What’s Wrong With Michael Nitsche’s Video Game Spaces

I’ve been wanting to write several other blog posts recently, but I just haven’t had time to get them together. I have one about the differences in space between Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, one about the spatiality of Assassin’s Creed, and one that expands on Bobby Schweizer’s post on the Aperio blog last year about airport spaces in games. But I’m now deep in the writing of my thesis, and I just haven’t had the time to focus on any other writing. Instead of these other, more broadly interesting topics, I’m going to get a little academic.

See, one of my most valued texts in my research on video game spatiality has been Michael Nitsche’s ‘Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds’. This is a great book for anyone interested in game spaces. When I first read Nitsche’s introductory chapter, I thought, “Well, this guy’s pretty much written the exploration of game spatiality I would’ve done”. It turns out that’s not exactly the case, but it’s still a great book.

However, one of the issues I have with Nitsche’s approach to game spatiality is that it’s a little unidirectional. Nitsche’s central model of game spatiality is a division into five planes:

Nitsche's Five Planes

It’s a great model, and I like most of it. The bit I don’t like about it is that the way Nitsche describes it, there’s too little give-and-take between the different planes. Rule-based space informs mediated space, mediated space informs fictional space, and so on. That’s just not the way I think of things. If mediated space informs fictional space, surely fictional space must also inform mediated space?

Part of my reason for thinking this way is that my view of spatiality is based heavily on Edward Soja’s ‘trialectic spatiality’. Soja starts from the tripartite spatiality of Henri Lefebvre, who describes spaces as composed of three parts: spatial practice, representations of space, and spaces of representation. These can be briefly (but not entirely accurately) summarised as perceived space – the way we see space; conceived space – the way we think about space; and lived space – the way we use space. Soja takes Lefebvre’s three parts, and re-interprets them as a totalising, overlapping, simultaneous and composite construction. Soja basically says that each element is informed by the other two, and all space is all three elements at once. As Soja puts it: “each term appropriately contains the other two, although each is distinguishable and can be studied in splendidly specialised isolation”.

Soja's Trialectic Spatiality

So this is where we get back to Nitsche’s five planes. Nitsche himself attempts an approximate mapping of Lefebvre’s tripartite to his model of five planes, equating rule-based space with ‘spatial practice’, mediated space with ‘representations of space’ and ‘representational space’ as a combination of fictional, play and social spaces. This works alright if we just stick with Lefebvre, but it falls apart if we go with Soja. Because Soja insists that all the elements must inform each other, that the flow of context and influence is multi-directional. Hence: if mediated space informs fictional space, surely fictional space must also inform mediated space?

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The Spatial Rhetoric Of Oasis

Hidden away in the far north of Fallout 3’s game-world, the area called Oasis is quite a contrast to the rest of the dry Capital Wasteland with its scraggly trees. Here, the mutant tree-hybrid Harold has extended his roots into the ground, and spread his life-giving spores. The trees in and around Oasis are green, healthy and abundant. Oasis is a distinctly different space than the rest of the dessicated landscape

Oasis is also the focus of a moral choice the player must make. Harold wants to end his wretched state and die. His worshippers, the Treeminders, are split: one faction wants to extend Harold’s influence beyond the shelter of Oasis, the other wants to keep Harold alive but limit his growth. The player is given the opportunity to help one of these parties, but also has the option to attack and burn Harold if they’re feeling particularly malevolent. If the player does choose to aid one of the parties involved, the consequences are clear. If Harold’s influence is extended, the green trees of Oasis will likely spread across the Wasteland, bringing it back to life, but this will reveal the existence of Oasis, and expose it to the predations of the Wasteland’s inhabitants. If Harold’s influence restricted, Oasis will remain hidden and safe. But if either of these options is chosen, Harold will remain alive, and endure further pain. If Harold is killed, Oasis’ greenery will end, but so will his suffering.

There is no option which will satisfy all parties. Each option is presented in such a way as to emphasise who will benefit and who will suffer as a consequence of each option. So the player must make the choice based on their own inclinations. The choice comes down to the player’s own judgement of whose need is greater, who deserves most to benefit.

This imbues the player’s experience of Oasis as a space with associations of philosophical and moral choice. This atmosphere is heightened by the religious behaviour of the Treeminders, but also by the green surroundings that convey a sense of being apart from the wider world. Because the player enters Oasis as a functionally separate game-world zone once they pass through the door at its entrance, the underlying mechanics of the game reinforce this separation. That the world outside Oasis lacks greenery and is dry and dead means this separation links morality and growth, as represented by the plants found only there.

What this means is that the ‘spatial rhetoric’ of Oasis presents an argument that the option to stimulate Harold’s growth and expand this area into the wider world is the most moral choice. This is despite the lack of impact on the player’s karma points for any option other than burning Harold. In addition, linking morality and growth, by extension, links morality to pure water, a connection which is reinforced elsewhere in the game world, and has ramifications for the player’s choices as part of the game’s main quest. In a sense, Oasis serves as an argument by analogy for how the player should make the larger choices Fallout 3 presents.

But Not A Drop To Drink

Lately I’ve been musing about water in Fallout 3, particularly the significance of contaminated water. Sure, water’s a crucial element of the main questline, but I’m more interested in the part that the contaminated water you find in the game-world plays in shaping the game’s spaces.

While pure water’s scarce in the game world of Fallout 3, contaminated water is a hazard the player-character will encounter frequently . Even setting foot in contaminated water for a moment causes you to accumulate radiation points. Not enough to be immediately deadly, but enough to communicate that water = bad. From the small pool of water around the bomb in Megaton to the contaminated Potomac River that separates the western Capital Wasteland from downtown D.C., this contaminated water is encountered often enough that you learn to avoid it where possible. This leads to a heightened awareness of the landscape as youwatch out for water where it might collect in dry riverbeds, or in semi-flooded caves and Metro tunnels, and also motivates wider exploration as you search for ways to avoid these hazards.

Contaminated water also forms part of the natural border of Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland. On the southern edge of the Wasteland, this contaminated water acts as a justification for the game-world’s borders consistent with the fiction, much as the cliffs on the western border do. Because it’s consistent with the game-world’s fiction, using the contaminated water as part of the boundary makes it seem more like a barrier that could, in theory, be crossed, but which you’re simply incapable of crossing. The game does in fact provide you with enough protection against radiation from stuff like radiation suits and radiation meds that this barrier can actually be crossed, and if you do cross it, you’ll just find the same invisible wall, with its message to turn back, that you find elsewhere on the borders of the game-world. However, the hazard presented by the contaminated water will prevent most players from even attempting to cross it. The association of contaminated water with danger convinces the player that the barrier is impassable without disrupting the fiction of the game world, even though it’s functionally passable within the mechanics of the game.

When you get to the area added by the Point Lookout expansion, things get even more interesting. The landscape of Point Lookout diverges significantly from the dry, desolate landscape of the Capital Wasteland. Though the water is no less contaminated, it’s everywhere in the swamps of Point Lookout, rather than found only occasionally as it is in the main game-world. Point Lookout is full of trees that look – if not healthy – living and growing. It’s full of long grasses with at least the suggestion of greenness. The overall impression is of stark contrast to the Capital Wasteland, which helps to convey a different sense of place. Water is still a danger here, and it defines the landscape to a much greater extent, by limiting the player’s movement to islands of higher ground. This breaks up the space of Point Lookout’s swamps into discrete areas that often contain some noteworthy feature such as a shack or an abandoned car, or a bubbling pool of mud.

The separation of these islands by water means that crossing the water becomes a necessity for traversing and exploring the landscape of Point Lookout. Because the area is populated by tough, dangerous enemies, the player is unlikely to attempt significant exploration of the area until their character is well-equipped and at a high enough level to survive such encounters. This should also reduce the threat posed by the radiation in the water. The prevalence of water in the area and the necessity of crossing it to explore serves to reduce the player’s aversion to water, to retrain them and accustom them to their new capabilities. Having to cross the water teaches you that, as a high-level character, water is less dangerous to you. Consequently, when the player encounters quests such as ‘The Velvet Curtain’ which requires them to swim out from the shore to a sunken submarine, spending so much time in the water will seem less dangerous. Without this retraining of the player, such a task might seem impossible, or not worth the effort. So, the prevalence of water in Point Lookout actually serves to change the player’s expectations and experience of water within the game.

This is a great example of how the game’s spaces serve what might be called behavioural functions. I’m not sure the landscape of Point Lookout was designed for this purpose, and it seems unlikely that the whole swamp was put there simply to retrain the player. But it wouldn’t surprise me if these behavioural functions played at least some part in the design of the game’s spaces.

Why Cow Clicker Isn’t Exploiting You Enough

It’s not related to game spaces (though hopefully I’ll have a new entry up here soon) but I just published a piece on social gaming over on the RedKingsDream blog. Go read it here.

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.