Tag Archives: Great game spaces

Great Game Spaces: Portal



Few videogames had more words written about them during 2007 than Valve’s Portal. Not only was the game outstanding, but it had just the right amount of wit and oblique humour to make it go viral on the internet. How does the following sentence end? “The cake is a…”

It ends, of course, with me shoving a companion cube down your throat to keep you from ruining a perfectly funny game. So much has been uttered about Portal‘s successes and triumphs that it seems futile, irritating even, for me to try and add any more. There isn’t a lot that remains unsaid about Portal, and when the game’s creators have also said so much, I don’t have a lot to add to the conversation.

That being said, I do want to talk about Portal‘s game space. This is because Portal‘s game space is simply exceptional in the context of my continuing discussion of great game spaces. The portal gun might have been a great eye-catching mechanic, the GLaDOS humour might have been the internet-wildfire fuel, but it was the game space of Portal that was its real triumph. This is pure design through architecture. I used Portal as my primary text for my recent thesis, so a lot of the ideas here are cribbed directly from that document (which is forthcoming, I promise; results are in on the 12th and after that it’s free range).

Every inch of test chamber after test chamber in Portal is designed for a specific behavioural purpose. In an article for Gamasutra, Kim Swift, Jeep Barnett and Eric Wolwap say exactly what I was trying to say in my thesis clearer than I ever did:

Navigating the environment is Portal‘s primary gameplay challenge; In effect, the environment is your enemy.

That the player doesn’t notice this so obviously throughout their first playthrough of the game is telling. I suspect that the linear, puzzle based design of Portal was accepted by players more easily due to the test-chamber fiction of the game and place. In this sense, there is definitely a doubling between Portal‘s designers and GLaDOS. They perform similar functions: GLaDOS’ function is to test her subjects, and Valve’s function was to test their own labrats in order to predict and mould player responses. Playtesting was crucial for them, to the point where Walpaw and Swift claim that a single moment of confusion on the part of the player – any player – was their fault, and that “[they] failed you.”

This is almost entirely because the game space, coupled with a select few other factors, is designed to elicit a predictable response on the part of the player. For example, in one early room in the developer commentary (required listening; if you’ve played Portal and not taken the time to go back and play it again, you are missing one of the most illuminating gaming experiences you’ll ever have), Jason Brashill draws attention to what he calls “gates”. This is simply a strategy of putting a time-locked door between the player and the next area, which forces the player to take stock and process their options before charging ahead. This occurs at a number of points throughout Portal, and all work perfectly.

There are many similar examples of such focussed spatial design. In that memorable first room, the ‘relaxation vault’, Kim Swift notes:

It’s absolutely critical that players quickly wrap their heads around what a portal is. We noticed early playtesters grasped the concept much more quickly when they caught a glimpse of themselves through a portal, so we deliberately positioned this first portal to ensure that players will invariably see themselves.

Did you also know, for example, that the third test chamber is designed to teach you, the player, that the function of a portal is not tied to its colour? Apparently, during testing, there was a common misconception that, maybe, an orange portal could only be entered and not exited. Therefore, chamber three was created, and the space designed so the player may only complete it by entering and exiting the same portal. There are so many examples of this littered throughout Portal, from the design of the space in order to get players to look up, to the elimination of ‘incorrect’ solutions, to even the visual aesthetics cuing function. According to designer Paul Graham, “the [visual] design is essentially a balance between round objects and sharp objects; the sharp objects representing background elements, and the round objects [are points of interest like] doors and moveable props.”

This design even extends to creating emotion in the player. In the eleventh test chamber, players gain the fully powered portal gun. In order to build up anticipation for the moment of receiving this upgrade, two strategies are employed. First, as designer Lars Jensvold notes, the room is designed so that it brings players “in a circle around the device, so that it’s virtually always in sight” until the puzzle is solved and the portal gun is received. Secondly, once the puzzle has been solved, players may only access the upgraded gun via a slow-moving platform. The movement of the player is therefore limited to a slow, anticipation-building speed.

Clearly, Portal consciously organises environment through spatial strategies in order to influence player behaviour, emotion, and generally, experience and gameplay. Other games have done this many times over, but few have done it with such incredible focus and economy of design. Of course, as I’ve already admitted, few other games have had the benefit of placing you in such a ‘designed’ space as suspension-of-disbelief inducing test chambers, but there are surely many lessons to be learned from the level design here. Most importantly, Portal proves that it is almost possible to make a game work through sheer brilliance of level design and testing. It may well be the ten per cent of plot and other over-quoted aspects that made Portal the great game that everyone says it is, but it was the ninety per cent of spatial design that got it there to begin with. Portal might not embody many of the spatial qualities that I love (exploration and perspective to name just two), but it might just be my favourite game space ever designed.




Filed under Great game spaces, videogames

Great Game Spaces: Majora’s Mask’s Clock Town


Majora’s Mask is the forgotten step-child of the Zelda series. Smaller, shorter than Ocarina of Time, with a depressing story about a suicidal moon and a deranged child kidnapping horses and fairies, it nevertheless received good reviews at the time. Since then, though, I’d argue that the game has become an also-ran, a second best behind the blazing sun of Ocarina of Time, and if it’s odd and diverse you want, you’re generally a fan of Wind Waker instead.

But Majora’s Mask is well worth your time. In fact, I’d suggest it is among the best Zelda games ever made – if not the best. This is in no small part due to the terrific use of space in the game. Though the world is smaller than Ocarina of Time, I would argue that in many ways, it is more successful.

The central hub of the game, Clock Town, is a beautifully constructed piece of clockwork. It’s an elaboration on a cuckoo clock, a wind-up toy, an automaton. Each character in the game operates according to their own rules and functions, giving life to the city beyond Ocarina‘s characters, who were cemented to the spot to serve the player. Some characters follow specific arcs that you can engage, or not engage with throughout the three days. Some only take brief instants, like being in the right place at the right time to foil the robbery of the Old Lady who runs the Bomb Shop. Others take almost all three days, like the heartbreaking story of Kafei and Anju, who only wish to get married and await the destruction of Termina together. Even the postman follows a distinct story and path.

If you spend enough time in the wonderful world of Majora’s Mask, you begin to instinctively know exactly where each character is at any given moment, and what they are doing. Each character becomes more than the humorous blank slates found in other Zelda games. They are individuals who have plans and emotions. And they have a schedule to follow.

In many ways, I feel like the town is Nintendo’s illustration of Isaac Newton’s clockwork universe theory, of a world wound up by a God and left to run smoothly on its own predetermined route for ever. It is only the intervention of the player that causes this Groundhog Day to ebb and flow. The whole of Clock Town feels on rails of sorts, like one of those old clocks that on the hour would give the viewer an excellent display of rotating gentlemen pursuing rotating ladies.

It’s no surprise then, that the major thematic preoccupation of Majora’s Mask is time, like Ocarina. Except in Majora, time is built into the game space in a different way. In Ocarina, we saw the effects of time as two snapshots: of the ravages that time can cause over seven years through two bookends. In Majora’s Mask, instead we see time as a force that flows through the game space, having impact in real time. It moves characters, it furthers plots (whether the player has anything to do with them or not), and it inflicts death upon all characters and the world if allowed too much freedom. And all this is conveyed through Majora’s space. The player can slow time, and even reset the three days, but can never escape its power. Time and space are always interlinked concepts, but never have they been made more so than in Majora’s Mask.


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Great game spaces: GoldenEye 007


GoldenEye 007 (often mislabeled GoldenEye 64) is often rightfully cited as one of gaming’s classics. Great design, addictive gameplay, actual objectives other than reaching the end of the level, reloading (!), and a multiplayer mode like nothing else ensure that it always holds a place in the canon of the first-person shooter.

But one point I often feel is seriously overlooked is the game’s sheer faithfulness to the film. This is not faithfulness in the way we currently assume film-to-game faithfulness works. It doesn’t have any cutscenes worth mentioning, no audio dialogue, and it commits the great adaptation cliche of inserting filler where there was none in the film. A ten second fight with Xenia in the film turns into a ten minute traipse through the jungle in the game, for instance.

Instead, this is faithfulness in a spatial sense. For a game released in 1997, it really is remarkably similar to the sets used in the film. Martin Hollis, producer and director of GoldenEye, has some very interesting points to make about this:

Karl [Hilton] constructed levels based on the film sets, which we visited several times. And Bea [Jones] constructed characters based on the photos of people and costumes we had. Later on Duncan Botwood joined the team and constructed levels. All of us immersed ourselves in the Bond universe.

One important factor was this. The level creators, or architects were working without much level design, by which I mean often they had no player start points or exits in mind. Certainly they didn’t think about enemy positions or object positions. Their job was simply to produce an interesting space. After the levels were made, Dave [Doak] or sometimes Duncan [Botwood] would be faced with filling them with objectives, enemies, and stuff. The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay. But it contributes to a greater sense of freedom, and also realism. And in turn this sense of freedom and realism contributed enormously to the success of the game.

After all these years of playing GoldenEye, I can’t watch the film without somehow feeling like I’ve been there before. I’m continually surprised by Bond’s ‘wrong’ turn in Facility, minutes into the film (watch it – you’ll see what I mean), and I always feel like there is so much to the Bunker scenes not shown in the film.

In short, I’m not surprised that one of the most routinely lauded adaptations of all time concentrates on an approach to space. It also intrigues me that both of my entries to this series of posts so far have been adaptations, when we so routinely criticise the genre. I have a few suspicions as to why, but I might save them for a later date.

Therefore, what better way than to let the game make my argument for me? I’ve got some images for comparison below. Apologies for the poor quality of some; finding images of GoldenEye 007 online is harder than you think. They all follow after the jump.


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Great game spaces: Spider-Man 2’s NYC

This is the first post in a series that I plan to continue for some time, where I take a particular game space and discuss why I think it really, really works. I’m toying with running some also-rans as well, those spaces that really, really had great potential or aspects, but somehow didn’t quite work.

Today, I’m running with Manhattan as seen in Spider-Man 2. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure why it works so well. It isn’t a perfect depiction of the city by any means. It’s even a good leap-and-bound behind True Crime: New York City (of the same generation), a game so accurate that The New Yorker had two professional Manhattan tour guides assess the game. There are landmarks missing, and comparing the in-game map with an actual map of Manhattan shows that the game probably has about a third of the city’s streets.

Yet I felt compelled to actually pull out a map and compare the game with the real thing at the time. So compelling was Spider-Man 2‘s depiction of New York that to this day, despite having only been to the Big Apple once, when I was eight, I feel like I know my way around the city. I can find my way from the financial district to Harlem, no problems. Provided I’m traveling by web, that is.

There was a great review of the game that described Manhattan as becoming Spider-Man’s jungle gym. It’s really an apt analogy for one – perhaps the only – reason that it remains one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly one of my favourite game spaces (and I don’t even like Spider-Man!). Manhattan, iconic, mythic Manhattan, becomes a place that’s as easy to traverse as pointing in a direction and swinging. The city becomes navigable under the yoke of the player’s web. Intimate tours of the Statue of Liberty, of the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State, of the Flatiron, are possible in ways that you would never, ever be able to have in reality. I can climb underneath Queensboro Bridge to Roosevelt Island if I want to, or I can ascend to the tip of the Empire State Building and jump off, stopping my plummeting form with a flick of a button at the last minute, inches from the pavement. Factor in skyscraper markers that predate Crackdown‘s orbs in terms of sheer addictive-factor, and you have an amazingly compelling space to explore, to the point where the game’s main story and activities can be largely ignored and still make for a great experience.

Yet the New York of Spider-Man 2 is very much a New York that could only ever be found in the videogame. The city is something that is to be both controlled a revered – the player’s tasks in the game largely revolve around rescuing citizens from petty crime, deathly falls, and even lost balloons. The city, as Spider-Man’s jungle gym, is an ambivalent force, as it is the skyscrapers that give Spider-Man his speed of travel, yet it is also the skyscrapers that block his path when pursuing a criminal or racing against the clock to save a citizen. It’s a New York where one can assault a typical New York criminal, yet not buy a bagel from a typical New York bagel stand.

There is only one way I can find out if my many hours of Spider-Man 2 can translate to actual knowledge: I’m going to be there mid-next year. If you hear of a mad Australian climbing underneath the Queensboro Bridge, you’ll know what to blame.


Filed under Great game spaces, videogames