‘Possibility Space’ is a familiar concept in game design that has always resonated with me when it comes to understanding how we interact with games spatially and mechanically. Essentially, the term refers to a visualisation of all possible moves and states within a defined game space; representing the full range of interactions and possible outcomes available to the player. A well-crafted possibility space therefore constrains a player’s actions, and within a range that they understand clearly. This may be through physical exploration of the boundaries of the space, or through gaining an understanding of the mechanics by exhausting all possible actions available.
An oft used example is the extremely small number of moves possible in Tic-Tac-Toe, versus the near-unlimited amount of player states available in a game of Chess. In both cases, the physical constraints of the space are relatively small, but the possible moves and states that can emerge vary dramatically depending on the rules governing the space.
Eric Zimmerman states that we can attempt to understand the concept of a possibility space both metaphorically and literally. In a metaphorical sense, we can view them as “an abstract decision space or conceptual space of possible meaning”; referring to the underlying systems of the game that dictate the actions available to the player. Exploring the concept literally as a 2D or 3D space, we can focus on the organisation of spatial elements that guide and constrain the player’s actions. Here we can attempt to understand the space of possibility narratively, considering the impact that these spatial features may have on creating meaning.
Will Wright was an early adopter of the term possibility space, and regularly referred to it in a similar way to the ‘metaphorical’ interpretation mentioned previously. However some designers have favoured the more literal approach of the concept; and in particular have been exploring its connection to narrative design.
“Games create ‘possibility spaces’, spaces that provide compelling problems within an overarching narrative, afford creative opportunities for dealing with problems and then respond to player choices with meaningful consequences” – Warren Spector
Warren Spector, acclaimed for his work in narrative design and character immersion at Looking Glass studios, supports the fact that spatial features have a strong impact on the creating the narrative space of possibility. We can effectively view an individual game space as a ‘physical’ narrative place that guides and constrains the player. Another ex-Looking Glass designer Randy Smith; has also often used the term possibility space in regards to narrative. Randy believes that the creation of “honest and believable stories out of the possibility space” is the key to engaging gameplay. He states that as humans we have an innate desire to witness to stories resolve, and that framing these key narrative points as possibility spaces is a compelling way to understand storytelling in games.