I wrote a piece on Gameranx this week about how the spaces of Papo & Yo relate to the reality of life in the shantytowns of Latin America that it represents. Go read it!
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I’ve written before about Prototype, and how the way the player-character, Alex Mercer, operates within the urban space. I just recently finished playing through the sequel, and I’ve found it interesting how the dynamic between the urban space and the player-character in Prototype 2, James Heller, is different from that of the first game, and how it’s the same. In particular, what’s interesting to me is how both games present a somewhat different perspective on what it means for their player-characters to move between the street level of the urban space and the skyline.
This difference between how people relate to urban space at street level and from the heights of skyscrapers is one of the things Michel de Certeau talks about in the Walking In The City chapter of his 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life. This chapter is almost a cliche in discussions of space and spatiality, and especially in discussions of urban space, particularly the opening passage where Certeau describes “seeing Manhattan from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center”. What Certeau argues is that the New York City he sees “from above”, laid out before him, and the one he sees walking in the city at street level, “from below” are essentially two different urban spaces. Certeau says this is because the sense of the urban space “from above”, the God’s-eye view that makes the city seem easily readable and comprehensible, bears little relation to the reality of the urban space at street level. In effect, he says, the view from above is illusory, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the way the street level reality does.
My academic workload has gotten more intense since the start of the year, as I move toward confirmation, and also taught in a class this semester. But one of the things my advisors made me do is to write out my whole thesis, as I envisage it at this point, in one sentence for each chapter. This was a really useful exercise for me, and helped me start figuring out the progression I have to go through across the whole thesis. I’m posting it here because it illustrates something of my current thinking about my research:
Despite the differences between the space of video games and that of the real-world, some players describe a sense of the spaces of games that bears many similarities to the sense of place associated with real-world spaces, and this thesis suggests that examining how this place-like sense of game spaces functions could cast new light on theories of place in relation to the real-world, and that examinations of game spaces can draw on an understanding of real-world sense of place.
Particular viewpoints prescribed or encouraged in many games frequently constitute a literalisation and/or explicitisation of theory around totalising perspectives and reveal the way that the sense of mastery of the space these perspectives can produce is illusory in the sense that these perspectives elide specific details of the space, often literally presenting a different game space from that which the perspective purports to present, but also how these perspectives serve as useful abstractions that reveal with greater clarity the context of space that is a necessary foundation for a sense of place.
This context provides a foundation of meaning for the paths the player travels through the space in the service of user- or game-directed goals, and it is these trajectories that bring the player into more direct contact with the specific, concrete characteristics of the space that contribute heavily to the development of a place-like sense of game spaces, but which totalising perspectives only hint at or suggest.
The player’s engagement with these concrete characteristics is always mediated, however, by their own entanglement in a massive and complex web of existing engagements with other spaces via other media or their own personal experiences, one that often provides the player with a vital hook or framework for making sense of the space in terms of place.
These mechanisms of perspective, trajectory and mediation can produce this place-like sense of video game spaces even in environments where one would not typically expect a sense of place to arise, because they provide a framework for players to engage with these spaces on a place-like basis.
I’d recommend every PhD candidate do this exercise, regardless of what stage you’re at, and I’m sure I’ll do it again as I go through the process of researching and writing my thesis.
The rules are:
Obviously you’re going to end up with 40-80 word sentences like mine, and it’s going to be rough, and not read very well at all. But still, it’s worth doing.
As a big fan of Bethesda’s open world RPGs, I’ve been utterly absorbed in Skyrim for the past week or so. As I’ve been playing, I’ve been struck by the way that certain mechanisms obscure and distort the way the space of the game is presented to the player. Some of these mechanisms are common to this series or lineage of games since at least Oblivion, so they’re definitely relevant to my examination of Fallout 3, but Skyrim seems to push them even further, and even has significant differences in the way they operate.
There are three mechanisms that I see as being both the most prominent ways Skyrim does this distortion, and which are, though not unique to video game spaces, certainly mechanisms with no direct analogue to real-world spaces. These are level of detail reduction, perspective distortion, and the fast-travel system.
By level of detail reduction, I mean the various means by which the game’s graphics engine renders visual elements with less detail the further away they are from the viewer. In Skyrim these include using less complex geometry, using lower resolution textures, and not displaying elements such as grass, non-player characters and so on for far away landscape. Doing this reduces the rendering load, and allows the game to run on less high-powered hardware, but it also serves to create an impression of distance. Human players are accustomed to being able to make out less detail on far away objects in the real world, but Skyrim renders landscapes with lower detail at a much closer distance than that which would reduce perceptible detail in the real world. That is, landscapes in Skyrim get less detailed at much less distance than real-world landscapes do. This creates a kind of optical illusion, that produces the impression that landscapes affected by level of detail reduction are further away than they actually are, meaning the player gets the impression that there is greater distance between their present location and the landscape they’re seeing. A stretch of landscape that might actually only take a few minutes to cross looks much further across than it is, and this creates the impression of there being much more space in the game’s world than is in fact the case. One thing that’s particularly interesting about level of detail reduction is that the degree to which it happens varies based on what the hardware the game runs on can support, and the graphics settings chosen (or altered using a mod or console commands) by the player. Some technically-minded PC players will go to great lengths to ‘correct’ what they see as a significant flaw in the game’s graphics. But even on the highest settings, there’s a significant degree of distortion created by level of detail reduction.
Perspective distortion creates a similar optical illusion. What I mean by perspective distortion is primarily the way that the game’s graphics engine renders far away landscapes as smaller than they would appear with a more natural perspective. Just like the level of detail reduction, this creates the impression that these landscape elements like mountains and cities are further away than they actually are. But there’s also a degree of distortion in the way that mountains are rendered taller than they actually are, relative to the surrounding landscape. Perspective distortions such as these create a sense of the spaces involved being much larger than the physical geometry actually is in practice. Unlike level of detail reduction, perspective distortion does not conserve system resources in itself. In fact, applying the distortion when rendering the game’s visuals creates an additional overhead. But like level of detail reduction, it creates an impression of immense space without that space needing to actually be present in the game world’s physical geometry. So in a way, it helps conserve system resources by allowing the impression of distance to be created with less game world geometry.
Unlike the other two mechanisms, fast-travel isn’t solely a matter of visual presentation of the space, and while the other two appear in pretty much the same way in Fallout 3, Skyrim’s fast-travel is a little different in one particularly important respect. While fast-travel from the map in both Fallout 3 and Skyrim only allows you to travel to previously visited locations, Skyrim also includes another form of fast-travel: horse-drawn carriages that can take you to the game’s major settlements instantly, whether you’ve been there before or not. This is a bit like Morrowind’s public transport fast travel systems, though much less limited: every one of Skyrim’s horse-drawn carriages can take you to every one of the major settlements. I discuss fast travel systems in much more depth in my MA thesis, but what’s important here is that both these forms of fast-travel involve moving between geographically distant locations without any regard to the space between. Significantly, many of the destinations that the horse-drawn carriages can get you to do not feature a horse-drawn carriage departure point. Once you’re there, you have to either use fast-travel or walking or riding normally to get anywhere else. The conjunction of the horse-drawn carriages and map-based fast-travel means that the major settlements in Skyrim can serve as hubs for exploration of the surrounding space, but it also means that it’s easy for the player to visit a large number of locations in the game world without really establishing a clear idea of how they relate to each other in the game world’s physical geography. Sure, you’ll always see where they are in relation to each other on the map, but the map’s scale can only be understood by reference to direct experience of the space it represents. And as has been established, that experience is always subtly distorted.
What these three mechanisms do is disconnect the player’s perception of distance and spatial relationships between locations from the actual spatial relationships between those locations as they exist in the game world’s physical geography. And there’s a particular emphasis on exaggerating the distance between locations. It’s very easy to get the impression that two locations are much further from each other than they actually are. What’s particularly interesting to me is the way this works with the way that spaces in Bethesda’s open world RPGs have been designed, at least since Morrowind, with a degree of abstraction. This is is something I (perpetually) mean to cover in its own post, but I’m talking about the way small towns and cities seem to be stand-ins, symbolic representations, of larger actual settlements within the fiction of the game, and particularly relevant to the question of distorting space, the way that relatively short distances between settlements seem to be symbolic of longer distances in the fiction. These means of spatial distortion seem to support that abstraction to a greater degree in Skyrim than in previous games in this lineage, even as Skyrim features larger actual settlements and distances than the prior games mostly have. They’re almost a means of extracting that fictional distance from the abstraction actually present in the geometry, decompressing the space in the player’s perception.
The relationship between different places is crucial to establishing sense of place, and these mechanisms don’t so much destroy those relationships as they do distort and disrupt it. This makes accounting for them and taking them into consideration essential to understanding the way that sense of place is created in these games.
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.