Wednesday 30 November 2016

Creating a Sense of Place in Video Games

What is a place?
In the simplest possible terms, a place is a meaningful location. Places are spaces that humans perceive as meaningful because of their social and emotional associations. We form these attachments with spaces as they provide the settings for our lives as individuals.
A sense of place is the subjective feeling of ‘being there’, in a place. As it is just a feeling, having a sense of place does not require the individual to be in a given location physically, but purely to experience the depth of emotional and social connection that they would associate with being there.

Mental models
There are many ways that video game environments can fall short of providing the same depth of experience that real-world places do. They typically do not contain the same density of objects or details; they are limited in the movements or actions they allow people to perform; and they do not cater for the full range of bodily senses.
However, feeling a sense of place is a cognitive experience, not just an embodied one. It is possible to create the feeling of being in a place without being there physically. For example, we can feel like we’ve been transported to another world by the words of novels, or sounds in a piece of music.
The most important factor for creating a sense of place is therefore the mental model of the world that participants create. The world’s content does not necessarily have to be realistic, but believable – enough for the participant to form a coherent impression of the world in their mind. For video games, this relies on a combination of their systemic and aesthetic components.
The systemic components of the world control its physical properties, and how players can interact with it. To create a coherent sense of place the game’s mechanics need to be consistent, as these rules of interaction allow players to filter out the world’s information in a meaningful way. Players can feel like they ‘know’ the world when they find, for example, that only certain types of door can be opened; or only highlighted objects can be interacted with.
The aesthetic components control how the fiction of the world is experienced. This includes the world’s art, story plot, soundscape, and any other information that sets the world in a specific fictional context. To make the world believable, it is important that the aesthetics feel authentic to the player. This authenticity can be based on factual accuracy, such as ensuring that everything in the world is from the particular time period in which the story is set. Yet authenticity can also be applied to the emotional effect of the story events, addressing real experiences and feelings that people have had.
Ensuring that the systemic and aesthetic components work well together is essential to create mental models of the world that are well articulated when the game is played. This way the world can be interacted with meaningfully, setting a stage for deep emotional experiences.

The Stanley Parable is a game full of inconsistencies. Doors open in some playthroughs that couldn’t previously, and in some cases the entire layout and contents of the office building change completely. Yet these contradictions are in keeping with the fictional context of the office block as an inherently unknowable place. The systemic inconsistencies work well with the surreal aesthetics to create a mental model of a place that is confusing and ungraspable.

Play-testing can allow developers to assess and fine-tune this relationship be-tween mechanics and aesthetics. Feeling a sense of place is ultimately an experience that occurs in the minds of individual players, so by examining how players engage with the world mechanically and subjectively, developers can gauge whether their worlds work well as places, not just game levels.

All places have an element of co-authorship, as the existing materials and social relationships in a location are combined with the personal experiences of individuals in meaningful ways.
The interactivity of video games is similar to co-authorship, in how players can have their own play experiences within a structure designed by a game’s developers.
In many of the established game genres, however, the input of the player is typically focused on the mechanical actions they can perform – and how well they can do these actions according to frameworks of wins and losses, score-boards, objectives and so on. Little opportunity is given for emotional engagement with the environment, which becomes a passive backdrop for the unfolding action.
By cutting down the complex mechanical actions the player can perform, and the feedback given to players for these actions, game developers can create more room for players to have mindful responses to their worlds. It is then left to the players to decide how they are going to explore the world, and how to interpret the ambiguous information presented to them, according to their own feelings, memories, expectations and imaginations.

Made to answer the question of what happens if traditional interactive elements are removed from games to focus purely on storytelling, Dear Esther became iconic as an experience that simply asked players to walk forward and listen to a narrator. Widely credited as a founding title of the ‘walking simulator’ genre, Dear Esther showed how leaving room for ambiguity and contemplation in games can foster deeper emotional engagement with their worlds.

However, the level design also needs to be compelling enough to encourage these deeper emotional and thoughtful responses. Using techniques such as gating (managing players’ access to areas of the game world at specific times), signposting (drawing players’ attention to objects/events/areas through lighting, sound etc.) and pacing (managing the positioning and distance between objects/events), developers can subtly direct the flow of the experience to enhance its drama and emotional power, without compromising the player’s immersive connection with the world.
In short, co-authorship relies on trust both ways in the relationship between developers and players. Developers need to ensure that players will find the world engaging and worth exploring, and then step back and trust that players will respond by finding what it is meaningful to them in the world, rather than telling the player what they should be doing and how they should be feeling.
By giving players the opportunity to imagine themselves into the world – rather than overlaying it with complex actions players must perform, or arbitrary scoring/objective systems – a stronger sense of place can emerge as players draw on their own meanings and experiences to engage with the world, rather than anyone else’s.

Story and emotional resonance
As well as creating room for players to interact mindfully with game worlds, forming the deep subjective bonds associated with ‘being there’ entails providing content to which players can respond emotionally. In games, this typically takes place through storytelling – the cultural practice of sharing experiences, which can build empathy and social bonds between people.
By creating worlds transformed by the emotional resonance of events, characters and objects involved in a story (environmental storytelling), developers can instil environments with stimuli that provoke empathy between players and the fictional situations that are represented in the game. Players can then begin to care about the world as a place where they have memories of emotional experiences.

The vacant mansion explored in Gone Home is ripe with environmental storytelling that makes the house feel lived-in: handwritten notes, tape recordings and objects that enable players to experience the emotional resonance of the Greenbriar family’s dramas.

Careful use of sound is a particularly powerful method of evoking emotional resonance in environments through its immersive qualities, enabling the player to feel present in a time and location without physically being there. Sound also has the ability to very viscerally convey mood and atmosphere through music, voice and ambient noise, which makes it especially potent for communicating the emotional twists and turns of narratives. Despite its importance for storytelling, I’ve repeatedly heard about instances where studios have not considered audio until late on in development, or failed to put much effort into its production.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s BAFTA award-winning sound-track used four types of music to score the emotional resonance of scenes, characters, and the player’s journey between them.

When narrative worlds with a strong and authentic emotional resonance are created, players can more deeply immerse themselves in the experiential space of characters and/or situations – events and dilemmas they must negotiate using their own subjective judgements. As players make meaningful decisions and interpretations, exploring the world becomes a process of exploring the cracks and crevices of the self. The world becomes tied to the meaning-making of the player, developing a deeply personal sense of place framed ac-cording to the player’s feelings, memories and measures of emotional reward.

Making players care
It has been said that in walking simulator games the only fail state is that the player doesn’t care. Though as one developer put it, this is also the designers’ fail state. It is their job to provide the conditions that can foster an emotional connection between player and environment, in order to create worlds with a distinct and intimate sense of place.
By creating believable, stimulating environments that give players the opportunity to explore the twisting paths of their own thoughts and feelings, players will ultimately care more about the world as somewhere they come to know from personal experiences, interpretations and imaginations.
The task for developers is to design holistic environments that are evocative in themselves, allowing them to step back and trust players to find meaning in the rich world presented to them.