriented, etc.” Compare a cathedral that you encounter in Assassins’ Creed to something like the Spire from Fable 2. Which one seems larger to you? You can go to every point on a tall building in Assassin’s Creed, see it from every angle, and know every nook and cranny of it. The Spire, on the other hand, is full of huge hallways and tunnels that we will see but never enter. The Spire seems infinitely larger even though the actual space that we can travel across is much less than in Assassin’s Creed. Bachelard eventually establishes the “closed chest” conundrum to explain why places that we never go seem larger than ones that we can enter. He writes, “[There is] a very general psychological theme, namely, that there will always be more things in a closed, than in an open, box. To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience” (88).
From Assassin’s Creed
What kind of tools does a designer have to encourage the player to simply pay attention to all these things? Manveer Heir comments, “If you have a huge setpiece, say some massive impressive obelisk, you may want to show it off in an epic fashion. One way would be to build your space so that it is obscured until the last moment, when suddenly you round a corner and there is this huge obelisk that is accompanied by music that bumps up the moment. The reveal is important, especially if you don’t resort to a cinematic to do it”. Controlling the moment of the reveal can be done in a multitude of simple ways. There are many other classic game design examples of combining visuals with player activity to control what the player pays attention to. When the designers want you to look somewhere in Half-Life 2, they drop a couple of health packs nearby. A flock of birds might take off from the direction that you should be heading in. Naturally, having someone shoot at you is always a safe bet for catching a player’s attention.
Another way of establishing emotion in a place is by depriving a player of resources and creating need. The most obvious example would be an underwater level. You go a long distance without being able to surface, the chance of dying increases, and suddenly that hole that you can surface in for air becomes very important to you. Deprivation is what gives meaning to abundance. Bachelard points out that a warm house with a fireplace only seems that way because it is cold outside (39). A variety of emotions can be built with this, like fear versus a sense of security or plenty versus scarcity.
Steve Gaynor cites the level Constantine’s Manor in Thief: The Dark Project as a game playing with this technique by conflicting with our expectations. He comments, “The degree to which that level was terrifying was based largely on the completely unexpected level design that successfully throws you into the middle of a nightmare that you have no idea how to get out of. This in contrast to many earlier levels which take place in very readable, populated spaces that function just as you’d expect a real castle/cathedral/medieval town to.” Another good example is the moment in Uncharted 2 where you move around the Tibetan village before the action starts back up. You look around, see villagers, and experience the area as a serene place so that when the tanks and soldiers arrive the contrast is that much more stark.
From Thief: The Dark Project
For all these different techniques, Bachelard argues that the strongest way to engage a person in architecture is personal involvement. A piece of furniture that you built yourself and polished is always going to have more meaning than one that was handed to you. Long time modder of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 Princess Stomper answered a few questions about this process for me in an e-mail. Whenever she’s building a home for one of these games she explains, “I think about the previous owner, and who they were and what they did, and then that naturally dictates the design of the house. A fisherman’s shack will have fishing-themed bits left lying around, and a mages house will have spellbooks and crystal balls and such. If there’s no previous owner in site, I’ll try to stick with a general theme to make the house distinctive. I think, overall, though, is that I try to make it ‘real’. The one thing I’m always going for is the sense that it’s a real house that’s lived in rather than a simple storage utility.”
For example, in a post explaining how she overhauled the design of a house in Canterbury Commons, she talks about installing a bar and bathroom. When confronted with a spacing issue because she had no room for a kitchen, she still added a door that couldn’t be opened that represented the kitchen (“In Progress: Can I get a Room?”, Princess Stomper’s Site, 9 September 2009). Another example of her work illustrates the design details that she relies upon. Food will appear on a table at key intervals. There is a bed to restore health, places to store items, and NPCs to interact with. It’s not just about appearing to be functional or having another trophy, she designs these spaces to be used.
Princess Stomper mod, Fallout 3
Typically when I’m explaining video game criticism to someone who doesn’t play games I make a V with my fingers. One finger is the art, acting, and cutscenes. The other finger is the levels, game design, and stats. Any individual video game has unique amounts of either element. Something like Myst is mostly content, The Sims is mostly design. The game is the space created between the two fingers.
A more complex explanation would be something like Simon Ferrari’s thesis The Judgment of Procedural Rhetoric, which isn’t fully available online, but you can find the section about Left 4 Dead here. He breaks content and design into multiple categories that overlap while the foundation is still the basic rules of the game. There are moments where design is serving the purpose of content and content is essentially a design element. In isolation, these components can seem bizarre, and it’s no surprise that a lot of people still have trouble grasping how they work. What creates meaning in a video game is not any one particular aspect but rather experiencing all of these elements simultaneously.