Interfaces To Spaces

Part of my PhD research on the way that game spaces work involves analysing player responses to games, in the form of blog and forum posts, user reviews and so on, to supplement my own analysis of the games. This is proving to be very useful, as the plurality of voices provides insights I’d never have had were I to rely solely on my own experiences. One of the issues that’s emerged from this research on player responses is the importance of game interfaces, the means by which players navigate and interact with a game’s spaces, in shaping their experience of those spaces.

This significance is evident, for example, in the complaints from the No Mutants Allowed community website about Fallout 3. NMA is a Fallout fansite that’s infamous for being a writhing den of hostility towards anything with the Fallout name on it that isn’t Fallout 1 or 2. This is nothing special; fan communities often show a greater attachment to the original incarnations of the object of their fandom, and a hostility towards later incarnations (see “George Lucas raped my childhood”), but this hostility is typically focussed on the perception of infidelity to the fiction established by earlier instalments, rather than on the details of the presentation. Star Wars fans generally care more that Han shot first than they care about the use of wipe transitions between scenes, or the quality of the sound design. This is not necessarily the case with NMA’s hostility to Fallout 3.

The site’s official review of Fallout 3 is fairly representative of the complaints and criticisms expressed by members of the community. Although Fallout 3 is condemned as being “not a Fallout game… not even a game inspired by Fallout”, the reviewer admits it “contains a loose assortment of familiar Fallout concepts and names”. The distinction between the two is never clarified. Though Fallout 3 is criticised for deviating from certain established details of the setting, it’s also criticised for reusing many setting elements from earlier games. It’s bad because it’s different, and it’s bad because it’s the same. While the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacies and the assertion that the NMA community and those who share its opinions are the only legitimate authority on what is and is not a Fallout game are fascinating, they’re a topic for another time. The criticisms of Fallout 3 on the basis of its fidelity or infidelity to the setting are inconsistent.

What’s more consistent, though, is the criticisms of the way the game’s spaces are presented, navigated and interacted with. Naturally, being True Hardcore PC Gamers, the NMA community despises Fallout 3’s first-person view. Fallout 3’s interface is inherited from the Elder Scrolls games, and likewise it inherits many of the conventions that are commonly accepted in those games. One of these is spatial abbreviation – places of interest are geographically closer together in the spaces of Elder Scrolls games than they might be in a more ‘realistic’ geography. This abbreviation reduces the tedium of travel between points of interest, in the same way that routine acts such as getting dressed, going to the toilet and eating meals are often omitted in traditional narrative forms because they are not relevant to the narrative. The NMA review of Fallout 3 decries this convention as ‘unrealistic’, conveniently ignoring the ‘unrealistic’ nature of the map-based travel system that is a convention of earlier Fallout games. What the NMA community really seems to object to in Fallout 3 is not that its conventions are more or less ‘realistic’ than those of earlier Fallout games, but that they are different. But it’s not simple nostalgia for those older games.

Over at The Brainy Gamer, Michael Abbott describes how, playing in 2008, shortly before the release of Fallout 3, his students’ struggled to engage with the earlier Fallout games, but that eventually they mastered the decade-old interface and “built a relationship with the character and the offbeat but perilous world”. Having done so, they became skeptical of the upcoming Fallout 3’s likelihood of maintaining fidelity to the earlier games, and their concerns seem mostly focussed on the differences in the way players would interact with the game’s space. Learning to work and engage with the interface is part of the way they built a relationship with the game’s world. From my own experiences with the earlier Fallout games, I know that playing a game like Fallout requires an investment in accustoming oneself to the interface – to the way you engage with the game’s world – and that interface becomes a fundamental part of your experience of the game’s spaces. To those, like the NMA community, and like Abbot’s students, whose experience of the game’s spaces is intricately tied to the interface, Fallout 3’s change in interface is an infidelity to the original games, regardless of whether or not the spaces of Fallout 3 faithfully represent those of the originals.

For another example of how a game’s interface shapes players’ experiences, we can look to BioShock, and the element of that game’s interface most widely-reviled by the hardcore: the ‘quest arrow’. The ‘quest arrow’ appears as an element of the game’s GUI that points to the next objective or waypoint the player must reach to progress through the game. Initially it could not be disabled, but a patch shortly after the game’s release added the option to do so.

Many players expressed hostility to the quest arrow, and for a variety of reasons. Some players felt it detracted from their immersion in the game. Others felt like the arrow’s presence was the game talking down to them. And some suggested the arrow discouraged exploration of the game’s spaces. But many of those opposed to the arrow never actually played with it turned on themselves. They weren’t concerned that the arrow would discourage their own exploration, so much as that it would discourage the exploration of others. But these concerns have not been borne out by my research. I have yet to find an example of a player expressing that the quest arrow discouraged their own exploration. In fact, some players report that the arrow enhanced their exploration by providing guidance to areas of the game’s spaces that lay off the beaten path, or a safety net to ameliorate the risk of getting lost. So while the arrow did not shape players’ experience of the space in the way it might be expected to, it certainly did shape their experiences.

What these examples point to is that the interface to a game’s spaces – the way that players navigate and interact with those spaces – is at least as important to players’ experience of those spaces (if not moreso) than the content of the spaces themselves. It’s not just the details of the post-apocalyptic wasteland or Objectivist dystopia that matter, it’s the way the player sees and engages with them. This is consistent with McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”, but more specific to game spaces, it also reinforces the ‘trialectic’ view of space and spatiality promoted by Edward Soja, based on the work of Henri Lefebvre. A full explanation of Soja’s trialectic is a topic for another post, but the basic idea is that spatiality emerges from a mutual exchange between perceived space, conceived space and lived space. This model of spatiality is the theoretical framework on which my PhD is based, so it’s nice to get some reinforcement on that.

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