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Spatial Constraints and Narrative Experience

In which Joey begins discussing the effect that spatial organization has on the narrative experience present in modern games.

Joey Gibbs, Blogger

August 8, 2011

4 Min Read

Hey everybody! Joey here, discussing even more game design theory. The topic of this week's discussion? Game mechanics - specifically the different ways that designers can organize space within game systems.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to limit this discussion to games that A. occur in 3D space B. represent players in this 3D space as an avatar and C. allow the player, as an avatar, to move around in that 3D space. In short, games that emulate people and/or objects moving through the world in real life.

Last week I talked at some length about how games emulate real world problems by incorporating constraints as rules. For example, in real life the movements of two opposing armies might be constrained by terrain - the battlefield limited to a field, a road, or the space between two rivers. This sort of spatial constraint is modeled in a game of standard chess by an 8x8 playing board. Many modern video games also model spatial constraints, albeit using BSPs in the place of physical walls or playing boards.

Generally speaking, there five primary ways that spatial constraints are modeled in games:

  1. Linear - the game consists of what is essentially a very long hallway, maybe with a few open areas here and there (examples: Uncharted 2, Metro 2033)

  2. Web - the player moves down a predominately linear path but is given the opportunity to choose between two or more branches of that path at certain points in the game (example: Gears of War 2)

  3. Points in space - the player chooses single points from among a cloud of different locations (example: the galaxy map in Mass Effect 2)

  4. Divided map - the player starts in what is essentially a sandbox but with certain areas blocked off until later in the game (examples: Red Dead Redemption, Infamous 2)

  5. Open worlds - the sandbox; a real sandbox environment would be like a baking pan - a ton of open space in the middle with big walls around the outside (examples: Fallout 3, Mount & Blade)

All games fall into at least one of these categories. Most are actually a combination of several.

Additionally, some games procedurally generate content, creating more space for players to move around in as they progress. Playing in a procedurally generated world is in many ways like running on a treadmill or moving through an environment on the set of a Flintstones cartoon.

Taken all together, these different categorizations create a spectrum of game space that moves progressively from relatively closed to relatively open environments.

Looking at the examples provided, another pattern begins to emerge. Beginning with Uncharted 2, moving through Mass Effect 2, and ending with Mount & Blade, the fundamental experience that each game provides for players changes. Uncharted 2 is a spatially linear game that is built around a very linear story. Effectively like playing through a summer blockbuster, Naughty Dog's active cinematic experience weaves a heavily scripted story which is revealed to the player as they progress through sequences of platforming, gunfighting, and stealth. As a middle ground, Mass Effect presents players with the opportunity to control the sequence in which certain events take place. While the narrative remains effectively linear, there is a lot of freedom of movement and action between segments of Mass Effect 2's critical storyline. At the more open end of the spectrum is Mount & Blade with a truly open, sandbox environment. Effectively an electronic toy, Mount & Blade has no designer-implemented story to speak of. The only narrative to be found in Mount & Blade emerges as a result of the player interacting with the game system.

It appears as though there is a correlation between the degree to which a game is spatially open and the type of story experience that the game can provide for its players. Again, many games make use of several of the five (5) spatial organization structures listed above - sometimes different play modes within the same game can create radically different experiences (for example Halo: Reach's solo campaign and its competitive multiplayer - a linear game with open segments and a predominately open game, respectively).

So what gives? How do different aspects of game design come together to create this trend? My theory is that different spatial arrangements in these types of games present players with different levels of control over their story experiences - open games tend to give players more agency and linear games less. It all has to do with where critical states are located, what those critical states do, and when players come into contact with them.

But that's enough for right now.

Special thanks to Jesse Schell, Tracy Fullerton, and the the one-two punch of Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman for the design insight. More thesis musings to come next week.

Stay safe, keep the faith.


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