Spaces In Motion

The way that players move around a game space has a big impact on the way they use and make sense of it. So what happens when the usual way of moving around a space changes? I’ve been experiencing just such a change, playing through the GTA IV add-ons, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

I bought GTA IV on release (got the special edition and everything) and played through Niko Bellic’s story, but I never finished the final mission. Now I’m finally getting around to playing the add-ons, and two particular things about the way I’m moving around Liberty City have changed, one in each add-on. The first is the use of motorcycles in The Lost and Damned, and the second is my own self-imposed challenge of obeying traffic rules as I play through The Ballad of Gay Tony.

Riding with The Lost

Riding motorcycles is, obviously, a major focus of The Lost and Damned. There’s no rule that Johnny Klebitz always has to ride a bike, but you’re definitely encouraged to do so, outside of the missions that provide four-wheeled transport. Part of this encouragement comes from the fictional context of Johnny’s biker character, but there’s also the easy access to motorcycles due to their placement outside safe houses and the end locations of missions, as well as the ability to call up The Lost’s road captain to have a bike delivered at any time.

But there are certain characteristics peculiar to riding motorcycles that change the way the player experiences the space of Liberty City. Firstly, motorcycles are smaller than cars, allowing the player to weave between traffic and generally avoid having their movement obstructed by cars. Second, the bikes The Lost ride are slower at top speed than the fastest cars or other bikes in the city. This means more time as you ride around to see the city. And third, bikes put the player-character – and through them, the player – closer to the road, and more open to the city around them, even when cruising the streets much faster than on foot. These factors all contribute to a greater sense of the player-character inhabiting the space.

Rolling Deep

On the other hand, obeying traffic rules delivers a greater sense of existing within the city, even if it also exposes some of the flaws in the game’s presentation of urban space within the gameplay.

Obeying traffic rules is entirely self-imposed in GTA games, and there’s not a whole lot of support for the practice provided by the game. Traffic moves slowly in Liberty City, and the lights can take a long time to change. Any timed mission is pretty much impossible to complete while obeying traffic rules, and the completion times for missions in The Ballad of Gay Tony are equally out of reach. In addition to this, traffic lights aren’t easily visible a lot of the time while driving. They pop in late on the console version, and are hard to keep in sight if you pull up close to an intersection, requiring a lot of fiddly camera movement to watch. And forget about indicating turns, there’s no provided functionality for that. Not to mention that NPC drivers are often imperfect in their own adherence to the traffic rules, running red lights, jostling in lanes, and nudging other cars out of the way while waiting for lights to change. Attempting to obey traffic rules almost immediately reveals that driving safely was never something the player was intended to do.

All that said, actually trying to obey traffic rules despite the effort required yields its own particular perspective on Liberty City. Waiting at lights and jogging the camera to keep them in view affords the player plenty of opportunities to take in the sights of the city, watch the people go by, and observe the finer details of the streets. You’ll also gain a sense of the flow of traffic around the city if you stay in your lane and follow the lane markings, taking note of one-way and single-lane streets.

Stay In Your Lane

What both of these different modes of moving around the game space demonstrate is the impact of the material workings of these means of travel on the player’s experience of space. It’s the particular way they work within the game’s systems that creates a distinctive experience. This points to the usefulness of a close analysis of game systems and their impact on play in understanding the player’s experience of the game space. It’s not enough to look just at the spaces of a game, you have to take account of the details of how the player comes to experience those spaces. Only then can you get a really meaningful understanding of the space.

Inhabiting Game Spaces

Now that I’ve started my new PhD, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the way that players experience, and more importantly, inhabit, space in games. A lot of this has been prompted by discussions with Brendan Keogh, whose work on his Honours thesis is about the relationship between players and the characters they control in games, and particularly about unpacking what we mean when we talk about what we or those characters do in games.

The biggest issue for me is the difference that third-person and first-person perspectives make to the way players inhabit space. Red Dead Redemption uses a third-person perspective, while Fallout 3 and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series use first-person¹, so this is something I have to address.

Red Dead Redemption

The way I see it, it comes down to where the player is positioned in the game. This is something that’s mostly visual. In first-person games, you’re inside the head of the character that you’re controlling, looking out through their eyes (or eye, really, if you’re not playing in stereoscopic 3D), whereas third-person games have you looking over their shoulder, usually with some degree of control over the exact position you’re viewing them from. Either way, you’re still controlling a character, and the degree of control you have over them generally doesn’t change, but where you, the player, are in terms of perspective still makes a difference to your relationship to that character.

When you’re viewing a character from the outside, what you’re controlling is “that guy” on the screen, whereas when you’re looking out from inside their head, your control of the character is more direct, less abstract. As much as you might come to identify with the character on-screen, third-person perspective never lets you forget that you’re not them. Seeing oneself from outside is a sensation associated with the psychological phenomenon of dissociation, which is often triggered by stress. It’s a trick of the mind to remove the ‘you’ from you. So when it happens in a video game, there’s an (I’d argue) insurmountable disconnect between the player’s sense of themselves and their sense of the character they’re controlling. Whereas with first-person perspective, you’re much more likely to forget that distinction. Obviously you never forget it entirely, but the sense of looking out through ‘your’ own eyes is a much less uncanny and dissonant sensation than that of looking at ‘yourself’ from the outside. You do it all the time. You’re doing it right now, in fact.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow Of Chernobyl

What this means is that, when it comes to looking at how the player experiences the space of a game, third-person perspective inevitably means they’re experiencing it at a greater remove. They’re constantly reminded by the visibility of their ‘puppet’ on-screen that they’re inhabiting the game’s space by proxy, whereas first-person perspective obscures this proxying. Yes, there’s a hand holding a gun or crowbar on-screen, but neither the crowbar nor the hand is your proxy for inhabiting the space, they’re a part of the space. You’re not the crowbar, or the hand, you’re the person holding the crowbar, the person the hand belongs to. The crowbar and the hand are a part of the space. Third-person perspective has the player controlling another visible entity who is inhabiting a space, whereas in first-person perspective, the space being inhabited is all that is visible. You’re inhabiting the character, who is inhabiting the space, whereas third-person doesn’t have you inhabiting the character, only controlling them from the outside. It’s the difference between wearing a full-body space suit, and driving a remote control car. That’s you inside the space suit, walking around, but as much as the mapping of the controls to the car’s movements might become second nature, you’ll never be inside the car.

So, when talking about how the player experiences the space of a game, perspective complicates the connection between the player and the space. When playing Red Dead Redemption, it’s John Marston who inhabits the space, while the player is controlling him and spectating on his actions within it. When playing Fallout 3 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the player inhabits the character, and through them, the space. The body through which the player experiences the space makes a significant difference to their experience as a whole.

Fallout 3

¹ Yes, I know, both the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and Fallout 3 provide a function for viewing your character from a third-person perspective, but the game generally isn’t terribly playable that way. This changes a little with Fallout: New Vegas though.

A Tale Of Two Cities

I played Prototype when it came out in 2009, and enjoyed it immensely. But I’ve only recently had a chance to play Infamous, since I got it as part of the PSN Welcome Back package. Infamous was released two weeks before Prototype, and the two games are often compared, because both games feature super-powered player-characters in gritty urban environments. Playing Infamous, the similarities to Prototype are striking, but so too are the differences. The aspect of both games that I’m most interested in is their urban spaces, and the ways the player-characters of the two games use those spaces in very different ways. There’s something fundamental to the player-characters in both games that’s represented in their differing uses of similar urban environments. Since both games’ plots revolve around the player-character’s origins and natures, discussing this necessarily means spoiling both games’ stories, so you have been warned.

Let’s start with Infamous. Cole McGrath has a lot of ways in which he can make use of the urban environment, both in and out of the combat that forms the bulk of the game’s activity. In combat, Cole takes cover, lobs electric grenades to force enemies out of their own cover, and has a limited power supply that forces the player to always keep in mind where Cole can get his next charge. Out of combat, Cole traverses the environment using the features of the cityscape. Cole sticks to the cityscape in a distinctively tactile way. He climbs buildings handhold-by-handhold, runs and grinds along power lines and train tracks, crosses streets and alleyways and bridges. Occasionally he might glide from one point to another, but any aerial manoeuvre is short-lived. Walls without handholds are an impassable obstacle (as are the much-maligned chain-link fences, which makes less sense), and due to his electricity-based powers, blacked-out areas are danger zones, and bodies of water are a death-trap. Running around the city, Cole passes dozens of injured civilians, each of which represents a moral choice (though the game mechanics could do with reinforcing that more), forging a connection between Cole and the populace of Empire City that is strengthened by their responses to him on the street. The posters of Cole that the citizens put up reflect the player’s actions, inscribing them on the physical urban geography itself. This inscription becomes even more pronounced with each area that Cole brings under his control. Cole travels on the train tracks just as the humans of the city do, even if he does so by grinding on them, and this method of fast travel is dependent on the urban infrastructure, like so many of Cole’s abilities. In fact, Cole is just as dependent on that infrastructure as the people of the city are. All of which is to say that the player-character’s activities in Infamous are fundamentally tied to the affordances of the urban environment for humans, despite Cole’s superhuman abilities.

In contrast, Prototype’s Alex Mercer doesn’t stick to the urban environment if he can instead soar above it. In combat, Mercer dive-bombs tanks, kicks helicopters out of the sky, and generally stomps his way through the city. Even the nature of the lock-on system used in combat means that the urban landscape becomes a peripheral concern to the player as Mercer manoeuvres during fights. Mercer doesn’t take cover except to briefly regenerate his health when seriously wounded, and makes extensive use of acrobatic and aerial fighting moves to smash through his foes, who are largely restrained to the ground. Out of combat, Mercer disregards the people of the city, brushing, pushing or even violently sending them flying as he charges down sidewalks. He disguises his identity and infiltrates military bases, then dismantles them from the inside. Mercer is bound by no social order, or even by the physical laws that restrain humans. He scales the vertical surfaces of buildings without a thought, as easily as any horizontal surface, then jumps off the highest points and soars over the streets and buildings. Cole might glide between buildings, or across a street, but Mercer flies for several city blocks with a single leap. Everything in the city is nothing more than an obstacle for Mercer to overcome or run right over and ignore. Unlike Cole, Mercer leaves no marks of his own on the city; any military base or infestation he destroys is restored in a relatively short span of time. Nothing Mercer himself does has any lasting impact on the geography. All of Mercer’s abilities serve to distance him from the urban landscape, to set Mercer apart from the people and the city. Alex Mercer simply does not operate in the urban environment the way the people who live there do. To Mercer it’s not even a city, just a geography of obstacles that happens to include buildings and streets and people.

These two contrasting ways of operating in urban environments represent the fundamental nature of the games’ player-characters. Cole discovers the source of his powers is his own future self, motivated by love and family, the most human of concerns. His destiny is ultimately tied to Empire City (sequel notwithstanding), as its benevolent protector or malevolent overlord. Cole is a regular human who just happens to have extraordinary abilities, and that goes down to his very core. Alex Mercer, on the other hand is not. It turns out that even the ‘Alex Mercer’ identity is a sham, a fiction, and the real Mercer died before the game starts. The player discovers late in the game that the player-character they’ve controlled throughout is actually the sentient virus infestation that took over Mercer’s body and identity. You’re not Mercer, you never were, you just thought you were. Ultimately, the player-character isn’t human at all, they’re an alien sentience that just happens to have adopted a human shape.

Despite the superficial similarities of these two games featuring super-powered player characters in urban environments, both games have player-characters who are very different, and who operate in these city spaces in equally different ways. That one player-character inhabits the city in a very human way, while the other hardly inhabits it as a city at all, turns out to be entirely appropriate to their essential natures.

The Waste And The Wild

It’s been a few months since my last post, but I’ve now submitted my MA thesis, and recovered a bit from the process of finishing it, so I’m looking on to my next project. While I was finishing my MA thesis, Souvik Mukherjee was kind enough to send me some material based on his presentations and discussions at the Ludotopia conferences, the first in Copenhagen in May last year, the second in Manchester, just this past February (which I wish I could have attended). Mukherjee is interested in an idea from Gilles Deleuze’s work, of spaces that have the possibility of becoming ‘any-space-whatever’, and he connects Deleuze’s concept to the wastelands depicted in games like Fallout 3 and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. But Mukherjee suggests that this idea of ‘wasteland spaces’ is a useful way of thinking about video game spaces in general, as ‘zones of possibility’.

Essentially, what we’re talking about here is spaces with a lot of possibilities for becoming place. Place is distinguished from space as, roughly ‘space with stuff attached to it’. The ‘stuff’ can be specific associations, practices, etc. Broadly speaking, space is general, place is specific. Deleuze’s ‘any-space-whatever’ and Mukherjee’s ‘wastelands’ are fundamentally talking about a relationship between space and its possibilities for becoming place.


What I’d like to do is expand on this ‘wasteland’ idea. I’m interested in getting deeper into this relationship between space and place, and how space becomes place, particularly in games. Place is, in a lot of ways, fundamentally about narrative, and narrative is pretty dependent on temporality, so I want to introduce something of a temporal dimension. I’d like to expand on the definition of Mukherjee’s wastelands by saying that wasteland spaces are those spaces where the possibilities for place are expanding, where the range of possible places the space might become is increasing. And I’d contrast this with ‘wilderness’ spaces, which I’d describe as spaces where the range of possibilities for places the space could become are large, but narrowing or contracting, down to a reduced range of possible places the space could become. I can illustrate this distinction with two key video game examples: Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption.

Fallout 3 presents a space where the old, pre-War order has collapsed, and there are a lot of opportunities for the space to become ‘any-space-whatever’, and there are more and more possibilities all the time. The Enclave or Brotherhood could take over, Oasis could expand or contract, the water in the tidal basin could be purified or poisoned, Megaton could be destroyed or stabilised, etc. And each of these changes to the space introduces a whole new range of possibilities for places the space could become.

In contrast, Red Dead Redemption presents a space where the ‘wild west’ is being gradually but inevitably overtaken by the march of the modern world, industrialisation, institutional order, scientific progress, etc. The game makes it quite clear that the possibilities for what this space could become are getting narrower every day. This contraction of possibilities plays a large part in the personal narrative of John Marston, and eventually the range of possible places contracts so much that it excludes him entirely.

In redefining ‘wasteland’ from the concept Mukherjee uses, I’d like to think I’m not so much overwriting his definition as I am expanding it, and adding the logical counterpart of that expanded definition, the ‘wilderness’ space. The key point is that both wasteland and wilderness spaces have a large range of possibilities for becoming place, but they differ in the relationship of the space to those possibilities over time. Like Mukherjee’s wastelands, the concepts of wasteland and wilderness spaces I’m talking about are, I feel, useful as metaphors for how a broad range of video game spaces are experienced. And these concepts are likely to become central to the new doctoral project I’m currently planning out.

2010’s Most Interesting Game Spaces

I played a lot of games in 2010, and I have no interest in ‘Best Ofs’ or ‘GOTYs’. What I am interested in, certainly for the purposes of this blog, are the spaces I found most interesting in the games I played during the year. And because this isn’t a ‘Best Of’, I’m going to look at them in order of release:

BioShock 2

The sequel to the game that gave us one of 2007’s most interesting places was always going to be fascinating, even if it was just more of the same place. And it wasn’t. BioShock 2’s Rapture isn’t just more of what we saw in BioShock. And it’s not just the extra barnacles and abundant sea-life that it make it different. In the sequel we get to see more of the places where the poor and down-trodden of the city lived, and still live, and other parts of the city that the power-brokers of Rapture we met in the first game would rather have kept out of sight and out of mind. Justin Keverne’s fantastic multi-part close reading of one of these spaces, Pauper’s Drop, is a great exploration of what makes these spaces tick. But more than that, BioShock 2’s spaces are different in terms of gameplay affordances, in some interesting ways. For example, spaces like the atrium of the Sinclair Tenements in Pauper’s Drop, and the balcony-lined streets of Siren Alley are multi-level spaces, where most of BioShock’s spaces simply weren’t. And through the mechanic of defending Little Sisters while they harvest Adam, BioShock 2 pushed players to make use of the environment in gameplay far more than the original did. And the late-game vision of Rapture through the eyes of a Little Sister is just icing on the cake. Even better, at the end of August we got Minerva’s Den, a mini-expansion as DLC, adding a whole new set of spaces, through which an engaging and moving story was told, providing a spatial experience even more interesting than the main game itself.

Just Cause 2

The archipelago nation of Panau in Just Cause 2 has a fair few distinctive locations, but what really makes this game’s space impressive is its sheer size and scale, the variety of its environments, and the extreme freedom the player has to explore it, from fairly early on in the game. From an analogue to the island from Lost, complete with magnetic disruption field and familiar-looking hatch, to the towers of the casinos and hotels, and the dome of Baby Panay’s base, there are a lot of unique and memorable locations within the game-world. But most of it is just a huge playground, for you to cause havoc across however you choose. This is a space where you can have a whole lot of fun, and there’s always more of it to roam around in, and more stuff to blow up.



Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption gave us all the different versions of the Old West we’ve seen in dozens, if not hundreds of Western films, and a lot of things to do in those wide open spaces. The way it presented these spaces is also noteworthy: anyone who played the game long enough to get to Mexico will remember the haunting ride to the tune of Jose Gonzales’ ‘Far Away’, contextualising the space in a way that compelled many players to experience through a very particular performance of the space. While the actual story missions were theme park rides through the game-world, between missions the Old West gave players ample opportunities to explore and make their own stories in the space, enhanced by the random encounters (even if the variety of encounters was somewhat lacking). And the multiplayer Free Roam mode gave them the opportunity to share the space with other players.


Fallout: New Vegas

Given my intense focus on Fallout 3 and its spaces, my interest in the promise of New Vegas was pretty high. What’s interesting to me in New Vegas, though, is the ways it uses space differently than Fallout 3 did. Where Fallout 3 presented a trackless wasteland with roads only featuring as ruins of a bygone civilization, the experience of New Vegas’ space is heavily tied to the road. The first third to half of the game is built around the journey to New Vegas, almost in the manner of a road movie, with the player-character encountering various characters and adventures along the way. The player’s experience of the space in that section of the game is informed by that structure. When the player does roam more freely, they’ll discover that New Vegas uses less of the spatial abbreviation that characterises the spaces of Bethesda’s RPGs, and this creates a very different impression of the space. Many players complained that despite having a game-world roughly the same size as that of Fallout 3, New Vegas felt smaller. It’s my belief that New Vegas’ diversion from this approach to space is what creates this impression, and I hope to elaborate on this in a future post.



Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

I’ve always found the way player-characters perform spatiality in the Assassin’s Creed series fascinating, and Brotherhood presented a quite different approach than previous games by focusing on a single city. The exceptions to this rule are equally interesting, with flashbacks presenting a much younger Ezio in Florence, and the ability to exit the animus and roam a contemporary version of Monteriggioni. Those who played the previous game (likely a majority of Brotherhood players) will have substantial experience with Monteriggioni in particular, and the redressed, re-contextualised and de-populated contemporary version is particularly meaningful for its contrast. Brotherhood’s Rome sprawls over the Seven Hills, providing a large variety of open and densely-packed spaces the player can explore, and the new system of property-buying and destroying Borgia towers gives new ways to interact with the space. The historical content of Brotherhood should also not be overlooked, considering how many notable historical landmarks are featured prominently in storyline and other missions (if not always strictly historically accurately).


World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Azeroth is a place that has a lot of meaning to a whole lot of people. Over 12 million people currently play World of Warcraft, visiting Azeroth on a regular basis – that’s one in every 584 people on the planet – , and that number only includes current subscribers, not the uncountable millions more who’ve played in the past but aren’t currently subscribed. Even if each subscriber only logs in once a month, more people visit Azeroth on a monthly basis than visit the top ten theme parks in the world, combined. And on the 23rd of November 2010, Azeroth changed on a huge and dramatic scale. Previous expansions have added new spaces for players to explore, and minor changes to existing zones have been made before. But Cataclysm’s Shattering brought enormous changes to every single zone that those millions of players had known and played in for six years (to the day, in fact). Zones with a well-established place in player culture like The Barrens and Westfall have been literally torn apart, changed forever. And that’s without even considering the impact of the ability for players to use flying mounts in Azeroth’s major continents, or the new zones Cataclysm has added, certain of which (Vashj’ir and Deepholm) are dramatically different from any of those seen before in the game. If I were forced at gunpoint to name a Most Interesting Game Space of 2010, I’d have no choice but to name the changes to Azeroth brought on by World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion.

Notable Omissions
Even though I played a lot of games this year, there are a lot more I just haven’t gotten around to playing much of, and therefore can’t assess in terms of the interestingness of their spaces. In particular, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, Metro 2033, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent seem, from what little I’ve played of them, to be particularly interesting in terms of spatiality, and I’m looking forward to exploring them some more.

Rhetorical Answers

This isn’t related directly to game spaces, but it is related to writing about games more broadly. Ben Abraham has just made a post about the need for more persuasive rhetoric in writing about games, and I felt I had to respond to some of his points.

What Ben seems to be arguing is that while analysis of games is good and worthy, it’s not enough. We need to be more persuasive in our writing about games, he says. Games writing should be more persuasive than analytical. But to me, that immediately raises the question: what should we be trying to persuade people of? I’m not sure I see that Ben answers this question adequately.

In fact, if anything strikes me as something we need to be persuading people of, it’s something relevant to the first of the questions Ben poses in making his argument. That first question is, “what is still the number one issue to overcome when writing about games?” Now, Ben’s answer is that the number one issue is the conflict between objectivity and subjectivity. But I see it a different way; to me, that question is already resolved in favour of subjectivity. My answer to the question, “what is still the number one issue in writing about games” is: “The resistance to subjective approaches on the part of a large and vocal proportion of those who play and read about games”. Ben links to a comment by ‘JONNY’ that rails against “pseudo art bullshit”, and a blog post by Zach Alexander that tries to defend this incoherent anti-intellectualism with what I can only call much the same brand of anti-intellectualism, dressed up in slightly more eloquent words. These are the kinds of voices who shout down any analysis of games that looks for deeper meaning that what’s objectively visible on-screen as ‘pretentious’ and ‘over-thinking’. If there’s any one thing that writing about games needs to be persuading people of, it’s that subjective analysis of games is valid, and that people like JONNY and Zach don’t get to decide what is and isn’t ‘bullshit’ without having some kind of critical argument to back it up.

The answer Ben gives to his second question identifies the computer science (and broader engineering) heritage of video games. And this is where I lay the blame for this anti-subjectivity anti-intellectualism. It’s tempting to call this a lingering resentment by people of an engineering mindset at being forced to take compulsory English classes, but it’s not very mature, or accurate. My software engineering background may be somewhat limited (I did two years of a software engineering major and fled), but I know all too well the tendency of engineering disciplines to insist on rigid definitions and formal logic, and to dismiss anything that can’t fit these standards as not objective enough. Though there’s a large and growing contingent of we who discuss games in more subjective terms and with deeper analysis, but the prevailing discourse around games is shallow consumer advisory, or technical analysis. Even those shallow consumer advisory reviews routinely argue that games are good because they use a particular graphics engine, rather than because they provide a compelling, meaningful experience or that a game looks good due to ‘the graphical power of the PS3/Xbox 360/latest PC graphics cards’ rather than because it has a well-realised aesthetic.

Ben goes on to highlight some examples of writing about games that he sees as disappointing for not being persuasive enough, and one particular example he cites is Jorge Albor’s piece, ‘Barbarians At The Gate’. I was also a little disappointed by that piece when I read it, to be honest. Not because I agree with Ben’s position that it’s too much analysis and not enough persuasion, but because I think it’s not enough analysis. It doesn’t go deep enough, it doesn’t explore the issues raised, and it asks questions without then going on to attempt to answer them. To me, the problem with games writing isn’t that there’s too much analysis and not enough persuasive rhetoric, but that too much of the analysis is poor or insufficient. I want to see more analysis, better analysis, deeper and more ambitious analysis. I see the hesitance to go further not as a limitation of analysis, but as a result of the cultural context in which people are writing about games: that same engineering heritage, resistant to subjective thinking about things they see as purely technical.

Persuasive rhetoric doesn’t need to be the enemy of analysis. Nor does it need to supplant it, or be encouraged as distinct from analysis. Instead, I’d argue that persuasive rhetoric needs to be used to support analysis, better, deeper analysis. What persuasive rhetoric needs is something to persuade people of. And what analysis needs is to be wielded more expertly and vigorously, enabled by persuasive rhetoric.

Mapping The Wastes

I’ve been pretty lax in updating this blog lately, mostly because I’m hard at work writing my thesis. Since I’m busy with that, a lot of what I’m going to be publishing here will be pretty close to what I’m writing for the thesis, and right now that means more analysis of Fallout 3. I swear, there will be non-Fallout 3 stuff on here soon, especially once I get into my analysis of BioShock and BioShock 2 in coming weeks, and I’m still working on that Assassin’s Creed piece.

But right now, I want to talk about Fallout 3’s in-game maps, and in particular, the effect they have on the player’s experience of the game space.

Maps are one of the defining examples of conceived space in the trialectic model of spatiality, but the whole point of thinking of space as trialectic is that there’s a whole lot of influence and exchange between the different elements of space. Fallout 3’s maps are a fantastic example of how this works.

Pip-Boy World Map

Pip-Boy World Map

Fallout 3’s in-game maps are provided through a diegetic interface that integrates the conceived space of the game with the lived space. Within the fiction of the game, the Pip-Boy 3000 is a computer worn on the player-character’s wrist. As an interface, it provides the player access to a range of information and features alongside the game’s maps, including character statistics, the player-character’s inventory, text and audio notes they have received, and quest information. The Pip-Boy interface is shown to exist within the fictional space of the game: it is visible on the character’s arm in third-person view, and when it is activated it appears as an object within the field of view of the player-character’s first-person perspective. It sways with the movement of their arm, and is affected by other factors within the game space, such as glare on the screen dependent on the position of the sun in relation to the player-character’s facing. Further, the appearance of the Pip-Boy wrist-computer communicates – with its aesthetic of early computer graphics and its cathode ray tube screen – that it is an object that exists within the broader lived space of the game. It exists as an object that has a place within the fictional history of the game world. More specifically, it has a place in the personal history of the player-character, who receives it on their tenth birthday is told they can never remove it. All of this helps to integrate the Pip-Boy interface, and the maps it provides access to, into the game’s fictional space. What the integration of the Pip-Boy interface – and its maps – into the fictional space of the game world represents is the influence of the game’s conceived space on its lived space. The conceived space of the map exists within and both acts upon and is acted upon by the lived space of the game world.

However, the impact of this exchange and overlap between conceived space and lived space is limited by the interface’s separation from the normal action of the game. While the Pip-Boy is activated, time in the game’s fictional space is effectively paused. No character, including the player-character, can take any action within the game space, with the exception of the player-character’s ability to use inventory items within the Pip-Boy interface. Time, as represented by the Pip-Boy’s clock, the movement of the sun and other environmental factors, is stopped. As there is no mechanism to view the map outside of the Pip-Boy interface, this marks a separation of the game’s conceived space from its lived space.

FarCry 2 Map

FarCry 2 Map

This is a marked contrast from the in-game map interface used in FarCry 2, where the map is far more integrated into the game’s lived space. FarCry 2’s in-game map is presented as a paper map held by the player-character alongside a handheld GPS navigation device. While using the map in FarCry 2, the action of the game continues unimpeded, and the player-character can move around, lowering the map when they do so, and raising it again when they stop. While driving in FarCry 2 the map can be laid on the player-character’s lap, to be consulted alongside a vehicle-mounted GPS navigation device. However FarCry 2’s integration of its in-game map into the fictional space of the game represents an extreme case on the spectrum of integration among commercial first-person action games. Moreover, FarCry 2’s map exists in the context of a broader effort in the game at integrating interface elements with the game’s fictional space. Fallout 3 still presents the game’s conceived space – as represented by its in-game maps accessed through the Pip-Boy interface – as interacting significantly with the game’s lived space, despite the limitations on this interaction.

The maps accessible through the Pip-Boy interface represent not just the static game world, but also the player-character’s specific experience of it. Fallout 3’s conceived space is separated into marked and unmarked locations. Marked locations are named, provide experience points when the player visits them for the first time, and appear on the Pip-Boy map with one of a number of icons once visited. The range of icons used to mark locations is small, and the icon only indicates the general character of the location, such as a military base, settlement, etc. Before visiting them, the player-character may become aware of marked locations through dialogue or through notes, and these known-but-unvisited marked locations then appear on the Pip-Boy map as empty square icons and a name, marking known locations until they are visited. Unmarked locations are never marked on the Pip-Boy map, and represent an interstitial space of ‘wasteland’ between marked locations. Similarly, the game’s local map reveals the details of the space around the player-character as they move through the space. This incremental mapping of the space represents the impact of the game’s lived space on its conceived space, as the Pip-Boy maps essentially record the player-character’s experience of that lived space.

Displaying known but unvisited locations on the Pip-Boy map invites the player to explore these locations. Because the player will discover early on that the Pip-Boy map only displays points of interest as marked locations on the map, known locations create an expectation that something noteworthy will be found there. This provides a powerful motivation for the player to explore these known locations. Known locations might be anywhere on the map, at any distance in relation to the player, and there may be numerous other unknown marked locations in-between. The invitation that the known locations present, to explore and seek out points of interest, represents the game’s conceived space acting on its lived space, by informing the player’s experience of the space. This experience of the lived space of the game then informs the conceived space, through the marking of discovered locations on the map. This relationship between the game’s conceived and lived space represents precisely the sort of overlap and exchange that causes Soja to describe space as trialectic.