The Art of Nothing: A Look at Negative Space within Videogames
One of the most important, though perhaps less considered, aspects of art is negative space. In traditional fine art spaces this refers to any space not taken up by the focal point or main subject of an image.
Let’s illustrate this with a painting by Rene Magritte:
In this portrait of his wife, Georgette, the negative space is marked by the cloud pattern. The positive space is, of course, the portrait itself. While the negative space might not initially seem as worthy of attention, it is as important to the composition as the portrait. In fact, Magritte was very aware of this fact, and plenty of his more cheeky paintings intentionally play with the relationship between negative and positive space. Let’s take a look at The Flash, also by Magritte:
In this painting Magritte takes what would generally be the focal point, the still life of the flowers, and gives it the properties of negative space by rendering it in silhouette, and then creates a second focal point within that space.
Here’s another example of playing with negative space, this time from surrealist graphic designer Shigeo Fukuda:
Due to the large contrast and outlines, the initial shape that appears are the black hands holding coffee and large black space in the center. Cleverly, these hands also coordinate with the negative space to form a second set of hands, creating an illusion where both the dark and light spaces can both be considered negative space.
Negative space is the reason why cropping a photograph can improve its quality. It’s also part of the reason image services like Instagram default to a square format, which makes it easier to frame an image and see what parts of a composition feel correct in the frame.
Negative space applies to more than images as well. Think of music and rhythm, about the space between notes. Those notes you don’t play are as important as the ones that are heard. The same concept can also be applied to fiction and cinema, where the space in between events gives time for those events to “breathe” and can frame them with contrasting moments.
These are concepts, I’d argue, that are also useful when talking about videogames.
Another way to think about negative space is space that is “unoccupied”. While the multimedia nature of games makes it easy to apply ideas of negative space from other media upon it, thinking about it in terms of unoccupied space allows us to consider the way designers shape our interactions in a different way. Take a look at what the fighting game community commonly refers to as “zoning”.
In simple terms zoning is the act of controlling the space between characters. This can be done by approaching and retreating, using low risk attacks to deny movement, and a variety of other techniques. This is important because the amount of space between characters will determine what options are available. At particular distances a character might be able to hit the other safely from a certain range, or pull off special move without fear of retaliation. So while the space in between characters may be considered “unoccupied”, the possibilities implied by it is just as important to the game.
The specific considerations of zoning and space control are unique to the genre, but plenty of other games and genres apply similar concepts. Games frequently challenge you to consider unoccupied spaces as both opportunities and danger zones, and to act on moment to moment changes in them. Consider the way scrolling shooters create “lanes” of bullets that delineate danger and safety. By using certain patterns of bullets, shooters can force players into certain positions, or let them push back and clear out spaces to give them room to breathe.
Let’s apply a similar logic to a videogame staple, the platformer. While there’s been a thousand thinkpieces on Super Mario World’s level 1–1, or the specific considerations of a singular game level, it’s useful to also think about them in terms of not only how the elements that are there encourage a specific behavior, but how unoccupied space contributes to those levels. I’m going to illustrate this with some screenshots from They Bleed Pixels, a game focused on tough platforming and combat that encourages the use of the environment.
They Bleed Pixels is a game that’s filled with spikes, saw blades and other very sharp objects. You’re never more than a few seconds away from an impaling. Even with the constant threat of pointed death looming over you, the way these obstacles are used can present a very different mood. In the screenshot on the left, the only unoccupied spaces are narrow corridors that snake throughout the space. Spikes decorate the walls while saw blades close in form behind. There are small dips and holes in the platforms that lend it a precarious feeling. Even the open spaces below and above the stage are filled with saw blades. These can’t hurt you, but they contribute to the mental stress of the situation. There’s a brief opening near the end, with three narrow slats of open space, drawing you in its direction and encouraging you to jump.
Now consider the screenshot on the right. There’s still plenty of sharp objects, but the footing is solid and there’s plenty of open space above and below you. There’s actually more enemies, but it feels less threatening because there’s more space to maneuver around in. It gives you more space to breathe. For a real world comparison, think about how you would feel about the room you’re in if the ceiling was five, ten, or twenty five feet higher. Even if practically there isn’t much use for higher vertical space, it would give the room a much different vibe.
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
Negative space is primarily thought of as a visual concept, and is easier to visualize in terms of imagery, but it can also be thought of even more abstractly, in the terms of pacing and moments of downtime.
This is part of what makes games like Life is Strange work. In LiS, there are moments where the game prompts you to take a break, to sit down, or lay in bed and take a moment to reflect and listen to the world around you. As Jessica Lachenal points out in On Life is Strange’s Empty Spaces and Quiet Moments, games are constantly asking you constantly more forward, to expose ourselves to continuous stimuli and to keep track of tons of different factors. By asking you to take a break it cuts into the tension and provides a temporary reprieve from the stress of both school and the larger oncoming disasters. The interaction here is more passive, but it’s just as important to establishing the mood and pacing as more active moments.
This need for downtime, for negative space, is also why action games feel the need to break up the game with puzzles. It might be hamfisted, but it breaks up the stress of constant stimulus. It’s also why some genres, such first-person shooters, can often feel so overwhelming and suffer at longer run times. There’s a trend toward filling every moment with action, but without a moment to breathe you can often create something that’s fatiguing to play. The best shooters know how to use negative space, not only within their environments and play, but within their pacing.
Consider the snaking corridors and J-Horror interludes of F.E.A.R., the open spaces and staccato gunfights of Halo or the rebel hideout in Wolfenstein: The New Order. All of these give breathing room to games that are otherwise very intense experiences. Instead of constantly attempting to fill every empty space, this downtime creates a more even experience.
By understanding Negative Space, in terms of visual concepts and moments of reprieve, we can gain a better understand of how both what exists in a space, and what’s left out, contributes to the experience. It gives us different vectors to approach and understand existing ideas. It can let us understand the value of cutting out what’s unnecessary, and give us let us understand games by looking at the way other media deal with negative space. So let’s take a look at what’s not there and think about in terms of the negative, for once.
Amr is the Editor-in-Chief of deorbital.media (@deorbital), and clickbliss.net (@clickbliss). These essays, and video essays, are made possible by contributors from Patreon by viewers like you. Thank you.