Archetypical Spaces, Part 2: The Wilderness

Tiger by Floccinaucinihilipilification Aliases: The Forest, the Desert, the Swamp, the Dreamlands, the Alien Planet

The Wilderness is an incredibly common trope in video games. It will become evident why this is the case as I dissect this trope. The Wilderness is so common in fact, that many games are built only of spaces that belong to this archetype. Action games very often use only this one pattern, something they can do because their stories are often so minimal. Would they want to tell more complex stories, they would most likely have to include a wider variety of spaces.

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Archetypical Spaces, Part 1

Video games are undoubtably a very spatial medium. Environments that players can (and must) move through or interact with are essential for many types of games. Let’s just briefly examine a few genres:

  • Jump ‘n’ Run: The name itself already suggests a movement through a space. Here reaching an elusive goal is the core gameplay.
  • Role-Playing Games: Often times in RPGs exploration plays a paramount role.
  • Action: Here clever positioning and evasion of enemies and projectiles is often core. With the introduction of cover mechanics this relationship to the surroundings has become even more overt.
  • Strategy: As with shooters, tactical use of the environment is key. Territorial acquisition and control is often directly anchored into the gameplay.

So even though spaces are such a big part of the gameplay side of things, they have long been neglected as a vessel for storytelling. Granted there’s been some exceptions to this rule. One that immediately comes to mind is of course Bioshock. Here the design team seems to have created their environment very consciously. In a way the city of Rapture is more than a backdrop, it has very much become a character for this specific story.

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Redefining public space as play

Granted, this is not technically news but I just now stumbled over it. Summer 2011, the swiss city of Luzerne launched an initiative (together with ) to clean up it’s streets by “gamifying” their trash bins. Not only is this awesome, it also looks damn cool and it a wonderful example of the power of simple lines to redefine (public) space.

Granted there’s little in the sense of feedback or actual goals but still it’s a neat idea. Unfortunately I have not found any information on the effectiveness of this campaign. Since it’s been out there for a while I’d be curious to know more. Regardless, here’s some more pictures of the 15 changed trash bins.
Luzerne City (Bild: Manuela Jans/Neue LZ) Luzerne City (Bild: Manuela Jans/Neue LZ) Luzerne City (Bild: Manuela Jans/Neue LZ)

Source (German)

Storyworlds across Media conference

A few weeks ago I was at the Storyworlds across Media conference at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. This academic conference revolved around the creation of fictional universes and settings (storyworlds) through a variety of media. This conference was my first real contact with academic narratology and it was most definitely inspiring and interesting.

Over the course of three days I got to meet a set of interesting and intelligent people and talk about a intruiging topics. Of course there also were a number of papers being presented, some of which were quite intriguing while others were rather dry. Videos of all talks are supposed to be made available at the website, free of charge, later on. I’ll briefly try to highlight the, in my opinion, most valuable sessions so that you can give them a look once the videos are online.

Storyworlds across Media
from Marie-Laure Ryan

This introductory talk providfed a good overview over the idea of “storyworlds” and how they fit into theories of narratology. This lecture was a great start to the conference for someone new to the academic discourse on this topic. One of the things I specifically scribbled into my notes was her list of “constituents of storyworlds”, e.g. the things that together can create a storyworld:

  • An inventory of existents
  • A space with certain geographic features
  • Physical laws
  • Social laws and values
  • Events. A history of changes that happen in the narrative
  • Mental events

What I found especially interesting is that she specifically points out the fictional geography of storyworlds and it’s importance.

A Game of Thrones: Transmedial Worlds, Fandom, and Social Gaming
from Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca

These two discussed a few transmedial events surrounding the launch of the Game of Thrones TV series, specifically the online games. They made a few interesting observations when it came to the different target groups, how they overlap and interact. Using some low-fi data mining they tried to figure out how readers, GOT enthusiasts, gamers and other people interlocked.

The Developing Storyworld of H. P. Lovecraft
from Van Leavenworth

A lecture dealing especially with the slightly odd nature of the Cthulhu mythos and it’s reincarnation in different “texts”. There are a few peciularities since the IP is no longer copyrighted and there is a wide range of different authors. It seems that it’s more of a brand that implies that the text provides a certain sense of world, unifying themes and returning elements. The latter could be locations (Arkham…) or characters (old ones…) but don’t have to be.

Strategies of Storytelling on Transmedia Television
from Jason Mittell

This lecture delved into different methods of sharing the storyworld of a series outside of the TV show. Jason explained two fundamentally different approaches using the examples of Lost and Breaking Bad. The former is expansionist, where the transmedial material expands on the world an adds new histories, characters and events. The Breaking Bad material on the other hand aims to “fold in on itself” to provide denser information about the character themselves, to help viewers get into their heads.

Jason also noted that there are three different kinds of tie-in games to movies and TV shows:

  1. Exploratory: These games allow you to explore the fictional storyworld yourself.
  2. Imitational: Games that allow you to “try on the skin” of the story characters. These often fail because the expected drama from TV and Movies is missing.
  3. Narratively: Games that try to retell the story of the movie in the game. This is almost never done for TV shows. Here the approach is usually to have the game be “one extraordinary episode”.

The Paradox of Interactive Tragedy: Can a Video Game have an Unhappy Ending?
from Jesper Juul

Here Jesper took a closer look at the elements that make up a tragedy and why it’s so difficult to recreate that in games. His theory is that this lies within the paradox of failure. Usually, when we as players succeed in some task within the game, we are happy, as is the protagonist. Likewise, when we fail we are frustrated and suffer, as does our protagonist. In Tragedy however we need to delight at the failure and misfortune of the protagonist. Our long-term aesthetic desire for a well-rounded story has to overcome our short-term desire for the protagonist to succeed, something that’s quite strong in video games.

Long Exposure Photography

This is a bit of an old topic but something I’ve just stumbled over a few days ago during a presentation. About 10 years back in 2001 Rosemarie Fiore took long exposure photographs of entire game sessions of old arcade games.

These do a great job at capturing the game space described by the movement of the player avatar. You can see a photograph of Tempest to the right but you can see the entirety of the set on her website gallery.

Experiencing Environments PDF Download

I’ve finally held the lecture mentioned in my last post. I was pretty happy with the results and since I wanted to share the slides with my readers I’ve just uploaded them to slideshare. You can download them from there or browse them here.

The slides are released for personal use only copyrighted under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. If you have questions, need further information or plan to use the presentation for anything other than personal use, please get in touch with me.