Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table for September managed to tempt me out of my self-imposed thesis writing /afk, with one of the most interesting BoRT topics I’ve seen. To boot, the topic is exactly what my PhD dissertation is being written on: how can we conceive of “space” – spatial relationships, objects in space – in video games? If games are, as Chris Crawford claims (ffwd to 4:32), a “fundamentally spatial” artistic medium – we better understand what the heck the word “spatial” really means for us as gamers. (Thank you to Kimari of Indigo Static for passing along the video.)
When we think of computer and video games, the word “space” is almost automagically translated into “coordinate space” or Cartesian space. After all, almost all games since the late 70′s used some kind of X/Y coordinate system to plot pixels on a screen; in the 90′s that became X/Y/Z space as 3D games took off. This is a technological understanding of space – it envisions space as a kind of empty vacuum in which objects can be arranged in a consistent way – and we perceive those objects according to some kind of spatial formula (ie. 2D or 3D coordinates).
I want to affirm a very different understanding of “spatial” than what most gamers and writers think it means. Space, as we experience it playing games, is not a Cartesian coordinate system for representing objects, characters, narrative, or sound… I believe that there is a much deeper understanding of space in video games that we implicitly live as we play them. And I’ll try doing articulating this different theory of space without any kind of techno-jargon — just a bunch of examples from a game that expresses the kind of space I’m talking about. My point is going to be that gamers experience space in a totally different way than mathematicians like Descartes did or programmers do.
Space is created the second a player sits down and begins playing a game. Most of the time we think of this as an dialogical “interactive space” – the player issues commands to the computer, and the game responds in some way, which the player responds to, ad infinitum. When we think of interaction in this way, we think of the player and game in some kind of unfolding dialogue with one another. But I’m not convinced that players really dialogue with games or computers. I see the player doing something different when they act in an interactive space. Let’s take the prologue to The Curse of Monkey Island as an example of an expressive interactive space.
At the beginning of the game (ffwd to 7:40), Guybrush Threepwood is held captive inside of the hold of LeChuck’s ship; he stands up and exclaims (in the voice of a Shakespearean aside), “I’ve got to get out of here and help Elaine! If I could only get through this one door…”
Here’s where the interactive space begins to unfold. As a first-time player I explore the scene with my hand – I move the cursor around and click on a few items around Guybrush. A long pole hangs on the wall opposite me – literally opposite me as a player and for Guybrush too – so I instinctively reach towards it. Guybrush dramatically drops it into his pants, somehow defying physical reality. I realize – this game is not just about solving problems or fulfilling quests or hearing a story – it’s also about finding silliness and humour in the profane. Greedily, I reach for the cannon balls. Guybrush gripes, “Mmmh… they’re too heavy to carry.” I gesture toward the hole beside the cannon, Guybrush partly squeezes himself through the gunport and gets stuck. I motion him back to the hold. Curious at what is in the next room, I gesture toward the door. Guybrush peers into the keyhole of the door, ”I see a diorama of the children of the world living in peace and freedom! …… No wait – it can’t be that – it’s just too dark to make out what’s in there.”
As I play with the different items and places in this first scene, a space of possibilities begins to cohere for me. Guybrush is a weakling, so brute force ain’t going to work. Convincing “Bloodnose the Pirate” (aka. Wally) to open the door is not a straightforward request – it requires neither threats nor persuasion – but incessant adolescent goading of Wally’s piratehood. If I use the cutlass on Wally, Guybrush grimaces, “I don’t wanna disembowel poor Wally!” This is not the same kind of interactive space as, say, TES: Oblivion which all but encourages the player to slice and dice everything in sight and complete tasks in a straightforward and efficient manner. Instead, Guybrush takes a swipe at a hanging piece of rope, ”Hah-ha! Taste cold steel, feeble cannon restraint rope!” This is definitely not your average adventure hero. He’s got the arms of a palsied 7-year old with rickets!
What I’m getting at here is that our perception is partly shaped through our exploration (touching, smelling, walking, reaching at and taking things), partly through Guybrush’s relations to his world (how he judges things as valuable or interesting or frightening), and partly through Guybrush’s interactions with other characters in that world (how he addresses Wally or Murray the Demonic Skull, for instance). Of course, my perception is shaped partly by the fact that this is a 2D visual space with objects represented in spatial relationships to one another, but the fact is that those spatial mathematical relationships are not what makes the game “matter” for me. The game matters to me because somehow Guybrush has a quest worth pursuing, interesting relationships with his friends and enemies, and a hilarious world in which every action has some kind of unintended and hilarious outcome. So, the “interactive space” in which Guybrush’s world is expressed in is one inherently tied up with my cultural values, senses of humour and morality. Every element of style – Guybrush’s gawky and loping stride, the expressionistic “painterly” style of the backgrounds, and the lateral-thinking approach to solving puzzles, together evoke an interactive space for the player that encourages creativity and a desire for hilarious misadventure.
Now imagine something different. Imagine that the player only cares about the linear plot, and could care less about the puzzles or fumbling around with each item on the screen. S/he grabs a walkthrough and burns his/her way through the entire game. This is a completely different kind of interactive space; one in which it is no longer experienced in terms of the player’s investment in Guybrush’s world per se, but rather a kind of “storybook” that gets played out in front of her/him. The range of possibilities for creative expression for this player is much, much, smaller than in our previous case. What I’m getting at is that the player has a personality or psychological habitude that typically results in a certain play-style that also contributes to the kind of interactive space s/he experiences. This means that the game’s design both sets limits on the kinds of experiences possible in the game, and the player’s expressive style also sets limits on the kinds of experiences they will have as they play. Players who refuse to “explore” or “dwell” in a world and who see the game as just a bunch of quests that they need plow through, or players who see a game as essentially a storybook or television show, lose out on other expressive qualities the game might have to offer. Alternately, players who see a game as a tool for their personal gratification are likely to miss out on the emotional aspects that the narrative or character interaction might offer.
Like many other kinds of creative games, LucasArt’s The Curse of Monkey Island offers a world that players can come to “dwell” in and understand the range of expression possible within it. Without an adequate understanding of space and how space creates metaphorical boundaries within which we can express things, I suspect that we will continue to reduce a game’s qualities to it’s formal graphical style (2D/3D/isometric/etc) or narrative style (linear/non-linear/emergent/etc). Space is always value-space or cultural-space or dwelling-space or emotional-space, and not the rational Cartesian coordinate space that we’ve been stuck with in our thoughts for over 400 years.
As a final example of an interactive space that encourages creativity, one of the funniest scenes in CMI:
Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.
Note: If you’re a philosopher type, the thinkers who inspired this post were those from the Expressivist-Romantic tradition, like Charles Taylor, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Heidegger.