For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how the cultural context of commerce and capitalism affects game design. In this extract from my master’s thesis a couple of interesting examples of this come to light, as I look at some theoretical readings of play space. I argue that RPG game worlds such as Skies of Arcadia are productivist and fragmented. This could reflect the commercial relationship between player and game developer, and the transactional role of cultural signifiers in a hyper-mobile age.
Theme parks, shopping malls and game worlds all share in common `place’ for entertainment purposes. `Any geographical, cultural, or mythic location […] could be recongured as a setting for entertaiment.’
These worlds are not representations of the real-world, but playgrounds for leisure pursuits. Like Disneyland or the Disney-themed RPG Kingdom Hearts, the game world is a `metaverse’ that contains a variety of barely connected styles and moments.
The fun lies in the variety, and the design of the game world
has to answer to this apparent fragmentation with structure and narrative.
Media theorist Scott Bukatman describes space design in theme parks as`simulated tactics’; specically, simulations of the derive of the situationists, an aimless passage through urban space. `There is no discovery that one is not led to, no resolution that has not already occurred.’
But even though the derive was described as aimless, it did aim to bring together the complexities of the city by giving shape to its psychogeographical fragmentation. The aimlessness was performative anti-capitalism, expressed in the famous wall graffiti, `Ne travaillez jamais’ – never work.
Arguably, theme parks and role-playing games configure leisure in a solidly productivist context. The theme park visitor has a limited time to experience as much as possible. Their entire exploration of the park is a series of transactions, driven by the hope that they might complete a comprehensive survey of the park to get maximum return on their ticket price. The role-playing gamer has unlimited time to explore the game space, but the game mechanics either encourage or demand productive behaviour, be this crafting weapons and items, carrying out services for non-playable characters who lack fighting skills, or completing a greater quest to save the world.
Any theoretical relationship between situationist derives and leisure spaces configured by entertainment industries should be complicated by this fundamental ideological difference, despite their common interest in the ludic. Nevertheless, reflecting on situationist psychogeographical experiments might shine an interesting light on the psychogeography of the Skies of Arcadia gameworld.
Guy Debord’s 1957 map of Paris, The Naked City represented Paris as a series of movements between fragmented and separate spaces. These fragments of Paris are intended to enable `the discovery of unities of atmosphere, of their main components, and of their spatial localisation.’
The homogeneity portrayed by conventional maps of the city is revealed to be only one possible discourse, while the The Naked City highlights distinctions and differences. The psychogeographic map presents space as a narrative, rather than as a `universal knowledge.’ The user of the psychogeographic map cannot achieve mastery over the city, while the conventional map is drawn up to give the user an all-knowing gaze over the terrain. What the psychogeographic map does provide is a guide to a subjective spatial experience.
The Skies of Arcadia game world is closer to a psychogeographic map than a cartographical survey. Arcadia is a set of seven entirely separate civilisations, connected only by the open sky. The world is defined by the differentiating factors of the six moons, with common global history lost in antiquity, and the present state of diversity headed for destruction through unification.
This fragmentation is intensified by the structure of the world as separate, floating landmasses which abruptly begin and end against the backdrop of a blue sky, not unlike the clear white of The Naked City. Even the in-game map is subjectivised by the fact that areas are only made visible on the map when the player has already visited them. The size of this map grows as the players discover more areas of the game-world, reflecting their own subjective sense of the growing scale of the game.
The subjectivised map of game space is reflective of a game world perspective that subjectivises all space. The camera is always positioned in close proximity behind the vehicle of movement, whether that is the airship or the on-screen character, and the vehicle anchors the rotation of the camera as an invisible pivot point. The world is always viewed from this personal angle, never from the god’s-eye, all-seeing view of strategy games such as Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Just as in the virtual reality camera described by Lev Manovich, the players use the controller to move the character deeper into the game world and rotate the camera around the character; or rather, to rotate the game world around the camera.
Spatiality is discovered through the relative movements of character, camera, and space. Seeing spatiality as performative and dependent on movement brings user agency into our analysis, rather than purifying game space as a static entity separate from its interaction.