This article was originally posted on Nightmare Mode.
Most art can be boiled down to “the arrangement of items into compelling structures.” It’s all form-based – visual arts, especially. The play of color delights the eyes, coalescing in images we recognize and identify with. In music, it’s the structure of notes – not just the individual sounds, but their relation in context to one another to generate melody. Art is structured shape and sound within which our minds and hearts can explore. Games offer massive constructed worlds which we inhabit, travel through and change.
There is a concept, though only dimly expressed in Western criticism, of “negative” space. In painting, this is white space – on one side, the unfilled canvas awaiting form, but also referring to the spaces between the subjects that the painting depicts. It’s a concept that straddles the creation of the art (the artist fills the white space, but not completely, so that the subject is distinct) and the experience of the viewer.
Every medium has its own negative space. Musicians fade in and out of the not-form of silence, constructing sound, perhaps following the blueprints of a conductor, perhaps improvising a custom edifice that will never be heard again. Sculptors carve form out of the physical world itself, carving away the not-form to reveal the form. There are gaps between the words and stanzas of poets – meter itself shows the diversity of such gaps – and, as Ralph Richardson argued, acting “lies in the pauses.” Regardless of vehicle, all art and design is a play on form and not-form.
Think of a newspaper, and how busy it feels. Compare it to this:
There is an elegant term for this concept in Japanese – “ma.” Ma refers to things disparate but unified by a perspective. Ma is “gap,” “pause,” the space between two presented objects. Of ma, Lao Tze wrote:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
but the empty space between them
is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
but the empty space between it
is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
but the empty space within it
is the essence of the house.
Ma exists only in perception; there is no actual open space (after all, the universe is brimming with molecules all the way through!). But we attach less inherent meaning to “unstructured” space. The act of our focus generates form, and everything else becomes the backdrop. Understanding the play between the subject and the backdrop is essential to mastering any art at all, regardless of whether that backdrop is canvas, silence, an empty stage or the basic rules that govern a digital world.
Ma can be a valuable lens for both game creation and game criticism. The easiest way to explore this is by example. Let’s look at Dark Souls, because it has a couple of good instances of gaming ma.
Since the time of Pong, games have had soundtracks. Music is emotionally powerful, and can add an additional layer onto an experience. Final Fantasy VII would be diminished without it’s breathless, driving battle music, which also adds an auditory partition between the over-world and the combat engine; Halo would be diminished without the reverent chant of its main theme, which accentuates the feeling of wonder the player experiences on the ring-world; Oblivion would be diminished without its heroic refrain, which serves to remind the player of their role in the world even while they’re dueling with mud-crabs. Left 4 Dead uses music as cues to prepare the player for what’s about to happen.
Dark Souls takes a minimalist approach to its soundtrack. Music appears in only two instances – when the character is at the tiny hub of the massive open world, Firelink Shrine, where violins offer a melancholic sense of safety and fragile community, and during boss fights, in which bombastic composing crashes from the silence to bring the player rushing into the high-risk encounter.
The rest of Dark Souls is full of uneasy silence, broken only by the clash of metal, whistling of wind, and the groans and roars of the horrible monsters that inhabit Lordran. That silence, more than anything, is responsible for the loneliness of the game – it’s an absent silence, one that the player will often want to be filled by something. A Dark Souls that, like Oblivion, regularly evoked a beautiful, heroic theme as the player traveled would not work nearly so well. This is an instance of ma. The absence of music serves a distinct role. It enhances those instances when music does play, or when another denizen of the world does speak, and it allows for the player to inhabit a desolate and un-heroic world.
Dark Souls’ narrative is also a study in ma. There’s no cohesive, fully-presented myth like that in most fantasy games, and non-player characters don’t recite the history of their world to you. We understand that this world is crumbling around the heads of the gods, but beyond that our place in the world is dimly understood. Once we’re plenty of hours in, far enough to have rung two bells and awoken the primordial serpent, he sets us on a path. We are, of course, the Chosen Undead that will Set Things Right; this much could be assumed. But the rest of the world is strung upon the old bones of the ancient world. There’s history in Lordran, not parceled out via audio logs and books, but ingrained in the living world, for us to make as much or as little of as we care to. It’s a minimalistic approach that serves the game well – this remains a world forever beyond us, and its distance and mystery make it simultaneously compelling and terrifying.
So far, we’ve applied ma to narrative structure, but it’s just as applicable to design. For instance, a game that normally allows high levels of avatar freedom might, for a scene, restrict the normal methods of interaction with the world to great effect. I think specifically of the scene immediately following the final boss fight in Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. The player stands above The Boss (that’s her title in-game), who is wounded, and is given only one option: to follow orders and fire a bullet into the head of Snake’s old mentor. But the game doesn’t automate this or house it in a cut-scene like most of the dramatic moments in the game thus far. This time, it places the player back in control of Snake, making the player complicit in pulling the trigger. It waits, the game world breathing and still, until the player realizes that he has to take the only action available to him. It’s a deeply compelling union of avatar and player.
Ma can also be applied in terms of total design philosophy. A well-designed, artful game is one that has a perfect amount of options for the player. This might mean excluding some popular systems. In Dark Souls, dialogue trees would diminish the vision; it would be fluff, crowding in on the form of what the focus should be just as surely as adding in vivid, colorful background elements to the Mona Lisa would detract from the intended subject. Negative space, when applied to the rule-sets of games, refers to those necessary limits that provide context for and give significance to the decisions that the player makes. This is valuable in a purely mechanical sense as we approach a game in terms of balance and challenge. Options provided to the player should have distinct purpose. A poorly designed game will have redundant choices, often by making one set of choices markedly superior.
In any art, ma is about letting the receiver absorb and discern. The pauses in an actor’s monologue allows the audience to digest; white space allows us to discern the subject, and the relationship between the subject and the rest of the rendered world, clearly. Ma clears the way for a viewer/player to make significance of their experience. And so a player’s actions should ring with significance. This isn’t achieved by merely increasing the number of options available to the player. It is important to keep in mind that poor options, or too many options, actually detract from an experience. When the promise of a new mode of interaction with the game world falls short, then the experience is harmed – that’s just human psychology.
If games have an analogue to the blank canvas, it is this: the wish of a player to assume a body (or if not a body, some tool or mechanism for interaction) and act within an imaginary world. But the realities of designing such a system means that those options are necessarily limited. All actions must be supported by the rules. An unfinished or inelegant game is like an unfinished or inelegant painting – it is unnaturally bare in a way that expectations remain unfulfilled. Options that seem obvious to the player are inexplicably unsupported, or the options that are present crowd each other out, or options exist that clash with the themes and tone of the game. Just as crowded images in visual art make a piece progressively harder to understand, game mechanics that don’t have enough conceptual space from each other make a game much less rewarding.
I certainly haven’t exhausted the way that negative space might be applied to games, but I do think it encourages stepping back and looking at some of the aspects of design and leads to some useful metaphors for understanding how we interact with game mechanics. Some of my favorite moments in games occur when my method of interaction with the game world is changed, when the limits a game places on me suddenly tighten to great effect and the whole notion of my agency and primacy as protagonist in a game world is challenged. I think ma begins to explain why those moments work.