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Freeplay 2010: The Difficulty of Understanding A World That Can't Exist

Freeplay 2010: The Difficulty of Understanding A World That Can't Exist Exclusive

August 18, 2010 | By Brendan Keogh

Indie game designer Alexander Bruce is showing off a mind-boggling, space-warping first-person game to an audience that is unsure if they are amazed or baffled or both. They have never seen anything like this. Some, inevitably, are thinking of Portal, but compared to this, Portal's navigation is a clear-cut as Time Crisis. What Bruce is showing is the Penrose stairs of video games.

"Here we have an example of a puzzle with two paths, a red and blue staircase, and they both lead back to same place, obviously," described Bruce. "Here, we have a four dimensional art gallery. And here we have a maze and every time the player takes a wrong move, they end up back at the start."

Bruce's demonstration of his work-in-progress, Hazard: The Journey of Life, which explores a potential of digital space far more detached from reality than video games traditionally explore, kicked off the recent"Twisted Space" roundtable discussion at the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. The diverse range of speakers explored the unique possibilities inherent in both digital space and physical space, the way the two intersect and overlap, and the languages we can use to understand them.

For Bruce, the main design problem the early iterations of his game faced was one of comprehension. "When I first gave it to playtesters, they all thought, 'this is a cool idea, but why would I want to play it for more than five minutes?'" Ultimately, there were no goals. "It was meaningless."

It was not the abstract concept that didn't work, explained Bruce. He just needed to find a way to communicate it. His game was missing the 'journey' part of the title. "Life is about the journey," said Bruce. "We make choices, mistakes, and we learn from them." Hazard is not about the goal at the end, but the navigation of space, and the choices and the mistakes on the journey through the game.

A Philosophical Journey

To incorporate this, Bruce introduced philosophy into his game via simple signs to help the player understand the game's space. One such sign before the perpetual stairs states "some choices are arbitrary" and indeed, regardless of which stairwell the player chooses, they end up once again approaching the stairwell.

The most crucial thing Hazard's players have to learn, explained Bruce, is how the digital space works. Hazard must break down the player's existing expectations of how space works in the real world so that they can begin learning how it works in his digital world.

With space, "we need to simulate learning," said Bruce. "Simply twisting space as a concept is really easy to implement, but we need to do something with it."

Dan Golding, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, agreed.

"Spaces actively speak to the player," argued Golding.

In the real world, space asks to be used in a specific way (a lecture theatre implies the speaker should stand on the stage and the audience should face the stage, is Golding's example), but nothing stops us from using the space however we want (nothing prevents us from playing tag in a lecture theatre, for instance). But in games, observes Golding, "assuming you want to play the game the way it is meant to be played, you are actively trying to understand what this space is asking you to do."

This is where Hazard's problem lies. While the majority of games tend to present spaces that work in ways practically identical to the physical world, Hazard requires the player to learn the language of a brand new space before they can understand what it is that space asking of them.

The Space Outside

But, for Golding, beyond the challenges highlighted in the development of Bruce's experimental title, is where the true potential of games and digital space lie.

"What happens when we realize game space doesn't have to obey physical laws?" asked Golding. "Well, it isn't really an interesting question. It is not the space itself, but how the space can be used that really shows the true potential of video games. We can crease excitement, sadness, and exhilaration simply through spatial design. Breaking the laws of physics seems like such a small aim in comparison."

If designers are to create impossible digital spaces that real-world people can navigate, these spaces need to be represented in real-world terms that the real-world player can comprehend.

Artist and sculptor Hugh Davies explores this with his sculptural work, which focuses on how digital spaces could be represented and mapped in analogue ways. "Digital space doesn't have to replicate physical space," said Davies. "But it always does."

Davies exhibited many of the ways he has experimented with mapping digital spaces in analogue forms (examples at He also highlighted the importance of appreciating how people map space as a means to understanding how they interact with that space.

For this, he looked at Second Life, which he described as "essentially an entire planet where we can create whatever we want". Yet, for Davies, the potential of Second Life is lost in the "depressing" actuality of endless shopping malls and suburban houses. It has simply become "the worst of the physical world in a digital space."

The Crossover

Video game lecturer Javier Candeira and Media Artist Troy Innocent also explored this crossover of digital and physical spaces. Candiera looked at public spaces and how they are defined by play. Candeira drew on examples such as Japanese speed bumps that play music if run over at the correct speed to demonstrate how our subconscious need to play can't help but to make us interact with public spaces in playful ways.

"Companies that run MMOs like Eve Online started hiring economists to manage the virtual economies," said Candeira. However, the more we realize the use of public space in the real world is managed by games and play, "the more we might realize we need game designers to manage the public spaces and public resources."

Having explored how digital space determines how we play, how physical space is determined by how we play, and how one can be represented in the other, Troy Innocent summed up proceedings with a look at how his work looks at "the language of spaces" that exists in the overlap of digital and physical places and ultimately gives the space its meaning (examples of his work can be found at Simple signs, demonstrated Innocent, can allow players to remap, reappropriate and rediscover a physical space, much like the signs Bruce introduced to Hazard to guide his players.

In the end, it was Bruce's initial introduction that summed up best why video game designers should be interested in twisting digital space beyond its physical comfort zone:

"It's a game. We can do whatever the fuck we want with space so why not make something cool?"

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