GameDev Thoughts: How To Use Negative Possibility Space To Improve Your Game’s Design

Negative possibility space, a term seen perhaps too rarely in the gaming community, is the void left by a designer when a player has a certain expectation. This void must be filled in order for the player to be satisfied, as events leading up to that moment have led them to assume that a certain thing will occur.

An example of this is when, particularly in an open-world game, one devotes an extraordinary amount of time to, say, scaling a mountain. One expects some form of reward for one’s hard work, but when one finally manages to ascend the peak, one finds a barren mountaintop devoid of even the smallest acknowledgement of achievement. Any form of reward, no matter how small, would soften the blow, yet there is nothing.

This is, in large part, what differentiates good level designers from mediocre ones. Making the player feel as if their efforts have not been in vain is key to their continued enjoyment of the game — good level designers will always try to acknowledge what the player has done. Through constant playtesting, they fill out their games with unique and creative easter eggs which make the player feel as if they’ve discovered something new.

Yet negative possibility space is not confined solely to level design. It also plays an essential role in a game’s narrative. Here it’s particularly important that a player feel as if their choices matter, even if this is very rarely the case. If a game is too heavy-handed and makes it obvious that the outcome would have been the same regardless of the choice, the player’s patience will begin to wear thin, and they’ll stop caring about the “outcomes” of their decisions.

There are numerous ways to combat this, one of which is the method adopted by Telltale Games in their Walking Dead series. Generally, the player is presented with a couple of significant, wide-ranging choices from the outset and made aware of their outcomes. This conditions players to believe that their choices matter and could influence the course of events, even if, later on, many of them cannot. In addition, small messages often pop up after a decision has been made, showing the player the “consequences” of their choices and thereby filling the negative possibility space. Despite the fact that this is often the only consequence of their actions, most players don’t mind, as the simple acknowledgment that their choices matter is more important than anything else.

It’s important to remain conscious of negative possibility space when designing games, no matter what particular aspect you work on. Remembering that your players are only human and that sometimes a simple reward can go a long way, can be an easy way to make your game a far more enjoyable experience. Being rewarded for one’s ingenuity is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming, and on top of this, it’s fairly easy to build into one’s game.

Important Takeaways: Negative possibility space is the emptiness left when a player’s expectations have not been met, and that designers should make it an endeavor to fill this in wherever possible. This will not only leave a more satisfied player and a generally more enjoyable experience but foster innovation and outside-the-box thinking by acknowledging and rewarding it. Reward your players for being creative.

The Difference Between Good Graphics And Good Aesthetics In Video Games

A mistake that’s unfortunately all too common in the gaming industry, is to lump graphics and aesthetics together as if they were the same thing. This, needless to say, is false. The difference becomes obvious when one compares, for instance, a heavily stylised, cartoon-ish indie game with a triple-A title that aims for realism above all else. The former’s aesthetic, despite its presumably smaller budget and scope, will most likely hold up longer than the latter’s. This is because, if a stylised and well thought-out aesthetic is done correctly, it will outlast one that merely attempts to make use of the latest graphical technologies. A useful analogy is the comparison between an old painting and old film. Many films from the 80’s, through their heavy-handed use of special effects that wouldn’t age well, look terrible by today’s standards, whereas a painting from even hundreds of years ago can still blow modern gallery-goers away. This is because, rather than simply attempting to use the latest technology, which is doomed to become outdated at some point or another, these painters made a conscious effort with regard to a timeless style.

Stellar graphical horsepower does, of course, have its uses. It allows for more fidelity and detail, which is never, by itself, a bad thing. However, one must bear in mind that graphics alone do not determine whether a game looks good or not, which is, at the end of the day, what most players want. This is done through aesthetics, which are so much more than just visuals. The term “aesthetics” encompasses every aspect of the game; aesthetics refer to a game’s style, rather than simply its technical visual capabilities. For the sake of simplicity, however, this article will focus purely on visual aesthetics.

Take, for example, the visuals of a graphical powerhouse game such as Crysis back when it was released, and compare them to those of Duke Nukem 3D. While the former’s graphics was indisputably superior, the latter stands up better to the test of time. Not only has the aesthetic of the early first-person shooters aged well, but Duke Nukem 3D possesses a unified, unique and highly recognizable art style, in which every enemy, weapon, and prop contributes to the player’s feeling of being an unstoppable badass. In this way, the game’s aesthetic not only looks good but supports and compliments the gameplay too. Crysis’ graphics, on the other hand, is now virtually indistinguishable from the myriad of other shooters, which is a disservice to an otherwise highly lauded game.

When talking about aesthetics, it’s also important to remember that one element can influence another and offset the balance quite easily, ruining the player’s immersion. For example, if the music for an otherwise excellent fantasy game is too reminiscent of a sci-fi title, a player can instantly be jolted out of the experience. Because of this, every aspect of a game must be crafted to fit together and serve the mechanics in a well-executed way. Therefore, the most important learning here is that graphics, while nice, exist purely to serve aesthetics. Regardless of the level of rendering, if there is no unified, clearly thought-out aesthetic, all is for naught.

Important Takeaways: Graphics are simply not the be-all and end-all of making your game look good. In fact, they are only one component out of many, all of which, combined, form a game’s aesthetic. If developers do not design their games with a certain aesthetic in mind, we will continue to see the trend towards excellent graphics and utterly forgettable games. Players, developers, and game reviewers alike should make a conscious effort to focus more on the aesthetics of video games rather than sheer graphical finesse.