September’s ’09 Round Table Entry – What Do Spatial Relationships Mean to Us

Isn’t That Spatial? Every video game has certain benefits and constraints in the way it represents space. Interaction fiction, arcade titles, 2D side-scrollers, isometric RPGs, and first person shooters all have advantages and disadvantages to how they deal with space-some technical in nature, some design-based. This month’s topic invites you to explore the ways games have represented the spatial nature of their storyworlds and what this does for the audience experience. Is it possible to ignore the constancy of spatial relationships in a graphical game? What would such a game look like? Are there ways of representing spatial relationships that we haven’t explored? Do you have ideas for games that could intentionally twist the player’s perception of space, or do you want to write about a game that already has?

So, Blogs of the Round Table is back from its summer hiatus and we’re dealing with special relationships in video games. But at the present time it seems that spatial relationships are the only type that designers can get right at the moment. (Subtle social commentary.) In fact in almost any game you play, your relationship with the world your avatar inhabits is the most important you will have with the game.

Games are about interaction and video games are about interaction with the digital environment. Avatars have to exist in a world, whether it is just the simple one directional side-scrollers of Mario and Sonic or to the vast open worlds of Grand Theft Auto’s cityscapes. The highest interaction in a spatial environment we have right now is that of the open world sandbox games, the games advertised as go anywhere, do anything.

We humans, when we enter this world, immediately begin to learn about spatial relationships. We look around and being assessing our environment. We learn distances in such a way that we cannot explain how our minds know it. A physicist can calculate where a ball will be given the force and direction, but any competent person can catch the ball if they see it thrown. We learn how to do such things in the real world. We learn after traversing the same streets, walking the same blocks over and over again, where everything is. When starting at one place we can make our way to another easily.

Grand Theft Auto 4

It is the same in video games. In the open world sandbox games we understand how to get from one point to another and where things are in relation to one another. Also we learn how to fight in action/adventure games. We know how far we can be away from an enemy to be able to hit them. I know it’s possible to understand even the minutest visual distances between the pixels if Ikaruga players are any indication.

What does this mean in the whole scheme of things? Nothing much beyond a simple reminder of a human’s abilities. Video games continually present situations that are fantastical and that we cannot be apart of in our normal everyday lives, but they, for the most part, exist in a world that we can understand. An invisible wall may occasionally defy logic, but I’m making a point. The need to ground the player is not in story subjectivity or gameplay mechanics, but space and distances. The empty spaces between objects could be more important that the objects themselves. That non-rendered air is potential, the potential of play. We know that, because that’s what we’ve learned.


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