When we discuss game spaces, it is usually in the context of Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’ – a space, virtual or otherwise, that we enter to give “meaning” to our play. Without the magic circle of a marked-out playing pitch, twenty-three men would look rather silly frolicking all over the grass with an oval-shaped ball.
To my mind, though, game spaces are designed to encourage particular modes of play in their occupants. The fact that they may do this by giving meaning to the play takes a back seat to this actual goal.
Grand Theft Auto (the original) placed the player in a sprawling city, with cars and guns everywhere. The game offered missions at various phone booths if the player ever felt like gaining ground in the game’s narrative, but equally these missions could be ignored. No great restrictions were placed on the player’s movements within the city, so there was plenty of exploration to be done if the player was so inclined. The game space incentivised this by placing better cars, various shops, and secret powerups in specific locations. Because the locations of most of these exploration rewards never changed, the player was encouraged to learn the layout of the city. If the player did learn the layout, they would find the missions much easier, becasuse they usually involved driving in some way.
On the other hand, if the player focused hard on the missions (an explicit ‘meaning’ to the play), and did well, they would inevitably end up finding some of the secrets themselves, as well as getting a good idea of the layout of the city. So in the end, the game manages to inspire roughly the same modes of play in players who play the game in ways which seem very different indeed.
The theme of exploration continues in my other example, the genre known as ‘Metroidvania’. Named for the two most famous examples, Metroid and Castlevania (which both started on the Nintendo Entertainment System), these games place the player in a large, sprawling area, with lots of passages and hidden doors, etc. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, though, these games do not let the player roam wherever they please. Usually, all but one or two paths are blocked by locked doors or other obstacles. These can only be bypassed by proceeding along the open paths, and backtracking later when a new power or key is obtained. Again, learning the layout of the map is encouraged, but in a less organic way – if you get a new power/key but forget the place where it is needed to progress, you can be stuck hunting in every single room for it. So you are strongly incentivised to somehow record or remember each blocked path, and why that path is blocked.
The conclusion I’m drawing is that game spaces can encourage modes of play that the developer wants to see or thinks will benefit the players.
(Incidentally, if you are a fan of Metroid, there is a chance you will enjoy this video.)