[Minor spoilers about Bioshock Infinite and some older games below]

I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing lately. My design background has been heavily skewed to two genres: sports and puzzles which don’t have the traditional pacing problems that other, more narrative genres might encounter. But pacing certainly isn’t limited to genres like Adventure and FPS, despite the problems being more salient. I’ve been thinking about this and it reminds me of the visual art concept of negative space.

The concept of negative space is that the elements of the art that are not part of the subject are important as well. This page discusses negative space and has some good visual examples that I won’t steal. Music has it’s own negative space (“It’s the notes you don’t play that matter” is an apocryphal jazz adage) as does film (though it mostly cribs from the visual angle of the concept).

The Japanese have a more concise term for this, Ma, which is more appropriate to what I want to discuss here because it more general and focuses on the “gap between two structural parts”.

If a game is a series of meaningful or interesting decisions, then our concept of “Ma” in games must be the space between opportunities for a player to make meaningful decisions. Some games offer no “Ma” at all. Look at Super Hexagon or Geometry Wars. These games are nonstop decision making such that there is no time to analyze the decisions you’ve made or prepare for the next.

Super Hexagon is practically Ma-less when it comes to its decision making.

In contrast, you could cite a game wholly without decisions like LCR or Candy Land, but if we wanted to be more honest and stick to games that do that for aesthetic effect, we could cite something like the sailing in Wind Waker or crossing the wasteland in the latest Fallout games. In these, nothing happens for a great while, but then something shockingly important happens to remove you from your stasis.

Of course, it would be silly to say that you should never have Ma or you should always have Ma. Fallout 3 and Super Hexagon are both excellent games in their own way yet their spacing of decisions is vastly different. The real question is: when do you want to leave out decision-making for the player?

For Drama

Most often, this technique is used to create drama. The original Halo was full of blistering firefights. Yet the level “343 Guilty Spark” has almost 15 minutes with no enemies. Bungie wanted to introduce the “Flood” enemies as truly frightening, so they littered the level with traces of their destruction while not allowing the player to assume that opening the next door would be safe. When you finally meet the Flood, you are almost used to not fighting, so when the hundreds of enemies come streaming out, you cue back to the fear that the corpses and tapes of dying soldiers you have found and, hopefully, feel real fear. Of course, if every level did this, it would be incredibly boring. People play Halo to shoot things, not walk through set pieces to not shoot things.

Another game that used this for dramatic effect was Resident Evil. Early in the game you are walking down a quiet hallway when all of a sudden mutated dogs burst through the windows and flank you. Along with the intense music, this is a shocking rip from negative space to action. After this, no window or room is safe for the player.

Here's an early lesson that rooms that look like negative space may not be.

Here’s an early lesson that rooms that look like negative space may not be.

The designers could have rested here. After all, it should be easier to create a bunch of negative space rooms peppered with ones with scares and use that variable reinforcement to keep the player terrified than to fill every room with something interesting. Many horror games since indeed have used that formula. But the Resident Evil folks did something interesting, at least in the Mansion section of the game. Every room in the mansion has enemies, items, save points, cutscenes or puzzle pieces, save one. For some reason, they left one bathroom as totally useless. But what this means is that since the player is constantly reinforced that there is something worth doing in every room, they must explore every room. The Ma occurs only in backtracking, leaving the actual level design packed with interesting decisions for the player to contemplate.

For Respite

Games that take their cues from movies often use negative space for respite. You see this in action films all the time. There is a very “loud” scene with a ton of action, followed by a very “quiet” scene with characters talking about what had happened. Games, too, do this. It is almost a cliche now that if the player sees health and ammo pickups followed by a save point, they must assume a boss fight is around the corner. Likewise, after a tough boss fight, the player is usually treated to more “story” pellets and won’t have to make any tactical decisions.

But this is also the case in many analog games. In Chess, for example, during your opponents turn, you get to rest and strategize your next maneuvers. If both players played chess simultaneously, it would certainly be a different feeling game, would it not?

For Misdirection

The Walking Dead game from Telltale did something which I found was really interesting. For the most part, the game is a theme park ride, taking the player from scene to scene with little chance of affecting the course of events sans the ludic cliche of dying and restarting. You have to constantly make decisions as to what the player character will say to the other characters. Most of the time, these are meaningless choices as all options branch back to the same event. However, sometimes, what you say amounts to the life or death of another of your party. Since you don’t always know in advance which dialogue options will be truly meaningful, the player has to treat most of them as meaningful. So while the true interactions between meaningful decisions is large, the players perception of the distance is small. It’s beautiful misdirection that allows the game to feel more real and the relationships more organic.

For Contrast

A similar use to respite is for contrast. A game may simply want to avoid the primary interaction with the game for a while to show what the game is like without it. Comments welcome for examples, although satirical games like Progress Quest and Cow Clicker get half-credit here.

Little Inferno is also worth mentioning. The primary interactions in Little Inferno are buying and burning things, yet you spend much of your time waiting for items to be delivered just so you can burn them. It’s a striking contrast that you would consider literally doing nothing so that you can earn money to continue to buy things which leads to literally doing nothing.

For Possibility

Minecraft. Is there any design article that can be written without involving that indie darling? Minecraft starts out with almost nothing but negative space. While you can certainly dig anywhere, there is no reason why you should dig or punch somewhere over any other until you have a goal in mind. In these creative types of games, the use of Ma is to motivate the player towards the creation of something. If there were no sensical goals one could accomplish in Minecraft, would anyone play it? It would simply be all negative space. No possibilities would exist, so no meaningful decisions could be made.

For Punishment / Incentivizing

Hockey has a mechanic called “the penalty box”. If a player performs various behaviors that the designers of the sport wish to minimize, then they literally have to go into a segregated area where they cannot interact with their teammates or make any decisions that would have any effect on the game for a specific amount of time. Nobody says that the penalty box is boring because it has to be so. That’s the point.

In League of Legends, when you die (and you will die), you screen turns grayscale and you cannot interact with the game* until your respawn counter counts down to zero. This is to both reward the player doing the killing and punish the player doing the dying. This disincentivizes the player from making risky moves that could lead to death because the penalty is that you cannot make any meaningful decisions during that time which is both boring and contributes to your team losing the game.

Bad Uses of Negative Space

In my opinion, simply to tell story or worldbuild is not an effective use of negative space. We’ve all felt the “ugh cutscenes” moments in Japanese RPGs or in the Metal Gear games. We play games for stories, in part, but we also play games for interaction. There’s no reason these two things have to be segregated and the use of negative space to separate “game” and “story” usually is to the detriment of the experience as a whole.

A particularly salient example to me right now is Bioshock Infinite. A few levels in, the player reaches a kids museum called the “Hall of Heroes” that rewrites the history of Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion in particularly racist tones. The point of it, I think, is to worldbuild and show how racist and backwards these Columbians are. As if it wasn’t obvious previously. To do so Irrational has two museum exhibits that the player walks through as racially insensitive cardboard cutouts pop out for (I guess) cheap scares. There are no enemies here (except one behind a closed door) and no pickups; the player simply walks through these long exhibits.

The problem is that if this is the respite before miniboss fights, it signals to the player that it is not because it looks dangerous and foreboding. If this is just supposed to be worldbuilding, then why could this not happen in an interactive way? Why have these long hallways with elaborate set pieces that do nothing? Having segregated washrooms in the arcade was effective and subtle worldbuilding. If the player stops to notice them, then they have done their job. But forcing players to notice them and wait for the privilege is just bad level design. Infinite has this in spades; large areas with tons to look at, but nothing to do.

I see this all the time when I am reviewing student level design submissions. Students create large sprawling spaces not because there is a need for it to be large, but because it is easy to do and makes the game look bigger. Just as your main interactions should say something, your lack of interactions should also say something. If your player is not making meaningful decisions in an area, there should be a good reason why or the area should be shrank or cut. I’m reminded of printing an email that has 10 pages of signature files under the substance of the email. We sigh when this happens and throw out the trees that died just to be etched with someone’s confidentiality notice or quote from Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. It’s a waste. And while games don’t have that dead tree cost, waste in games has its own cost.

People’s leisure time is valuable. They can choose to spend it watching TV, reading books, playing softball, juggling, or any of millions of other things. If you are a lucky enough for someone to have invested their leisure time in your game, you have a responsibility of using that leisure time to the most value you can manage. Your players chose to spend their leisure time on interactivity. Unless there is a good reason why, you have a responsibility to provide them value for their investment and trust by giving them that meaningful interactivity.