The image of a game space

Spaces tell stories. And video games enhance this possibility. Spatial interaction is one of the main element that constitutes the game experience. Learning how to build an environment which is not a mere background is an essential part of game narration.

Internet Festival 2015 banner

This year I was invited at the Internet Festival a themed event held in Pisa about the web, the new technologies and their future. This year the main topic was the space, so I prepared a workshop about narration, scenography and architecture. What’s following is a resume of what I said there.

Kevin Lynch in his book The image of the city wrote that an ordered environment:

may serve as a broad frame of reference, an organizer of activity or belief or knowledge.

Kevin Lynch was an architect and an urbanist. He wrote one of the most influential book about how the city space is perceived by who experiences it. His book analyzed the structure of urban space and its mental image present in the mind of the people who inhabit it.

Creating a city that provides to its inhabitants a clear image is more than just find something easily. A space can be also an organizer of knowledge. This means that it could provide useful information that are not strictly connected to its main function.

Nevertheless architecture doesn’t use this characteristic too much because its principal aim is to make people comfortable. This is not true for scenography. Indeed, while the design of real spaces goes from organization to events, the design of fictional spaces goes from events to organization. A story set is realized with the purpose to host the narrative actions. Buildings in games, cinema and theatre doesn’t have the same functions as they have in the real world, they usually are placeholders or metaphors and can help incredibly, or even carry on the narration.

Scenography in particular has no specific bounds regarding the design of the space: emptiness, minimalism, symbolism can be freely used since there is no requirement for realism. The scenographies of contemporary theatre are designed to evoke feelings and not to describe actual places. And that’s an incredibly potential still unexplored in both games and movies (aside for Dogville by Lars Von Trier).

A frame from the film Dogville by Lars Von Trier

The environmental storytelling is a narrative technique to tell stories through space. It is vastly used in amusement parks (think to Disneyland), but it got its way also in video games. Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch did an extensive talk about it at GDC 2010. They provided also a definition:

the environmental storytelling is the act of “staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.”

Game researcher Henry Jenkins recognizes in the game space the main means for video games to communicate a story. The environment and its properties provide all the elements for a narration that occurs in the player’s mind.

As a space with its characteristics fosters a mental image in its visitor, at the same time it can also provide enough narrative material to encourage the formation of a story. Detective stories are based on this kind of process, and games like Gone home are another example. The player searches clues and she interprets and combines them in a plausible story. This process is highly involving and can be integrated almost in any kind of experience (the story of Dark Souls is told with this technique).

A screenshot of Gone Home

When the environmental storytelling is used in fictional spaces, another important element is time. If the player go back in a place but in a different time the same place could show the traces of what she did there before or even tell different things. This happens in Soul Reaver 2 for instance, but a stronger example is the comic book Here by McGuire. The author use always the same set, but he opens on it temporal windows that tell different stories.

A page of the comic book Here by Richard McGuire

A game environment could be much more than a simple background. To realize a narration that goes beyond plain words environmental storytelling could be one of the most important element. However organize a space is not always that simple, the components that Kevin Lynch presents for real places could be a good starting point also for the design of the fictional ones:

  • identity: an environmental image should have a clear and recognizable identity, a certain character, a distinctiveness, that would distinguish it from other things.
  • structure: the image should also be integrated with some kind of relation to the others objects. The whole environment should be structured, all of its elements should be in relation.
  • meaning: every object should be there for a reason, it should have a meaning that enrich the environment, or a practical or emotive use for the player.

Architecture and scenography are both great resources to enhance the creation of narrative and emotive spaces in games. They provide a good toolset to explore more in depth the possibilities of environmental storytelling, and how to deliver a messages to the player without using necessarily the words.

Partial bibliography

ADAMS, Ernest. The role of architecture in Videogames (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131352/designers_notebook_the_role_of_.php).

CARSON, Don. Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131594/environmental_storytelling_.php).

ELLIOTT, Jake. Designing for mystery in Kentucky Route Zero (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/220199/Video_Designing_for_mystery_in_Kentucky_Route_Zero.php).

HOROWITZ, Nick. What games can learn from experimental theater (http://www.polygon.com/2013/8/23/4651562/opinion-what-games-can-learn-from-experimental-theater).

ISIGAN, Altug. Space and narrative in video games (https://altugi.wordpress.com/articles/space-and-narrative-in-video-games/).

JENKINS, Henry. Game Design as narrative architecture (http://interactive.usc.edu/blog-old/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Jenkins_Narrative_Architecture.pdf).

LYNCH, Kevin. The image of the city.

NICKLIN, Hannah. A Psychogeography Of Games 1: Kentucky Route Zero (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/07/03/a-psychogeography-of-games-1-kentucky-route-zero/).

SCHELL, Jesse. The Art of Game Design.

WORCH, Matthias and Harvey SMITH. What happened here? (http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1012647/What-Happened-Here-Environmental).


comments powered by Disqus