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.