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Trading Spaces B-Sides

These are notes/grafs that didn’t make the final cut of my piece on mental maps and game spaces in Kill Screen issue 2.


In Bioshock 2, this simplified metaphor is used to define the gamespace of Rapture as you experience it by traveling along the line of the Atlantic Express, replacing the bathyspheres of Bioshock. These transit systems are only link between different sections. But since the bathyspheres are not technically limited to linear motion, they don’t allow you to construct a (simplified) spatial relationship between the different areas of the city the same way the Atlantic Express does.
If spaces as spaces derive their meaning from an understandable relationship to other spaces. Bioshock’s bathyspheres destroy that meaning. They sacrifice spatial continguity for scenic closure. The bathyspheres aren’t a method of getting from place to place – they’re the end of a scene. They indicate it’s time for the next fully-constructed set to be pulled into place when the curtain of the loading screen goes up.
The portal that keeps Gordon Freeman missing for two weeks in Half-Life 2 functions the same way as the bathyspheres – because the designers have decided to lock you into a single continuous viewpoint (when does Freeman sleep?), there can be no “two weeks later…” title card and then a changed environment that, for the player, derives its meaning from the juxtaposition to the previous one. It’s Valve’s way of incorporating Soviet Montage – Newell as neo-Eisenstein.
These worlds are sets, and just like sets they convey plenty of information through symbols and iconography, but they’re not spaces.
And maybe they don’t need to be.
Videogames are often about creating these stories through their space. Art and sound direction; textures, models, audio design. We pay a lot of attention to these things when we think about how videogames tell us where we are. But really, they’re less about where we are and more about what we are in.
Metroid Prime, forced by technological limitations to be visually sparse, allows for plenty of interpretation on the part of the player. Bioshock is detailed and intricately designed. The environment has a lot to give, but interpreting Rapture is not quite as two-way as Tallon IV.
The constructedness of a game’s environment is always in the forefront of my mind as I play (likely the result of spending my formative years attempting to design levels). Everything has been put in place for me to find – show me a headless corpse slumped against a bloody wall with a headcrab and a shotgun next to it, and I’ll see an impressively well-placed ammunition pick-up. Because I’ve just run out of ammo.
What does impress about Valve’s use of space is the suggestion that there is more than what you see – and as long as they keep you moving, there is no evidence to the contrary. The Citadel consistently looms over City 17.
As we make our way through the crowds (not of raiders or super mutants, just suburban families in matching red-white-and-blue outfits), our familiarity with Fallout 3’s geography becomes less useful, but it has gotten us far enough for the real world’s signs to take over. We shift our means of finding our way to specifics and away from landmarks like the US Capitol Building and the Washington Monument.
I’ve been bombarded with images of the Washington Monument since birth – but every time I see it in person, I am struck by just how strange it is. A giant stone tower in the middle of an open, grassy field. Surrounded by American flags and tourists. Tourists like me.
As a tourist, I don’t have a particularly strong image of DC in my mind. There’s a bunch of landmarks vaguely related to one another, but I don’t know what the in-between parts are like. This matches up with how Bethesda abstracts the environment of DC for their game. The landmarks are iconic and faithfully recreated – the spaces between, not so much.
Games, like any other art form, are forced to abstract reality if their aim is to recreate it. It’s a little more complex in games that claim to offer the player freedom.

It’s difficult to separate out the spatial from the visual in videogames because they are one and the same. The visual lets you understand what you are in, the spatial where you are.
Like the spaces of Half-Life 2, BioShock’s Rapture tells stories through visual cues. Posters, maps, graffiti – they all tell the story of the people who inhabit these spaces. The latter is far more densely designed – everywhere you look there are visual images of decay and destruction. Corpses in apartments with spilled pill bottles or recently fired guns clue you in to the desperation the people have experienced. But think about Rapture – do you know how the different parts of the city relate to one another? Do you know what’s going on in the parts of the city you haven’t experienced? Does having all that detail help you understand how far you’ve come, or simply to understand the spaces you’ve been through?

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June 2014
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