Imposing limitations on the player is a fundamental part of game design. However, the challenge arises in deciding where these limitations are implemented and how the story, world and mechanics support these limitations to provide internal consistency. Observing this in terms of the navigational space available to the player, I want to briefly look at a great example of how incorporating heavy spatial limitations can affect the level of interactivity in the environment.
When studying level design, it may be uncommon to analyse the use of space in the point-and-click adventure titles popular in the 1990s, yet that is exactly what engrossed the majority of my interest whilst playing through Jordan Mechner’s 1997 cult classic The Last Express. The ambitious adventure game plays out in a simulated real time fictional story of a 3 day train ride on the Orient Express in 1914, the last few days prior to the outbreak of World War I. Though there are countless things you can admire with this game, from the fantastic rotoscoped animation to the simulated real-time actions of the characters, I want to try and specifically concentrate on Mechner’s decision to use a train as a confined space of play, and how the scale of game space dictates the level of interactivity.
The Last Express had a huge budget for its time, and aside from the large amounts of money being poured into the unique rotoscoped animation process, the production and design team put a lot of effort into fleshing out the environment – just six train cars in this case. The result is that the train became an incredibly coherent and realised environment, with the all the characters on board from the passengers to the staff, established as convincing, distinct individuals. As the game evidences, putting all your resources into developing a smaller realised game space can allow for a more detailed, fleshed out environment with a believable level of interaction. In the case of The Last Express, it allows you to freely explore the train cars, engage in conversation with characters and observe your surroundings, actions which become context dependant due to the simulated real-time movement of the train and the behaviour of its passengers. Mechner is attempting to tell a non-linear story in a very small, controlled game environment, by taking the limited amount of objects and characters available and providing variable outcomes depending on the time the player chooses to interact with them. This encourages fleshing out small game spaces with mundane, seemingly irrelevant interaction points that serve a purpose only at a specific time in the game story.
“I think of it as a non-linear experience in the most linear possible setting, that is, an express train” – Jordon Mechner
While The Last Express evidences that confined spaces seemingly favour adventure games, when trying to generalise the application of heavy spacial limitations in game design there’s clearly multiple things to consider. For example, smaller spaces may mean less room for emergent gameplay to emerge in such a small area, and even a heavily detailed small room in an adventure title could turn into a pixel hunt with a lack of player direction. On the other hand, open world titles pride themselves of level of freedom governed by the player, but it of course becomes increasingly difficult to decide what the player can and cannot interact with in relation to the design and technical limitations. An often referenced idea in exploring a heavily spatially constrained environment is Warren Spector’s One City Block RPG. Spector’s dream involves constructing a single city bloc,; a highly-detailed building simulating the lives of the people that live there and the objects that reside with in it. It’s an idea seemingly popular with designers; to create an inhabitable space rich with believable interactions that is supported by the consistency and constraints of the world and it’s underlying systems.
15 years on from The Last Express, its clever use of space is still just as inspiring. It remains a great example of using a highly constrained environment to implement believable mechanical constraints, by providing internal consistency and supporting the overall narrative.