The Spatial Narrative of Games


01-620x.jpg©Tri-Crescendo, Namco

Fragile Dreams: Farewell Ruins of the Moon is a game for the Nintendo Wii that was released in 2009 by Namco-Bandai. It came and went without much fanfare. Even its creators knew it was a niche game: a post-apocalyptic video game without zombie/infected/soldier shooting, and no large selection of firearms, so they described it as an "atmospheric adventure". Fragile Dreams focused on story. It's main character goes on a quiet, contemplative journey across a desolate world, battling the ghosts of its previous inhabitants.

Although it misses a lot of the marks 'proper' games are known for, it succeeds in one of the aspects that set video games apart from other entertainment mediums: it creates a solid sense of place.

For a long time, illustrative art has been concerned with creating images that are true to life. Artists immortalized important people in portraits, or created scenes from myth or history with their skill. It was art that sought not only to convey a message, but to transport the viewer to a different place.

When cameras were invented, they made the process of capturing moments in time easier, and -more importantly- available to a wider audience. You no longer needed to learn to paint or have enough money to commission someone for a portrait. The technology to capture images evolved at a rapid pace, and soon we had movies that let us delve into the lives of others, and tour places we could not have normally seen.

Creating space is a storytelling device, sometimes separate from the narrative plot. A scene, whether written, drawn, or rendered, must have weight and depth and detail. So much of art gravitates towards this idea that it's no wonder each technological advancement has been used to find new ways to create a sense of place. It is not that each new step is better than the last, but that these advancements have allowed a wider range of people to create new things.

When video games entered the stage, they had to focus on a created space rather than story. The mechanics of gameplay needed a context to function, and that interplay of space and action made games known for their interactivity.

fragile-dreams-wii-screens.jpg©Tri-Crescendo, Namco

Fragile Dreams shows its theme through space. The focus of the game is not combat, but character an exploration. It begins at a dilapidated mall, a place associated with bustling crowds that is now dark, flooded, and covered in graffiti that the last survivors wrote as their goodbyes. It's a game that talks about isolation; the ways people relate to each other.

It's not the first nor the last game to use this setting. The Fallout series, from Bethesda Softworks, is set in a radioactive wasteland, and The Last of Us, From Naughty Dog, shows the aftermath of a deadly airborne infection. Each game has a different way of showcasing the way the world was destroyed: Fallout's earthy color palette shows a barren land due to the radioactivity, while The Last of Us's emphasizes the green of nature overtaking man-made structure, an extension of the infection's natural origins.


©Bethesda Softworks

Post-Apocalyptic settings evoke a sense of discomfort by putting the player in a place that is familiar, only wrong. These games build a sense of dread by breaking down the dams, the streets, and the skyscrapers, and letting nature overtake them. What to us looks infallible in the present becomes evidence of hubris.

Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, wrote an essay titled "Game Design as Narrative Architecture", where he argued that "It is no accident, that game design documents have historically been more interested in issues of level design than on plotting or character motivation." Pre-release articles and interviews for games tend to talk more about graphic development, and the ways in which the player will be able to interact with the environment, than the intricacies of the plot. Take this "Next Gen Tech Demo" for Call of Duty: Ghosts for example. Call of Duty is not popularly known for its story, but it is a huge franchise that puts strong emphasis on graphics and performance.

Visual elements are not the only aspect of spatial design that create that sense of place- audio design is as much an important element, because it expands on the sense of immersion in the game's space. A soft growling off to your left warns you of a coming enemy; this adds another dimension to the perceived space-- the element of the unseen but upcoming, which makes the place feel alive. Visual and audio input help you navigate the space and make your decisions. Should you go down that hallway? As an interactive narrative, that choice is yours.

Dear Esther is similar to Fragile Dreams in the way that it uses sound and environment to tell its story. It is a short indie game that was developed by The Chinese Room and released in 2012 for Windows and Mac. It earned a lot of critical praise for its story and setting, but got some backlash from regular players because it doesn't have any other gameplay elements besides movement. No combat, no inventory, not even opening doors. The narrative develops as you explore a desolated island; each time you come upon a certain point, and new narration is unlocked and you hear the letters the protagonist dedicates to the mysterious Esther.

The game toys with the idea of what constitutes a game, and as a story, it isn't particularly extraordinary. What sets it apart is that you are involved in its development. It is because you lifted your sights from the ocean shore and saw a lighthouse in the distance that you decide to go to it, and it is because a strange radio signal whispered to you somewhere to the left that you deviate from the path and found a once-inhabited cave with more clues about the story. You saw the chemical formulas scribbled on a cave wall without being told that you saw them, and stumbled upon the ghost staring at you from its reflection in the water on your own.


©The Chinese Room

With games, unlike books or movies, you are given a sense that this space was created for you to move through, and there is a strong narrative potential in the simple act of locomotive freedom. When you buy a game, sometimes it's about wanting to 'be' there, rather than wanting a story.


Jenkins, Henry. "Game Design as Narrative Architecture." Electronic Book Review. 10 July 2004.


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