Exploring the Territory.

Games are about the exploration of space, both in the physical sense of exploring a virtual environment, and the abstract sense of exploring the possibility space provided by the game; the mechanics available and the dynamics that develop from them.

In both cases there are two distinct types of explorable territory: functional and logical. The first type are locations that provide some form of functionality and this is the more common type of territory, in fact without any functional territory there would be no game. The second type of territory is found less frequently, and in some games doesn’t exist at all, these are locations that don’t provide a specific function but that exists simply because of logical or contextual consistency; such space should exist so it does.

Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is made up almost exclusively of functional territory. No matter where you go there is always something happening, some purpose to the location, a function to perform. You are funneled through functional territory with little scope for exploration beyond a limited number of rooms outside the critical path.

Thief: The Dark Project 01
“I once caught a Burrick this small!”

Thief: The Dark Project on the other hand is a title made up of large areas of logical territory. There are some locations that must be visited to complete the objectives required for each level, but these are the minority. Levels in The Dark Project are build to represent real – or at least plausible locations – they are castles with kitchens, bedrooms, and bathrooms. Some of these locations may contain loot to steal or non-player characters to interact with but few of which are critical to completing the game. Certain locations may even be entirely devoid of anything beyond the physical world geometry itself.

Logical territory in the physical game world is there to encourage exploration, it does not serve a purpose in terms of completing the game but can be used to provide narrative context. Consider the many mise-en-scène moments in BioShock they generally don’t occur in areas you are required to visit, but in areas off the beaten track, areas whose existence nevertheless makes sense in the context of the world.

Functional and logical locations also exists in the abstract, in the territory that defines the possibility space of a game. Function territory in this sense are the mechanics that are required to actually play the game on a basic level. Logical territory is those mechanics that serve as support to the core systems; they exist for verisimilitude, or player self expression, or they are derived from logical interactions of functional mechanics; they are not vital to the completion of the game.

Quake III Arena is a game whose mechanics are full of functional territory. Movement controls are limited to those that have a direct impact on the game and each weapon has only one function. The exception to this being the ability to rocket or grenade jump (using the concussive force from an explosion to increase your natural jumping height). This is a logical mechanic, not in the sense that it actually makes any rational sense in terms of actual explosions, but in that it is a mechanic developed from the logical dynamic relationships of “rockets cause explosions”, and “explosions impart movement forces upon player characters”.

Again, The Dark Project is an example of a game that makes heavy use of logical territory in its possibility space. The mechanics of movement, and basic interaction with objects in the world all exist in the functional territory of the game. Without such basic skills it would be impossible to progress. Beyond this functional territory there are a range of possibilities that exist because they make sense in terms of the world fiction (the bow and the various elemental arrows) or because they are based off logical interactions between other mechanics in the world (water arrows used to clean blood stains off the floor). Exploration of this logical territory is not required for progression but doing so provides a variety of options that can be used to supplement the central mechanics.

The extent to which games make use of logical territory is an indication of the extent to which the games allow for explorative play. Play that exists not because it fulfills a purpose, rather because it is a logical extension of the existing mechanics.

Each game has a different distribution of functional and logical territory, sometimes this distribution can change over time. Locations that initially only existed to serve the narrative can later take on specific purposes in the game. This can be seen in Far Cry 2 where the numerous towns and buildings throughout the world can switch between logical and functional territory depending on the current mission. A fortified settlement can be a momentary distraction one moment and a vital mission location the next.

A focus on functional territory, in both the physical and abstract sense, leads to experiences that are often described as ‘linear’; there is little room for exploration. What these games do offer is a much more focused experience. When each location, each mechanic, is included for a clear reason that territory can be tuned to provide the desired emotional and psychological response; the intense action of Modern Warfare or the skill focused purity of Quake III Arena.

A focus on logical territory leads to ‘free-form’, experimental, experiences where there is a greater scope for exploration and player expression. The more logical territory that exists the more redundancy is present, and thus the more likely two different players are to have a different exploratory experience. The downside is that such games can’t reliably provide the form of emotional of psychological impact that experiences based on more prescribed functional territory can. The very fact players can ‘take them or leave them’ means designers have little control of the exact circumstances by which you encounter and explore logical territory.

Functional territory defines the landmarks on the explorable terrain, while logical territory is everything in between. Without the former there would be no game, without the latter what game there is would lack variety and context.

15 thoughts on “Exploring the Territory.

  1. Interesting post, Justin. As I was reading it I tried to figure out which kind of games I like more, but I’m not sure if I’ve decided. I think for me it depends more on the level of detail. I’m not a fan of space that isn’t “functional” in some way, so an empty storage closet, for example, is frustrating, but if it has something of interest inside, like a diary or note scrawled on the wall, that’s great.

    So I guess I’m not a fan of logic for logic’s sake, and would prefer all logical space to be functional as well. I’m not impressed by a bathroom in a game without function because if it wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be thinking, “Where do these guys go to the bathroom?”

  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow Of Chernobyl is a good example of a game with a lot of logical territory, there are entire buildings that really serve no function. Because of that though you often never know what to expect and so can be kept constantly on edge, as the purpose of a location (Functional or Logical) will often be unknown. The pace of such games is generally slower and more explorative. They can feel like a sprawling novel full of sub plots and bit part characters.

    More linear games are over more immediately engaging as everything is right there and you are constantly being entertained. I’ll can sit down with Heavenly Sword, or such, and blitz through it nonstop as the pace is so much faster and more filmatic.

    All the games I’ve brought up I’ve really enjoyed though at different times and for different reasons.

    I find myself drawn to different games at different times, I’ll often sink hours into titles with a greater focus on logical territory such as Shadow of Chernobyl or Far Cry 2 because there is so much scope for self expression.

  3. I’m finding this an aspect I love of Fallout 3, but which I did not initially embrace. There are spots you can go to for which you may not yet have a quest, or never will, but which are fun to explore nonetheless. These entire areas are optional, some not even offering a large enough reward for the time expenditure, but I find myself enthralled with these spaces nonetheless.

    I suppose unlike Travis, I enjoy these spaces much more versus the more linear driven, go here, do that, then go here, do this, and have no room for exploration motifs.

  4. In line with Travis’ comment, game spaces that have been created without any functional use are also drains on game dev resources. If they have logical use that can then serve functional use (via emergent gameplay), they can be useful, but a row of empty lockers all carefully modeled with no actual use or storytelling function is just a waste of dev time, money and data footprint.

  5. Instancing can cut down on a number of the development costs associated with repeated assets, You only need to create a single locker model and resuse it.

    Shadow of Chernobyl is a good example of a game that does include rows of empty lockers, and networks of entirely empty rooms. The lost in functionality is, I feel, made up for in the increase in atmosphere.

  6. Very interesting post. I stumbled upon your blog through Corvus (how else?!) and intend to now keep reading it.

    I found an intriguing statement by Martin Hollis in regards to GoldenEye on this very issue of necessary/functionless space: “There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay. But it contributes to a greater sense of freedom, and also realism.” I blogged about this in regards to the game space of the game, but I think it has an interesting relevance to this conversation. I find myself agreeing with Hollis, and those in this discussion who have suggested that non-functional spaces lend much to atmosphere. Really, then, these spaces are in fact functional: they are atmospheric spaces.

  7. I found that the games that fall on my nerves are games that are mostly functional and then have some territory that I guess are meant to be “logical” but fail at it by being so damned uninteresting. I think that happens when a game fails to build an interesting story with a living breathing world. I have those corridor shooters with empty rooms blocked by a desk as an example. The designers decide to put “logical” rooms to recreate some kind of envrionment, but as they’re not “functional” they just put some half-assed excuse for you to not go in there (“sorry, you’re a Navy Seal but a card box is blocking your way so you can’t go in”).

    COD4 succeeds in its level design and world creation because there’s always something to do and the pace is so damn perfect. Plus the environments are original (Pripyat) and the storytelling and the incredibly goodvoice acting supports the whole thing. Plus you have instances like the choppe or the plane that adds variety to all that.

  8. In narratology, the distinction you draw is know as the distinction between functions and “completants”. At it’s core a narrative structure is something that can be stretched and shrinked alike. You can shrink it by only using the functions. You can stretch it (endlessly) by filling the “space” between two functions with as many fillers you like.

    You describe the logical space as something that does not really carry further the plot, but rather is about describing characters etc in a broader sense. Again that is what narratology says about completants or fillers: That these are not about the core functions (action that move forward the plot), but that they give us a broader picture about those who carry out those act.

    A game/story would collapse if you remove a function, because the gap that the removal of the function creates makes it impossible to maintain the narrative logic that is needed for a meaningful experience. This is not the case for fillers/completants (what you call logical space). The plot would continue to be what it is if we remove them, but we probably wouldn’t know so much about the characters etc as we would have known if we would have kept the fillers.

  9. @altugi: I can’t say I’m too surprised to find I’ve been thinking about ideas that others have already examined.

    Could you point me to some articles on narratology that detail this concept? I’d appreciate seeing how others have already approached the topic.

  10. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean to say you’re just re-discovering the wheel. I wanted to say that similar concepts have been developed in narratology and that it might be worth to look into those as well. Just for the sake of maintaining multiple perspectives or maybe as a way to refine and downsize the vocabulary of game studies.

    I like your article a lot and it is valuable to me especially because it allows me to re-establish a connection between games (game studies) and the n-words :) (narrative, narratology).

    As for books and articles:

    Seymour Chatman’s “Story and Discourse” is a very useful source that summarizes narratology very well. The part that explains “functional” vs “logical space” (to use your terminology) is somewhere at the beginnings where he discusses story “cores” and “sattelites”. He also refers to earlier works of Russian Formalists like Tomashevski and then to the works of Tzvetan Todorov, who speaks of “motifs associé” and “motifs libre”. Roland Barthes maintains the distinction between “noyau” and “catalyse”.

    Roland Barthes has an article called “Introduction to the structural analyses of narratives” (it’s a bit old, 1966, but it lays the foundation). The second chapter that deals with “functions”, and proposes a total of four categories in regard to functions and fillers (it defines two subcategories for each). I think you would love to read and discover that article. It would help you a lot to expand your notions of functional/logical space and delve deeper into how it all works in games.

    Btw, you can find these Barthian categories being re-used in Chatman’s book. The illustration at the end which depicts the “narration process”, presents cores, fillers and their subcategories as part of the “telling” of a story.

    I hope that was helpful! :)

  11. In my opinion, some games focus too much on exploration. When logical territory is added in, it increases atmosphere. When that territory is added to the map merely for the purpose of exploration, it is converted to functional territory. When most logical areas are filled with useful items the player is more focused on traversing every single area. Each time I play a game like this, it seems more choreographed, as if the level designer wants me to visit everywhere for the purpose of grinding.

    These two different territories should be used to emphasize each other. For instance if Call of Duty were to have logical spaces, not containing any enemies, around the boundaries of the battlefield, the player would turn around. Or like in S.T.A.L.K.E.R, when areas of logical importance (an empty appartment) emphasize areas of functional importance (a nuclear reactor surrounded by mutants).

  12. “The exception to this being the ability to Rocket or Grenade Jump (Using the concussive force from an explosion to increase your natural jumping height.) This is a logical mechanic, not in the sense that it actually makes any rational sense in terms of actual explosions, but in that it is a mechanic developed from the logical dynamic relationships of “Rockets cause Explosions”, and “Explosions impart movement forces upon Player Characters”.”

    Wow, then I guess it’s also a logical mechanic that if you hold forward + strafe and rotate in midair, you accelerate, because the game always rounds irrational numbers up, and because it uses trig to calculate diagonal velocities, those numbers are always irrational and thereby rounded up. The logical dynamic of these two forces creates strafejumping.

    Your breakdown and distinction between logical versus functional really breaks down here. This isn’t a logical mechanic, it’s a functional one. Rockets function the way they do because it is functional, because it creates diversity in the weapon set.

    Additionally, did you know that the plasma gun also has a blast radius that pushes the player up? It can be used to run across walls. It’s featured in the first minute of this quake defrag video.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAjXCWHVJh8

    Is this a functional or logical mechanic? I think the distinction between the two, at least for mechanics, is rather useless or arbitrary. It makes more sense with thief’s level design, being based on physical actual places, though all sorts of areas in thief I’ve seen that have been blatantly illogical in the service of function.

    1. Under the given definition I think all of those things are logical mechanics to an extent, they all stem from logical interactions of existing systems; they exist within the simulation because logically they should. Strafe-jumping is potentially an exception because it requires an understanding of how the engine internally handles numbers which is not something that can be intuited as a logical consequence of the interactions of existing mechanics.

      Rockets are projectile weapons that cause explosive damage, that is their functional design and the role they fill in the weapon set. Rocket-jumping is not an explicitly defined mechanic, it emerges from the interactions of other elements of the game, ones that are defined.

      For what it’s worth I first wrote this five years ago, and I’m less willing to be absolutely binary in my distinctions now; I also feel attempting to match this concept to the abstract was largely a mistake.

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