Posts Tagged ‘ interfaces ’

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.

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.