Negative Space


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.

– Jon

7 thoughts on “Negative Space

  1. Hey, good article. Playing a game with smooth pacing is a joy to partake in ( ilu persona series, half life also), and playing a game without smooth pacing can be a drag ( hi final fantasy 13! )

    I was thinking about workers after playing some more Civ 5 lately. I still think it’s a bit too much micro, I think it’s a bit more than necessary and isn’t overly fun. Remembering where each worker was going, what tech they need to improve a tile, reminding myself how each city is specializing in a certain resource doesn’t offer much of a break. I think the negative space as far as Civ 5 goes is already present elsewhere – breaks in between turns after you’ve given all your tactical decisions to your troops and set production. Making peace, or otherwise ending a drawn out war. Exploring the fog of war with your scouts. Even grabbing a drink between turns, or closing Civ 5 then reloading your save later. At least I dont have as many workers, and then all the supply crawlers all over the map that I had in Alpha Centauri!

    Almost reminds me of transitioning from Starcraft where you had to tell every single worker to mine when they were made, to Warcraft 3 and Starcraft 2, where you just make sure you have the right number of workers harvesting, while mostly focusing on the big picture and not getting caught up in the somewhat tedious minutia.

    1. You are spot on with FF13!
      The lack of town areas really made the constant fighting painful. As a result I could only play for a for a while before getting fed up of it.
      After having a boss fight you want a bit of chill out time to play some cards, kupo at some moogles and sell your wares. Not start fighting straight away.
      I can see they were going for the feeling of constantly being on the run but it completely hampered the game

  2. It’s really odd to me that people complain about worker management in Civ. Manually improving tiles is one of my favourite parts of the game. It’s so… soothing. Which, I suppose, is rather the point!

  3. I’m really interested in seeing how game designers work with positive/negative space as games develop.

    Wouldn’t it be funny to have a game where your normally “stressful decisions” like shooting in an FPS or combat engagements in an RTS were the easy part and the hard decisions were made during a planning/exploration phase?

    1. The RTS part sounds like some of the more macro focused RTS, such as Sins of a Solar empire and Supreme Commander. Hard part being expansion taking over new territory and keeping production going, while the engagements themselves are more hands-off. I also remember taking time to sit back and watch fights play out in Homeworld, which I thought was one of the most breathtaking and gorgeous games of it’s time. Watching each ship do it’s own thing, little interceptors and attack bombers making passes on their targets, while frigates and cruisers lumber around with turrets tracking their targets, also while your hulking carriers, battleships, and the mothership would be ever-present in the background

  4. I can’t help but think of negative space in light of this particular interpretation of flow found here:

    When you think about, say, the Civ V worker example, assigning orders to workers is in no way trivial to a new player. It’s not “negative space” in the new player’s experience. It *becomes* negative space through the player’s mastery of the unit, which occurs naturally because it is the one unit you start with and consistently use throughout the entirety of the game. The player eventually internalizes the worker decisions and it becomes that learned, automated choice that you might interpret as negative space.

    I think that the key to achieving compelling negative space is to assign it its own pacing, where the negative space is consumed by a progression of more and more complex masteries.

  5. I finally got around to playing Unity of Command recently (what can I say, I’m slow in picking up on games… too many other things to do).

    I don’t find the same problem with negative space in UoC that you do; i.e., I’m not convinced that the problem with burn-out that one gets in the game is due to the intensity of the decisions. I love that every decision you take, matters, and that one wrong move can mess up one’s plan of operations. The problem – I feel – is that ultimately your decisions aren’t all that important. Once you get to a certain skill level, the results you get depend on luck. Fail to make specific units retreat, make an impact with air power, or get a rain zone across your path of movement at the wrong time, and you have zero chance of achieving a brilliant victory. Often this is apparent even after 2 or 3 turns.

    Given that the game design is pretty much built up around the idea of having the player keep retrying scenarios (and learning new ideas), this is IMO a big weakness – especially because there is no point to replay the scenarios other than to try and get a higher victory level.

    I think there are many board game designs that have at least as much intensity in their decisions as UoC, without feeling as exhausting. The difference is that they are either fully deterministic or minimize the element of luck.

    A puzzle isn’t any fun if completing it perfectly requires you to roll a natural 20.

    I’m also not convinced by the negative space argument for workers in Civ. As schlaghund points outs, there is a learning curve involved before that kicks in at least – and the difference between deploying your workers and settlers optimally and badly can be tallied up in lost resources and time. in tight games, that can easily make the difference between building that wonder before your opponent, or completing that extra pikeman in time to ward off an attack.

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