Monday, September 14, 2009

Space

I'm going to start way out in theory land and then bring it back in, so bear with me. Skip to the ellipsis if you want to skip the theory crap.

This is a topic I've done before, but this is new content.

Space in games is usually used both to separate/pace challenges and to form the challenges.

This is controlled mostly by the algorithms which control the space. For example, the simplest spaces are probably in adventure/text games, which have clearly defined rooms and very basic movement control. The gameplay in such games is less about navigating the space and more about putting non-space-related things together. However, even in that sort of game, everything is couched in space. You move to rooms to try things out, and progress is measured in new rooms that you can explore.

Most games have more complex spatial algorithms which allow for correspondingly greater amounts of gameplay in the space, rather than adjunct to it. Most games are about exploring space, and most of the rest are about modifying it, but that's a false dichotomy. An RPG is mostly about exploring, while Sim City is mostly about modifying, but an FPS is both. There is no "real" difference between exploring space and modifying space, because exploring space can be thought of as modifying space such that your avatar is in a different location. Obviously, a player might not feel that way, but I'm talking about underlying algorithms and rules.

A fog of war over some terrain: are you exploring the terrain as you vanquish the fog of war, or are you modifying the terrain to not include the fog of war? It's a useless semantic question. The algorithm of the space allows the player to vanquish the fog of war. There is no need to consider whether it's exploration or modification unless you're considering player psychology.

Well, there's no fundamental difference between space that is explored and space that is modified unless you're going out of your way to create one. But what about space where the rules change? What about once you get that double jump?

There's no fundamental difference then, either. The algorithm that governs when and whether you can double jump occupies the same "logical space" as the rules governing how fast you fall, whether you can survive an enemy's gunshot, whether you are stopped by a wall, whether you can build a house, and so on. It's a complex logical space with a lot of complicated rules, most of which are inherited from earlier games in the same genre.

Many of the most memorably original games are original because of this logical space, rather than the tangential rules governing things like XP, inventory, etc. Braid and Sands of Time both included time mechanics that gave you a strong and then-unique method of navigating space: they did this partly by simply altering the mechanics of what it means to mis-jump or die. Additional rules, especially in Braid, added additional layers of spatial complexity.

Games like Shiny's Messiah or Omikron Soul give you the power to switch bodies. While this often doesn't change the mechanics of exploring space like rewinding time does, it does change where you can go and what you can do when you get there. Which is in the same logical rule space.

Even games which aren't avatar-centric, like Tetris or Guitar Hero or Bust-a-Move, still use this logical space to define the core gameplay. There's a "space" that follows specific rules, and you move forward by interacting with the space correctly.

It's clear just how far this logical space can bend. The same basic idea - the algorithms that govern interaction with space - can be used for everything from Braid to Tetris to Sim City to Quake. Tangential rules are then added to govern the progression of these algorithms and spaces. You move from stage A to stage B. You select an avatar and a map. You get a new gun. You earn a new skill.

Even in a game like Skate, where the whole game is about interacting with space, there are still tangential rules: buying new skateboards and clothes, accomplishing arbitrary tricks and times. These tangential rules are often what designers agonize over.

...

I prize the spatial interactions. They are usually the fundamental interactions. When a player presses "right", the immediate response is the avatar moving right inside space. This tight, deep feedback can be found in most really great games: they're really great because they enhance the experience of interacting with space. Even the RPGs we prize are largely prized not for their RPG mechanics, but for their spatial experience. How pretty? How impressive? How interesting is the space we're in? Is the narrative tightly tied to/represented by the space?

What do you remember about FF6? The characters? Do you remember why you remember the characters? Because they defined themselves with space. Kefka burned down a city, then burned the world. Each character, on their own, had representative game levels - castles, small homes, smoky gin joints, vast plains. The characters were tightly associated with the spaces that represented them.

In games where exploring space is more tightly done, this is even clearer. Can you even name a memorable action game that didn't include some extremely well-polished or unique aspect of interacting with space? If you can, you're probably not remembering the interaction. Half Life 2, for example. The interesting aspect was not the gravity gun, which was barely a curiosity, but the level design, which forced very specific pacing on to the player. Did you notice that while you were playing?

Now, with that said, has a game ever become lauded for its tangential rules?

Can you name a game where the game was famous because of its inventory wrangling? Its level-up mechanic? Its deep social interactions?

It's hard. There are so few. A few that leap to mind are experimental games, famous only because they're trying out some weird new algorithm. When it comes to real games - even indie games - those tangential rules don't seem to add much to the final product. With one exception: when the tangential rules allow you to modify the spacial rules. For example, a level editor.

Which kind of feeds back into the original point: it's all about the space, and the algorithms that control it.

I think.

You?


8 comments:

Anonymous said...

yep, i think that's why ff6 was so groundbreaking at the time and still allures a lot of new players, setting it aside from the other final fantasies from the most part. it's not just a grind through some arbitrary map... go to this town to get this character and/or ability, then move on. maybe you stop by again to stock up on supplies but that's it after the first time. (seiken densetsu 3 does this over and over, drives me mad, even though i love the game.) almost goes without saying you can't think of cyan without also thinking of doma, the veldt without gao, figaro without edgar and sabin.

the worst part of any game with any strong map-based component (RPG or just some kind of game with a fog of war) is always when you have run out of space to explore. i hate it when i've uncovered the whole world in civ, when i've done all the zones in whatever dungeon crawler i'm in. once the exploration of the unknown is gone, a lot of games leave you hanging, turn very boring.

i thought the time-reversal thing in sands of time was cool at first but then it felt kind of cheap, even though they put the limiting mechanic on it.

sorry if that was rambly. this is actually a topic my brother and i have talked about at length, i'm trying to sum it up.

Maria V. said...

sorry, that was me.

Craig Perko said...

No, it's a good comment. I agree with everything: I'd forgotten about the disappointment of running out of things to explore. It's worth thinking about on its own, too.

I do think that the Sands of Time rewind was a cheap hack, but given that it was one of the first major games to pull something like that off, I was willing to let the quality slide in favor of the innovation.

And I like your new pic, of course.

Maria V. said...

*curtsy* thanks!

Chris Lepine said...

Interesting commentary on space - you've brought up quite a few questions for me. Hopefully I've interpreted you reasonably here, so if I'm way off, definitely correct me :)

For instance - is there an immediate identity between what you call 'logical space' and space-as-the-player-experiences it? That seems a bit problematic, as the space for a player's expressive style can change very much, while the in-game algorithms don't change at all. Here's an example of what I mean -- Planescape: Torment (sorry to use a hackneyed example, it's just faster) has a dialogue system that roughly corresponds to the D&D alignment system. Every dialogue choice shifts things a bit, and based on those choices can open the Nameless One to different actions. That is all algorithm-driven, and represents a kind of "ethical" or "moral" space for the player-avatar. The algorithm does not change at all in the game, and the same choices available to the player are always there: take the high road, cheat/steal/swindle, cold-blooded attack, logically reason with, etc. But, for a player like me, the "cold-blooded attack" and "logically reason with" options are non-options. I don't see them as *real* possibilities if I want to role-play my character the way I see him. What that means is that there is a whole side of the game that's just not accessible to me. Now, imagine that half-way through the game I have an insight into my character, and realize that he's actually a cold-blooded psychopath in disguise, and has been using people for his selfish gains all along. NOW the space for exploration changes considerably - I've got new options for dealing with NPCs in dialogues than I had before, and other options (such as being a bleeding-heart) disappear. My experience of exploring the game space changes hugely at this point, DESPITE the game logic/algorithms remaining exactly the same as they did before.

What I'm getting at is that logical space is a necessary, but not foundational, part of the whole 'game space'. And this is going to change with every game we play - but the point is that the game space has a huge contribution from the player's expressive style. A game like Sim City can be played in a ton of different ways according to the player's desires, despite relying upon the exact same logical space in each case. I can be an evil overlord and crush my hard-working minions with brutal taxation. I can be a loving town mayor who puts out every earthquake fire. There are limits here of course, but the limits are not constrained totally by the logical/algorithmic space or game genre.

Anyway - your post really got me thinking about what 'space' really means for a player. Great work!

Craig Perko said...

I agree 100% with everything you just said. What a player experiences isn't entirely governed by the rules of the space.

However, with few exceptions, improving the space will improve the player's experience. It's a sure bet, and most games that do well seem to have taken this to heart.

Rysan Marquise said...

I was just thinking, this reminds me alot of why LARPs are often successful as games, even among people who don't normally play then. They create a constantly updating location where people are making minor changes and there is often a reason to explore or discover something new in a location.

I feel like this could be applied to MMOs aswell, but there isn't enough reason to care about the things other players do. The space could update with the presence and actions of players, but for that to work the game would need to place a far greater emphasis on far smaller things.

Oh and response to the first post. How could you not think of Narshe and Terra first! All of her character development was deeply tied to the town. I just deleted a rant about how awesome the game was, but in short. It was awesome.

Maria V. said...

Rysan -- I think it's because I hated Narshe and wasn't really crazy about Terra :P I was just listing the ones I strongly think of first, pretty much all the characters have at least one area that you can associate with them. Celes has a bunch, and Kefka, well, pwns all.