Both developers and players spend a serious amount of time and energy focusing on how we might get more out of games. More features. More content. More tough decisions. It’s easy to forget that sometimes… less is more.
Most titles where a single session lasts longer than a few minutes are best served by providing players at least a small measure of downtime. This “negative space” of game design is an important ingredient in proper pacing.
Good Pacing… Bad Design?
Games often incorporate features that might be considered a bit “boring” with the express purpose of giving players a breather. If a game is 20 hours long and every last second of it from naming your character to the final credits is over-the-top intense, most people would be too stressed out to get anywhere close to the end!
Should you view most of a game’s features included simply to provide that necessary downtime in isolation, you’ll find that they’re in fact rarely “good” design. Or, perhaps a better way to describe them would be to say that their impact runs counter to the high-level goals of the game or its genre.
Consider a shooter where the you casually walk from one place to another, or a platformer where the puzzles become trivially easy for a period of time. No one would want to play a shooter where you don’t actually shoot, or a platformer that offers zero challenge. Everyone may not like such detours, but their inclusion was made with a very clear purpose in mind.
While there’s no doubt that game design is more art than science, this is still a fascinating phenomenon. You would think that a good feature is a good feature, but as with so many other parts of life context is everything. This is one of the reasons why playtesting and iteration is so crucial – you never know how your dish is going to turn out until all of the ingredients are in the pot.
Now that we’ve discussed negative space in a general sense, let’s look at a few specific examples of how and why it’s used.
Negative Space in Action
The idea for this article came to me during a recent episode of TGDRT, when Dirk and I were joined by Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the designers of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Dirk noted that he wasn’t a huge fan of the game’s exploration sequences, which are certainly less intense than the rest of the game, and don’t really offer much in terms of meaty gameplay or decision-making.
Our guests explained that this feature was included with the express purpose of slowing the game down. This sort of approach doesn’t work in every case, and there might be better ways of achieving the same goal, but you certainly can’t argue against the intention behind it.
Perhaps the best usage of “negative space” in games I’ve played personally is in Persona 4, which, as many of you know, is one of my favorite games. One of the reasons for this hallowed distinction is its superb pacing. The game is a roughly even mix of crawling through dungeons, an exploration phase where you decide which activities to spend your time on, and non-interactive cut scenes. What makes Persona 4 special is that it provides players nearly complete control over how much time they can spend in each of these phases.
I’m a really big fan of this feature, and I know I’m not alone. I will go through moods where I feel like beating up on some baddies, but other times I’m looking for a lighter experience and just want learn more about the characters. The freedom for players to choose when this downtime occurs allows everyone to customize the experience to their personal taste. A completely unguided, freeform experience is daunting for most, but providing freedom inside a sturdy framework offers the perfect middle ground.
A controversial feature in the Civilization series is the construction of tile improvements. When designing Civ 5 one of the suggestions I received on more than one occasion was that I should cut out the Worker unit, and instead have players place improvements through a system similar to public works in the two Call to Power titles.
I’m sure most of you haven’t played those games, but the basic idea is that rather than having a worker unit players simply open up a screen, select the Improvement they want, click on the tile where they want it, and BAM there it is. The intention was to reduce the micromanagement required in shuffling a horde of Workers around, and instead refocus on more interesting bits. This was by no means a misguided goal, as Workers are in fact kind of, well, not interesting!
One of the big reasons why I ultimately chose not to go in this direction was because I didn’t want to lose what the Worker unit provided. Wait, didn’t we just say that Workers are boring? In a manner of speaking, yes, but boring doesn’t necessarily equate to useless. They offer a rhythmic activity where players can spend some time to chill out before returning to the hard work of statecraft. If every decision is a brain-burner eventually you burn out and either need to take a break, or in the worst-case scenario, maybe even quit forever.
That brings us to the conclusion of our article: so, what does happen when a game goes without negative space?
Positive Space Overload
A lack of downtime is not always a flaw, but it does greatly narrow the type of audience your game will appeal to.
A game which demonstrates this is actually another one of my favorites: Unity of Command. The design is so tight and well-crafted that nearly everything you do is important. All of your decisions matter. All of them.
No doubt, some people absolutely love this approach and Unity of Command is sort of a reference guide for good game design. But the intensity of the experience means that playing it for long enough can eventually make you anxious and uncomfortable. There’s no exploration or farming to sooth your weary soul in this game. No, all you’ll find are tough, tough decisions.
Every game incorporates “negative space” in different ways and to varying extents, and it’s yet another one of the thousand elements every designer must take into account. We are wise to step back, consider what our target audience is and what our goals are, and ensure the mood actually provided matches our intentions.