The Unit Operations of Place Formation
I’ve been re-reading Ian Bogost‘s Unit Operations the last few days, and I’m finding it a lot more accessible now than when I first tried to read it back in 2008 or so. I think part of that is my own academic growth, and part of it is that I now have a bit of a grounding in the concepts of actor-network theory and object-oriented ontology that are conceptually very similar to a lot of what Bogost discusses in the book.
Bogost’s central idea is that many things, and especially video games, can be best understood in terms of what he calls ‘units’, broadly similar to the ‘objects’ of OOO, or the ‘actors’ of ANT. They’re also a little bit like the ‘objects’ of object-oriented programming, but actually different in some important ways, which is why Bogost avoids using the term (and the book has a detailed explanation of the differences). Units can be understood as discrete entities, with their own identifiable properties, but also they take inputs, process them according to relatively simple rules, and produce outputs. This is what Bogost calls a ‘unit operation’, and he argues that many complex phenomena can be explained as the aggregate of many of these relatively simple unit operations. Examples of these simple operations producing complex phenomena include the way the simple rules of Go, or Conway’s Game of Life produce complex results, or the way a collection of trees and other entities interact with each other to produce a forest.
The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is how to tie these ideas into my own work. What are the unit operations of place formation in video games, and specifically in my chosen texts? What are the units involved, how do they operate, and how do these operations produce this thing called place? So, at 2am on a Sunday morning, I decided it would be a good idea to pour myself a glass of chinotto and start a new game of Fallout 3. I’ve played the introductory section enough times that I always skip it now, loading up the auto-save of a previous game that occurs on exiting Vault 101. The first emergence from the Vault has always been one of the most impressive parts of the game to me. I barely had time to wander around the immediate surrounds of the Vault’s exit before it suddenly struck me how to make sense of place formation in terms of unit operations.
Exiting Vault 101, there’s a clear path to follow that establishes connections between certain locations. The exit is set into a rocky outcrop, so movement in that direction is out of the question, and rocks hem the player in on either side. Already, we see these objects or units acting in simple ways on the player to produce a complex effect. In contrast, in front of the player is a majestic vista spread out before them. On the left, the ruins of familiar-looking houses and streets lie in the near-distance, while to the right is an amorphous brown blob a bit further away. This is the settlement of Megaton, but even on the PC, the game’s graphics engine does not render it with enough visual clarity at this distance for the player to make any sense of the shapes they can see.
The player’s first view of the game world outside the Vault serves as an introduction to the broader space, featuring as it does a sampling of the features to be found as the player explores. The rocky foreground studded with scrappy half-dead plants and trees is typical of the terrain to be found across most of the game world. In the middle distance, on the left, the stylised rocketship (actually part of the structure of a destroyed gas station) is an iconic introduction to the ruined 1950s retrofuture, traces of which can be found all over. In the centre, the rusting water tower is emblematic of the scarcity of potable water that is fundamental to the desolation of the game world and to the narrative of the game’s main questline. And on the right, the jutting wings of the settlement of Megaton (built, as the player will discover, largely out of scrapped aircraft pieces), representing what remains of human habitation. Finally, in the distance are the silhouettes of the Capitol dome and the column, visible across most of the game world, of the Washington Monument. These serve to tell the player exactly where they are: the ruins of Washington D.C. that give the game world its name: the Capital Wasteland.
A path leads down to a broken roadway. Reaching the road, the player finds that to their right, the road is blocked by burned out cars, and the remains of a partially-collapsed highway overpass. Even were they to travel in that direction, they’d find a steep rise of broken ground, the rise providing a close horizon that prevents the player seeing things that might entice them to travel further. But the immediate obstacles are likely to prove sufficient discouragement to travel in that direction. Similarly, on the far side of the road a rock pile taller than the player-character’s head obscures vision, and a short cliff beyond it discourages movement. Again, the player is not prevented from moving in this direction, but the terrain offers these subtle discouragements to movement. This leaves only the roadway on the left, that curves down towards the ruins the player saw from the exit of Vault 101.
Reaching the ruins, the player finds the remains of a familiar streetscape. A sign reads ‘Springvale’. The houses are burned and bombed out, the mailboxes are scorched and rusted, and the gas station is missing its pumps, but all this is easily recognisable. The only exception is the floating metal sphere with protruding aerials that patrols the area, broadcasting music and speeches that evoke Americana. In contrast, the shape of the thing evokes Sputnik. This, as the player will learn later, is an Eye-Bot, a roving agent of the Enclave, and its presence foreshadows that of its masters.
There is another close horizon down the street to their left, and a sign reading ‘Megaton’ with an arrow pointing along a path to the right.
Following the path, the player encounters the amorphous blob they glimpsed earlier, but from an angle so different they are unlikely to make the connection immediately. The frame of the gates towers over them, tipped with twin spires, and the gates themselves are drawn open with the loud whine of a jet engine. This is an event that occurs only once in the course of the game, triggered by the player-character’s crossing the boundaries of the immediate vicinity of Megaton.
Outside the gates is the settlement’s greeter, whose name (if the player approaches and puts their crosshair on him) is displayed as ‘Deputy Weld’, a robot with a striking visual resemblance to Robby the Robot. Also nearby is a beggar who will ask for water, and the corpses of some giant ants, heralding the dangers of the wastes. The player will also likely encounter one of the Capital Wasteland’s caravan merchants – their programmed behaviour has them wait outside the gates of Megaton for quite a few in-game hours, so there is a high chance one will be present whenever the player arrives. Thus, meeting the merchant will likely be the player’s first encounter with another human outside Vault 101.
It would be a rare player who, having arrived outside Megaton and witnessed the spectacle of the opening gates, did not venture inside.
On entering the settlement, the player will quickly be stopped and engaged in conversation by Lucas Simms, who identifies himself as the sherrif and mayor. The dialogue options present the player with the opportunity to ask him about the town and its features. After talking with Sims, the player can look around. The walls of the settlement are very high, preventing any view of the outside world from within. The obvious path in front of them (the direction from which Simms approached) leads down into the pit in the centre of the settlement…
… past a two-headed cow.
There, the player will discover the object that they will almost certainly and immediately conclude inspired the settlement’s name: a large bomb very close in appearance to the ‘Fat Man’ bomb dropped on Nagasaki. In the ankle-deep water beside the bomb stands a man speaking in rapturous tones of “the power of Atom”.
All of the player’s movements up to this point have mapped out clear geographical connections between the locations they have encountered, as well as some measure of understanding of the nature of each of these locations. Understanding how each of these locations relates spatially to each other allows the player to begin to construct a mental map. This mental map will include the way the player understands the character of these locations: a sense of place. It should be obvious to a critical eye that the player’s movements must be the result of a designer’s intent, to introduce them to the general character of the game’s space, and to that of each of these places. But this is hardly likely to be uppermost in the mind of the typical player encountering these spaces for the first time. And in any case, their movement has not been directed by a script, or by strict boundaries.
The player’s movements are directed – to the extent that they are directed – by the specific properties of the objects within the game’s space. Each of these objects has, yes, been designed, and each of them has been placed by a level designer with the intent of directing the player’s movement. But it is not the designer’s intent that directs the player’s movement, it is the objects themselves, and the way the player relates to those objects. Those objects establish a certain relationship to the player, communicating their affordances, visually and through their interaction with the player-character’s body. The player moves in response to these relationships. They might choose to try to climb the derelict cars, or explore beyond the close horizon. But the elements of the game’s space, the specific objects within it, resist or accommodate the player’s actions, and the player must choose to overcome this resistance or go along with their accommodations. This is the only way the designer can direct the player’s movement in the absence of a programmed script or strict boundaries: by placing the objects within the space, and letting these relationships play out.
This is the unit operations of space, and of place formation. Each of the actors within the space, the player-character, the objects, the NPCs, is a discrete entity, with relatively basic properties, things it can do, inputs it can receive, operations it can perform on them, and outputs it can produce. Yet, they combine to produce, for the player, a sense of place.