Computer Game Spaces: An Interview with Georgia Tech’s Michael Nitsche (Part Two)

You also suggest that the design of games space has been heavily influenced by our shared understanding of cinematic conventions. Which aspects of film form exert an influence on the design of game worlds?

Video games, film, and television are all part of the moving image media family. They share many aspects, differ in many others and continuously add to each other’s vocabulary through their shared origins. There are at least two connections that we have to take into account when we discuss game spaces and their visual representation.

On the one hand, a large number of games try to remediate cinematic visuals. There is no reason for a lens flare effect in Unreal Tournament because there are not physical optics involved. But the programmer included it. Neither is there any technical reason for suddenly increasing grainy imagery in sections of Fatal Frame. But the images are altered nevertheless. These are rendering effects applied to the game world in order to recreate cinematic visual effects and to achieve distinct dramatic impacts.

Most of the time, we have to read and understand a game world to interact meaningfully with it. That is why visualization is a very powerful form of expression in digital games and not necessarily subordinate to interactivity. Cinematic traditions are built into these games to direct our reading of the world. Because designers constantly develop new visual expressions for their games, we cannot pinpoint a single cinematic reference point for video games. The main visual traditions of 3D game cinematography (following camera, overhead view, first-person point of view and pre-defined viewing frames) have all connections to existent cinematic traditions but they have developed their own specifics over time.

The interactive following camera, for example, changes the way that the main character is visually situated in the game world and often becomes not only a visual but also a action controlling device when the hero is programmed to always run in the direction the player points the camera. Equally important is the question of montage of different viewpoints in video games. Film has developed multiple techniques of montage and games seem to gradually follow with some own concepts that are organized around their interactivity.

In many 3D games players not only control the virtual hero but have also taken on the role of virtual cameramen and editors. Maybe the most surprising fact is how seamlessly audience can accept this responsibility. The camera work in the newer Prince of Persia titles is highly developed and might be influenced by the player in the midst of equally complex game play situations. Nevertheless, players seem to readily adapt to that task. Nowadays, a player not only accepts the role of the virtual hero but also that of the “man with the movie camera.” And this transition happened extremely smoothly overall. Maybe because of our familiarity with cinematic techniques.

This points to the second main connection between games and film: players have developed certain expectations towards the moving image. We have been educated by television conventions and cinematic visual storytelling and look at game through this expectation.

This allows players to understand the elegant intro sequences of the Half-Life games as descendents of the classic long opening shots that we have seen in Altman’s The Player or Welles’ Touch of Evil. Players bring this kind of media literacy to the game and can read it through their proficiency in film and TV visual storytelling. So we expect games to work a bit like movies because film and TV are essential sources of our visual literacy.

This is a two-way street, of course, and with the growing role of games as media for socialization the influences starts to shift. We can see that games start to educate our visual expectations and drive shots in television and cinema productions. So instead of a single influence I would argue for a growing shared ground that is based on the tradition of the moving image.

As you note, game designers rely on a range of spatial metaphors to discuss

their craft — drawing parallels between games and gardens, sand boxes,

amusement parks, labyrinths, mazes, and arenas or talking about games as being

on “rails” or “tracks.” Which of these analogies are most productive for

thinking about games space? Which do you think are confusing or misleading?

The book does not directly pick up the discussion of games as gardens or sand boxes – not because these metaphors are misleading but mainly because to me it seemed that a lot of detail is lost in such an approach. These are very useful approaches and often well applied in other works but a bit too large for the detailed analysis I had in mind. In my case, I tried to look into more precise spatial subcategories – like the path, the arena, or the labyrinth.

So instead of discussing the overall summary of a virtual space, which indeed might work and feel like a virtual garden, the focus is on details that might evoke this impression. I call these details evocative narrative elements and they work like spatialized hooks that affect the way the player experiences the game universe. They support the player to make sense of the virtual world and the situations in it and offers opportunities to connect and contextualize the events in relationship to each other. Finding a item important to the player, defeating an opponent or saving a friendly character, discovering the value of a certain item and overcoming threshold – all these can be evocative narrative elements that are situated in the game world.

However, how the player truly interconnects these hooks is up to her. Evocative narrative elements can add up to a fuller picture of a garden of a sandbox-like world, but in the end this depends very much on the player.

That is why I suggest a different metaphor in the end of the book, namely that of the kitchen. The kitchen caters for the growing role of players in the formation and re-usage of game environments. Following established recipes or gradually experimenting with new ones might be translated in the players’ actions in innovative titles from Spore to Little Big Planet to Second Life or MetaPlace. And getting all the set up right might just about decide the fate of worlds like Sony’s Home.

Michael Nitsche is an Assistant Professor at the School of Literature, Communication,

and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on virtual

environments and digital moving images. Michael heads the Digital World and Image Group, which works the design, use, and production of virtual spaces, Machinima, and the borderlines between games, film, and performance. His work combines theoretical analysis and practical experiments and his collaborations include work with the National Film and Television School London, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Turner Broadcasting, Alcatel Lucent, and others. He is author of Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Worlds (MIT Press, 2008), and has published on Game Studies, virtual worlds, digital performance, games and film, and machinima in numerous publications. In a former life he was co-author for a commercial videogame, professional Improv actor, and dramaturgist.