Video Game Spaces

Images Play & Structure in 3D Worlds by Michael Nitsche

Michael Hancock is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, and book reviews editor at FPS. He is also sad no one has yet submitted a review of any gamebooks from the Fighting Fantasy series.


“In games that rely entirely on a first-person perspective we might read a shift of the player-character, often from the unarmed, helpless, and hunted to the fully equipped killing machine at the end of the game that also reflects the player’s growth and experience. … The view stays consistent, but the dramatic position of the hero changes from victim to killer, while the game space changes from threat to familiar and mastered ground.” –Michael Nitsche, Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Game Worlds (105).

Game designer Warren Spector once said that well-designed games “provide compelling problems within an overarching narrative, afford creative opportunities for dealing with these problems, and then respond to players’ choices with meaningful consequences” (Jenkins and Squire).  The term he chose for this matrix of creative design and player choice was “possibility spaces.” Space is a constant across almost all videogames, and it comes up frequently in videogame discussion in a variety of different ways: stage design, level structure, gameworld, playground, virtual world, sandbox, hub, PvP zones, instances (in an interesting conflation of space and time), arena battles. For all these frequently bandied-about terms, there’s a relative lack of theory surrounding what space in games means. Von Borries, Walz and Böttger’s 2007 anthology Space Time Play does an admirable job displaying the scope of the issue, but the book is more a survey that aims for breadth rather than depth. Michael Nitsche’s Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Game Worlds goes beyond their starting point in order to fully investigate how players and designers orient and narrate journeys through 3D game worlds. While the book can meanderat times, at its best it is a detailed analysis that raises new perspectives and tools for discussing videogames.

The book is divided into fifteen chapters and three sections. The chapters are all relatively brief, with one exception that will be discussed in due course. The first chapter serves as an introduction, outlining the sections of the book while positioning game space in relation to simulations, theme parks, text spaces, and cyberspace. Nitsche also outlines the five conceptual planes he uses for the analysis of games throughout the book: the rule-based space; the mediated space, which is what’s presented on the screen to the player; the fictional space, which is the space as it exists in the imagination of the player; the play space, encompassing player and hardware; and the social space. The book’s first section is structure, in which Nitsche positions 3D game space in terms of interaction and narrative. As such, chapter two briefly considers games in terms of the difference between rules programmed into a game and rules that players bring into the game, invoking Salen and Zimmerman’s definition of play as free movement within a more rigid structure. Chapter three attempts to construct a starting definition of interaction, comparing how the term is used within games with how it is used more broadly in digital design. For this section, Nitsche uses Brenda Laurel’s design metaphors as well as Ben Schneiderman’s principles of design, where he states that graphical manipulation should feature continual representation, simple buttons, and reversible operations whose effects are immediate.

Chapter four moves to narration, touching lightly on the narratology/ludology debate before establishing what Nitsche considers to be the fundamental piece of game space interaction, evocative narrative elements. The term refers to suggestive markings placed in the game that lead players to create their own narrative, such as the death of Payne’s family at the beginning of Max Payne. Finally, chapter five considers the combination of interaction and narrative to describe what makes narrative in games different than narrative in other media. Nitsche argues that the basic unit of spatial narrative is not drama, but the quest as it appears in Campbell’s monomyth; it works in games because it is flexible enough to work with the player-oriented progress, and players are familiar with it from other media. Though brief, these early chapters demonstrate Nitsche’s basic methodology: drawing on theory from diverse fields such as digital design and narrative studies and adapting them to a discussion of game space.

The second section is presentation, or, how videogames present themselves in such a way as to make themselves legible to the player. Chapter six is on games as moving images, starting with a history of the technology building to 3D game spaces. Nitsche cautions that players are not as spell-bound by new technology as some would have it; rather, they are aware of new technology, and appreciate its promotion. The rest of the chapter makes the case that while videogames have adopted  their own affordances, the parallels and origins it shares with modern cinematic presentation cannot be ignored. With that, Nitsche segues into the longest and most detailed chapter of the book, “Cinema and Game Spaces.” Using a variety of cinematic theorists, Nitsche outlines spatial presentation in cinema, focusing on how the camera in games is a virtual camera not bound to a physical presence, as it can move through a fully navigable space. He fleshes this idea out with a discussion of four different predominant types of camera work in games, and how they’ve evolved over history. The study begins with the camera that follows behind the player-character, which is made overt as the cloud-floating Lakitu in Super Mario 64, and broken in Max Payne through the convention that sees the camera breaking from the player to follow a bullet penetrating its target. There’s the overhead view camera, which detaches from the game’s events, making it popular in strategy and building games, while also being used in games such as Metal Gear Solid along with the following camera. There’s the first person camera, closely associated with the first person shooter, which Nitsche suggests is unable to support many variations because such games rely on static views to preserve the sense of player empowerment. Finally, there’s the predefined view, which exchanges player freedom for designer control; this type of camera has gone from a popular tool to disguise the weaknesses of technology to a device that allows designers to showcase set pieces. The chapter concludes with a brief section on how various games allow the player to jump at will from one type of camera to another, furthering the sophistication involved in the perception of 3D space.

The second section finishes by returning to the brief chapter format. Chapter eight considers how sound guides orientation in videogames. Specifically, it looks at sound effects, music and speech, and how all three elements combine into the overall soundscape of a given game. Chapter nine introduces the concept of the narrative filter, how focalizers (Nitsche borrows the term from Bal and Genette; loosely it refers to who it is that is seeing events in a story, and may differ from the narrator) guide players’ attention to specific parts of the game.. Many of the examples he uses here include focalizers that draw the player’s attention to the ways in which game spaces portray mental states: Kratos’ battle to protect his family in God of War and Alice’s confrontation with her manifested guilt in American McGee’s Alice, for example.

Chapter ten is the shift from representation to functionality, moving from what is presented to the player to what the player can do within the game space. Accordingly, chapter ten focuses on the connection between game worlds and architecture, starting with some architecture theory concerned with making physical places that are consequently meaningful to their inhabitants. In comparison, games can create procedural gameworlds that are limited by technology rather than physical restriction; they can also expand spatially based on the player’s actions, and Nitsche offers a project he was involved in at Georgia Tech, Charbitat , for how this interaction works. Chapter eleven offers further examples of narratively evocative game spaces. Nitsche identifies the track, which is a fairly linear path; the maze or labyrinth, which focuses more on spatial disorientation; and the arena, which downplays elements of the environment in favor of focusing on interactions with and against other players. Building on criticism that claims virtual spaces must become virtual places in order to encourage positive user involvement, chapter twelve considers how this process can work for videogames. Nitsche identifies two major possibilities: identity, which refers to how players come to regard a space as meaningful based on how they can enact choices within it; and shared actions, where the players collectively turn various spaces into realized places through actions like marriages in Second Life or holiday festivals in World of Warcraft. The chapter concludes with a brief consideration of how machinima, the recording of video in-game, can be used to preserve these spatial memories.

Chapter thirteen continues to focus on place by asking how players become present in a game space. To that end, Nitsche considers ARGs and CAVE, where the player is physically embodied in a space, as well as the shift from role-playing to participating that takes place in an MMO context. He concludes the chapter with a quick examination of cases where the player is asked to take on multiple perspectives in a single game space. For example, in games such as Siren, that multiplying leads to a different understanding of the affordance of virtual places. Chapter fourteen combines the previously discussed elements—narrative engagement, flexible structural formats, guidance in presentation, dynamic player positioning, and how they form a cognitive map, or in the case of videogames, a story map. While the cognitive map in generalized virtual spaces is about general usability, and the storyworld of a novel is a product that comes out of reading it, the story map differs from both in that it’s about entertainment and shapes the player’s interaction, rather than being a product of it. The book closes with a final chapter on how players create shared stories in virtual places, through emergent practices and the restriction the designers place on the area. He closes with the sentiment that our gameplaces are the sites of new cultural practices.

It is only after looking at my notes that I realize just how many different perspectives Nitsche manages to fit into this book. Considering that game studies is an interdisciplinary subject, its body of criticism can often be rather insular, preferring to draw on established talking points like the magic circle or Csikczentmihalyi’s flow rather than integrating other scholarship (though both those terms come from traditions outside the studies of videogames). In contrast, Nitsche’s book is exceptionally interdisciplinary, drawing in elements of spatial theory, architecture, digital media studies, narrativism, and cinema studies, all without losing focus on games, because they are always brought in to indicate what they share with game spaces, and what makes game spaces unique. It is easy to accuse Nitsche of over-relying on cinema studies, but given his detailed examination of camera use in 3D gamespaces, it is hard to argue that these spaces are not borrowing heavily from established film conventions, making his use of cinema studies not only justifiable, but necessary. It is interesting to note that if 3D space borrows from cinema, then 2D space, in terms of its camera, frequently borrows from the cartoon, especially in the traditional 2D platform game.

In a roundabout way, Nitsche’s decision to focus on the 3D at the exclusion of 2d games points to my problem with the book. I felt oddly unsatisfied with much of it, especially in the first and last sections. This dissatisfaction was not so much because of the issues raised, or the theory Nitsche was doing, but due to the length of some chapters, so much had to be either undeveloped or dropped entirely. Whole books, for example, have been written on the subject of game sound, so to sum up its contribution to 3D space in fifteen pages seems to prematurely close a discussion that feels as if it could have been so much more. Likewise, to name only three types of space—track, labyrinth, and arena—is either saying that there are only three, and stretching them beyond reasonable points to cover all cases, or omitting other significant avenues. Granted, any time one writes a book that is forging new ground in this manner, not everything relevant can be mentioned and some sacrifices must be made. Yet, the depth and productivity of Nitsche’s longest section, the one on cameras in 3D game spaces, illustrates how fruitful a deeper focus can be.

The aforementioned section also points to what may be the greatest contribution of this book. Lacking a background in film studies, I often don’t notice camera-related issues and how they cater to a player’s understanding of a game, yet thanks to Nitsche’s discussion, I will certainly be more aware of them from now on. It is sometimes said that one of the barriers to getting new players to master games such as Gears of War or Grand Theft Auto, quite apart from their graphic violence, is the difficulty in mastering the controls. I wonder how much of that difficulty is an issue of being able to master space, and how much individuals who have been playing games for decades take for granted the ability to orient themselves in a dizzying 3D landscape. On the subject of orientation, Nitsche’s book has led me to ponder the value of in-game maps for positioning the player. On a recent playthrough of the notoriously difficult Demon’s Soul, I noticed how much the game’s lack of an in-game map made the game feel more difficult; the rather linear path was more twisting and winding in my own mind because it was harder to conceptualize where it lead in terms of a level or a world on its own. Another example of disorientation is the quick travel function of the in-game map of Skyrim. Players typically travel between two points once, and instantly go there every subsequent time. This is a radical development in the way space is experienced in a game, and one that potentially places extreme limits on the “narratively evocative elements,” or, alternatively, focuses them more squarely on the game’s named locations.

If games are indeed spaces of possibility, Nitsche gives us plenty of tools for examining how those possibilities are realized and unfold. I would have preferred an elaboration or further analysis at a few points, but that doesn’t detract from what is actually here. There is a poetic justice of sorts that a book about space ends up opening so many avenues of discussion (sorry, that was a terrible pun to close a review on.)  While I think it is Nitsche’s discussion of cameras and viewing perspectives that offer the most to further discussions on games and spaces, terms such as evocative narrative elements, storymaps, and narrative filter give us new ways and new perspectives for interpreting space—3D or otherwise—in videogames.