Space and Narrative in Video Games

In this article I try to relate Game Design and Architecture to gain an insight on the use of space in shaping narrative structure and story progress in video games. The subject is examined from the perspective of 3D level design, but it will say one or two things about other game genres as well. I hope you’ll enjoy!

Intro: An Architecture for Video Games

Ching (1996) states that “architecture is generally conceived in response to an existing set of conditions. […] it is assumed that the existing set of conditions –the problem- is less than satisfactory and that a new set of conditions –a solution- would be desirable. The act of creating architecture, then, is a problem-solving or design process.” (p. ix). He continues that “the nature of a solution is inexorably related to how the problem is perceived, defined and articulated.” (p. ix) In game and level design, the problem that architecture has to provide solutions for is to create a challenging and entertaining setting that satisfies the needs of the envisioned gameplay which is specified in the design document. Architectural elements are expected to help in the implementation of gameplay concepts and the materialization of the story arc; they should support a fun and challenging game world. As Ernest Adams puts it, “the primary function of architecture in games is to support the gameplay.” (Adams, 2002)

However, in 3-D game levels, the implementation of gameplay mechanics is tied to architectural concept much closer than other game genres. Decisions regarding gameplay and story in 3-D level design are in first stance architectural design decisions. This gives architecture a much more important role than Adams suggests. Carson (2000), believes that this brings with it a reversion of the common architectural approach to problem-solving. He states that architecture typically goes from organisation to event, whereas in 3-D level design it goes from event to organisation.

Game Designers and the Use of Architecture

Despite the importance given to architecture, it can be seen that the perception of architecture amongst game designers remains a rather formalistic one. One major reason for this way of perception are the practices in the game industry. The general point-of-view is that architectural elements and especially buildings are rather used as the visuals or the make-up’s of games; they are often only considered as surfaces that have to be covered with a variety of textures. Another reason is the different meaning that the concept architectural functionality gains when it is used in the context of game design: Buildings in games are mostly not used in their everyday sense. They become spaces whose main function is to be explored, and not to be used or to be lived in. Once they have been fully explored, they have performed their function and lose their importance in the game (Adams, 2000). It is also rare that a game simulates climatic conditions that would enable buildings to perform their functions in real life like providing protection againts sun, wind and rain (unless of course, a climatic system is implemented as part of the gameplay and the option given to counter this gameplay challenge with the use of appropriate buildings or architectural elements).

Gameplay Experience as an Architectural Program

On the other hand it can be said that the game design and the implied gameplay/sequence of events in a game constitute a program in its architectural sense (Chen and Brown, 2001). However, the program of a game level might require the architecture to perform in ways that would have no meaning in real life. As Adams (2000) puts it, “what is right for architecture isn’t always right for gameplay” and vice versa.

Nevertheless, the physical, perceptual and conceptual aspects of architectural orders are instrumental in level design. Spatial systems will be important in the the way gameplay and game narrative is experienced and certain orders and circulation systems will be preferred over others, especially depending on game mode and number of players in a particular level (1).

Shaping and Shifting Context Through Architecture

An important role of architecture in games is in regard to the question of context. Architecture is vital in achieving a feeling of space within the game. Elevation as well as the “depth of the world” are other aspects in this regard. Furthermore, architectural context will play a major role in the suspension of disbelief and the maintaining of verisimilitude. In that regard, architecture is key to game mimetics.

Scale

Scale can become an important issue, especially depending on the game genre. It is often the case that buildings in the Third-Person Shooter genre are modelled double the size of that in First-Person Shooters (Maatta, 2002). The reason for that is to enhance the mobility of the player avatar that is displayed in Third-Person Shooters. In other words, scale must be considered in terms of the coreography of certain events in the game world and its way of representation.

Scale is also a matter when it comes to NPC actions and behavior. Too narrowly designed floor plans and dense object placement can cause problems to computer-controlled unit behavior. An example here are ‘bugs’ in pathfinding, where the artificial intelligence cannot manage to get the NPC around an obstacle, because the architecture was not flexible enough to meet the algorithm’s “perception” of space.

Building A Critical Path Through The Game World

Put in general, architecture is vital in building and maintaining the critical path through the game. It builds and maintains this critical path by

1) utilizing terrain and elevation to adjust the pace of the gameflow;
2) establishing forced perspectives and ‘frames’;
3) setting physical constraints or using ‘landmark’ buildings that help players to navigate through space, and by;
4) creating chances for interaction with the environment.

Architectural order is an effective tool to establish the system of nodes and connection in the game world. This is crucial to achive a sequence of events that flow in a smooth but ever more exiting way.

The Game Level as a Dramatic Unit

To define the role of architecture in level design in more detail, we must also understand that a game level is a dramatic unit. A game level is the equivalent of a scene in a movie. In other words, every level can be seen as a scene with a unique goal, often directly drawn from the goal of the player. A scene/level typically has a problem-solution arc and must deliver a feeling of dramatic progress (the so called climbing-ladder).

Architecture functions as one of the tools to construct this climbing ladder of the drama. This involves the shape of the path, the placement of the nodes for encounters with enemies or obstacles, the control of timing and pace (the flow), and the revelation of background information to put the scene as a whole into a meaningful frame.

Instead of a Conclusion

While these various uses of arcitecture are obvious, it is a more difficult task to find a general frame to categorize these uses in a systematic way. This would allow for a structural analyses of architectural elements as narrative functions.

But let this be the subject of another article.

Notes:

(1)The events in a story-driven single player level typically would be aligned along an axis and be rather build around a linear system, while multiplayer modes such as “deathmatch” or “capture the flag” prefer centric or radial orders that aim to direct the player as soon as possible to the battlefield, the centre of the action and the spatial layout.

References

Adams E. (2000) The Role of Architecture in Video Games, http://www.gamasutra.com.

Carson D. (2000) Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry, http://www.gamasutra.com.

Chen A. and Brown D. (2001) The Architecture of Level Design, http://www.gamasutra.com.

Ching F. (1996) Architecture: Form, Space and Order. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Maatta A. (2002) Realistic Level Design for Max Payne, http://www.gamasutra.com.

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