There and Back Again

This is the second in a series of articles investigating the question “What makes videogames fun?” The first article in the series can be found here

In my last article I talked about the importance of location and how the use of a model which points back to the real world can be compelling in and of itself. This is only half the story, though. Not every game can take place in Times Square, nor should every game. It’s (arguably) unfair to make a space opera or fantasy story take place in Dayton, Ohio. The question then is: if you are describing a space that doesn’t signify a real-world space, how do you make the player care? How do you increase the power of the virtual space you’ve created so that, when she is done playing your game, the player thinks of it, on some level, as a “real” place? In this article, I’m going to discuss three techniques: familiarity and reuse, signifiers such as maps and text, and geometric and logical consistency.

Familiarity and Reuse

The least trustworthy but easiest technique in our arsenal is reuse: keep the player in a certain portion of your virtual space until they are acclimated to it and begin to identify with it. It is the easiest because it requires the least amount of work to implement; it is the least trustworthy because doing this may not fit the needs of a game’s narrative, and if done poorly may cause the player to rebel against monotonous repetition.

There are two variants of reuse commonly deployed: “hub and spoke,” which is common in platform games, and “safe house,” which is common in CRPGs. A given location may be both a “hub” and a “safe house” at the same time. The difference between the two is largely one of emotional perception: a hub is a place which one transits to reach new, more interesting places. A safe house is a place one goes to be protected from the ravages of the world. Grandma’s house in Zelda: The Wind Waker is a safe house. The hideout in Grand Theft Auto 3 is a safe house, and the entire first island on Liberty City is made familiar by preventing the player from leaving it for a time (that also serves as a gate, but that’s the subject of a later article). The witch’s castle in Banjo Kazooie is sprinkled with hub areas that the player must cross and re- cross. The cities in Diablo II are both hubs and safe houses.

A safe house – or a series of them, if need be – can usually be justified in just about any narrative without breaking mimesis. Players will naturally familiarize themselves with the area around safe houses unless you go out of your way to make them extra-boring. Hubs are trickier. They’re frequently used as a “magician’s choice” by lazy game designers who aren’t very good magicians. Consequently, a carelessly designed hub will be seen as a mere distraction and as a connection to the next “good part.” When players can see the wires the result is usually boredom. If the hub serves no narrative purpose, get rid of it; if you want to force the player to go someplace else next, then just really force them (“Poof! You’re in Emerald City now”), and get it over with. Forcing the player to trudge across your virtual city for no narrative reason will quickly earn you their contempt.

If you provide good reasons for the player to trudge across your virtual city, it will not be a trudge. More on that below.

Internal Signifiers

The player is part of your narrative. For sufficiently advanced games, you may be able to use signifiers to help build the player’s map of your space before having to actually depict that space. By signifiers we mean text, maps, roadsigns, graffiti, conversations with other characters, or any technique that allows you to suggest the existence of part of your virtual world to a player before they actually get there.

At its most basic, this can be used to prime the player not only with a knowledge of geography, but of her objectives, as well. “Oh!” said the Princess, “recently the forest to the east has been overrun with wolves!” Right, thinks the player. East, forest, wolves. Got it. With one line you’ve advanced your narrative and filled in the topology of your insipid little game world somewhat.

Map from Silent Hill
2Signifiers do not have to be so straightforward, though. They are a mechanism to manage expectations on the part of the player, which also means they can be used to subvert expectations as well. The Silent Hill games do this magnificently. At various points in the game, players can obtain maps of the areas they were in. The maps are rough sketches, plans, nothing more – gas station maps, fire escape route diagrams of apartment buildings, and the like. The player might read the map and say “Oh, I can travel west on King Avenue here and reach the park.” The protagonist begins heading west and encounters a water main break – the road is closed. When he discovers this, the protagonist scribbles a red line on the map across King Avenue – can’t go that way! As clues are collected or obstacles encountered, the player’s map becomes (automatically) updated with notes, circles, jagged lines. The player learns quickly that the map is untrustworthy, but it’s all he’s got. For me, at least, the zombies and monsters in Silent Hill are not what keep me going – what keeps me going is the maddening knowledge that there is still an area on that damn map that I can’t get to.

I’m not a big believer in overlay or radar maps that give the player a precise view of where they are in the game world. As a rule, they distract the player from the game world you’ve created. If the player is distracted and not paying attention to the virtual space you’ve constructed, then they’re not internalizing it, and if they’re not internalizing it it’s not as meaningful. To reduce this to a simple rule for the designer, never show the player the same map that the game uses internally. Although it seems like a contradiction, disagreement between a signifier and the signified will tend to increase the player’s concentration on the environment, as they try to work out why the contradiction happened. Obviously, how you present that contradiction will have great narrative impact – if a trusted ally simply lies to the player for no good reason, that has one set of narrative consequences, whereas if they are simply somewhat wrong, that has another. And if a signifier, be it text, map, or a character is always wrong all the time, the player will simply discard or ignore it.


In Sony’s magnificent Ico, the protagonist is a young boy trapped in an ancient, decrepit castle. The edifice itself is more than the environment the protagonist moves in. The edifice is his true opponent. The castle you are trying to escape from is the nemesis. The monsters you encounter, the Witch- Queen who imprisons you, are not half so impressive and oppressive as the place you are trapped in. The monsters are shadowy figures, easily dispatched with the thwap of a stick. The castle is bigger than you. The castle is older than you. The castle has seen thousands of boys like you come, and none have ever left. Hit the walls with your stick. They will not fall.

Ico One thing that makes this work is the internal consistency of the game space, which is intimately tied to its visual style. It’s not just that the castle is a consistent mappable space which obeys the laws of geometry and physics – it’s that this is shown to you, deliberately, time and time again. You leave a room and step out onto a balcony. In the distance is a hexagonal tower. You struggle through three or four more rooms and find another balcony; that tower is closer now. Forty-five minutes later, you are at the base of the tower. Climb it, and look back, and you can see the balconies you were on early. That is where I was. This is where I am. Over there is where I’m going.

The intro to the classic FPS Half Life is a great example of this. It is positively glacially paced. Nothing happens; you’re in a tram car which trundles through the Black Mesa complex, carrying you into your lab at the heart of it. What it accomplishes, though, is that it gives us the sense that this is a fully realized place, with its own geography. On our way out through the shattered complex we will pass some of the places we see on the way in. This self-reinforcement enhances the experience. (It’s also my theory that this is one reason why the “Xen” levels near the finale of Half Life are so amazingly weak – you go from a consistent, thoroughly realized world into a fantastic world. A fantastic world that looks like it could have been ripped straight out of Super Mario World, complete with platforms that move for no discernible reason other than to let the player reach the boss monster. A very disappointing ending to one of the best games of the decade.)

This tradition is as old as computer games, with even the original Colossal Cave text adventure presenting the player with an internally consistent (although in places confusing) plan, complete with foreshadowing of places yet to be visited (think of its famous “mirror room”). A consistent, believable model of physical space is a precursor requirement to the location itself having a meaningful impact on a game. There’s no guarantee that a consistent, believable model will be interesting, but a model into which no thought has gone will be nothing more than window dressing. This is, obviously, one of those “know the rules to break them” situations – obviously a dream world might have different rules than the real one, likewise the hallucinogenic flightscapes of Rez. But if you simply throw together a virtual space without a vision of where the player belongs in it, the players will be able to detect your laziness on an almost subconscious level.

Additional Resources

I hope this article has been helpful in suggesting some techniques to make your game world more compelling and, hopefully, more fun. If you find any inaccuracies in this article, or just wish to comment, feel free. If you enjoyed this article, you might also find the following URLs to be of interest to you: