Sunday, November 19, 2023

(Not) Game Genres, pt. 12: Comparing Visuospatial Structures and Terminology

Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces

Over the past several posts in my (Not) Game Genres series, I've reviewed numerous systems for analyzing video game space in comparison to my Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces system. This post serves as an overview of the Taxonomy and a summary of the previous posts together in one place.

Each chart below presents the 

Mark J. P. Wolf's Elementary Spatial Structures of Video Games first published in "Inventing Space: Toward a Taxonomy of On- and Off-Screen Space in Video Games" from Film Quarterly (Fall 1997, vol. 51, no. 1). [previous post part 1 and part 2]

Steven Poole's Construction of Space in Video Games from Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video Games (2000). [previous post]

Espen Aarseth and his team's Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games from "A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games" (in DiGRA '03 - Proceedings of the 2003 DiGRA International Conference: Level Up2003). [prevous post]

Clara Fernández-Vara and her team's Ontology of Spatial Configurations from "Evolution of Spatial Configurations In Videogames" (in DiGRA '05 - Proceedings of the 2005 DiGRA International Conference: Changing Views: Worlds in Play2005). [previous post]

Dominic Arsenault and his team's Game FAVR from "Game FAVR: A Framework for the Analysis of Visual Representation in Video Games" (in Loading… Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, vol. 9, no. 14, 2015). [no individual post, but discussed here and here]

The Game FAVR system is designed to analyze game visuals, and explicitly does not concern itself with game spatiality. Even so, I've adapted the core structure of Game FAVR (especially with the Three Image Planes) as the basis of my own system to analyze visuospatial qualities.


The gameworld is the defining qualities of a game’s virtual environment, as defined here by its topology and spatiality. A game may, and often does, feature several gameworlds divided into separate “worlds,” “levels,” or “campaigns,” depending on the game’s terminology.

The Topology of a gameworld deals with how the game's world is mapped out and what happens when one reaches the edge of the world. There are several single-screen "wraparound" games, most notably Pac-Man (Cylindrical) and Asteroids (Toroidal). Additionally, some smoth-scrolling games use these types of topologies, including Defender (Cylindrical) and Bosconian (Toroidal). These topologies aren't just for 2-D games, either. Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro's horror game demo P.T. also features a Cylindrical topology where the player's path is on a loop. Other spatial systems lump these different topologies under the "wraparound" concept, though Poole does note that games like Asteroids are Toroidal.

As yet, the only game I've found that uses Cubic topology is E.T. for the Atari 2600.

To me, the spatial structure of the gameworld is expressed through the player's affordances in navigating that world, what Clara Fernández-Vara and her team call the "Cardinality of Gameworld." A game's visuals (what Clara Fernández-Vara would call "Spatial Representation") may appear three-dimensional, but a player's movement may only be restricted to a two-dimensional plane, or only a limited grid of discrete spaces.

The Continuous/Discrete Spatiality dichotomy is the only point where Aarseth's system intersects with my own.

This miscellaneous category expresses additional details about how the player understands the gameworld, such as the presence of a Mini-Map or Non-Euclidean Geometry. Gameworlds are also classified by presence and type of Gravity, though this quality has more affect on the player's ability to navigate in a game rather than giving a sense of spatiality. I will probably move this aspect into the player's affordances.

Wolf is the only other author to note that "mapped" spaces (mini-maps) are important to a player's sense of a game's space. A mini-map provides information about what is happening off-screen, allowing the player to think about an entire environment as a whole rather than just what is in front of their eyes. Wolf also makes mention of non-Euclidian geometry, without specifically using that term.

Framing Device

The frame, or the game screen, is the player’s window on the game world. This defines how the frame pans across or trucks through the environment and what directional controls the player has over the frame. 

The frame's mobility across the gameworld deals with what Clara Fernández-Vara and her team call the "Spatial Configuration." The directions the frame may move across the gameworld is what they call the "Cardinality of Gameplay." These are both different from the "Spatial Representation" (if the game looks like it has 2-D or 3-D objects) and "Cardinality of Gameworld" (the axes along which a player avatar may move through the gameworld). Personally, I find the terms Cardinality of Gameplay (defined as "how the player can move around the gameworld") and Cardinality of Gameworld (defined as "the way in which the player can navigate the space") unclear, as the terms "move" and "navigate" are not explicitly defined and differentiated.

Image Planes

Similar to the guidelines of the Game FAVR, each game image is divided into the conceptual planes of Agents, Environment, and Background/Foreground.

The agents are any interactive characters or objects in the game, including the player avatar and projectiles. The environment is the tangible space where agents navigate through and around. Background/foreground was chosen as more commonly understood terminology to replace Game FAVR's “off-game environment.”

Projection methods are formal, detailed qualities about how the objects in the image plane are “drawn” to the screen. This is close to what Clara Fernández-Vara and her team refer to as "Spatial Representation." The Game FAVR deals with formal qualities of game visuals and my system closely mirrors it. I adapted detailed, standardized terminology used in computer graphics from  "Planar Geometric Projections and Viewing Transformations" by Ingrid Carlbom and Joseph Paciorek (in Computing Surveys, vol. 10, no. 4, 1978).

The apparent projection angle is either Dynamic or fixed at a specific angle above the horizon line. Each fixed projection is measured or estimated for the frame and rounded to the nearest 15° increment between (horizontal view) and 90° (overhead view) (see Figure 8). From the initial qualitative research performed, many games use , 90°, 35° (the standard dimetric (or "pixel isometric") projection angle), 15°, and . The Game FAVR is the only other system that deals with projection angles.


Other systems analyzed here focus solely on the spatiality of digital games. The Game FAVR explicitly serves as a tool for analyzing the graphic presentation of digital games. My Topology of Virtual Spaces is designed as a tool for analyzing the visuospatial qualities of digital games and, unsurprisingly, uses many non-overlapping details of the above systems to achieve this goal.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

(Not) Game Genres, pt. 11: Clara Fernández-Vara's Evolution of Spatial Configurations in Videogames

Evolution of Spatial Configurations In Videogames

The following text is adapted from my paper, "A Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces" (Rowe, unpublished):

Clara Fernández-Vara and her team at Georgia Tech (José Pablo Zagal and Michael Mateas) took issues with Mark J. P. Wolf’s Elementary Spatial Structures of Video Games ("Inventing Space: Toward a Taxonomy of On- and Off-Screen Space in Video Games," Film Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 1, 1997) (as described in part 6 and part 7 of this series of blog posts) when they developed their definitions of spatial properties of digital environments. They felt that, “his analysis lacks a historical perspective, and the strict comparison to film misses what the intrinsic properties of the digital medium bring to videogames” (Fernández-VaraZagal Mateas, "Evolution of Spatial Configurations In Videogames," Paper presented at the DiGRA '05 - Proceedings of the 2005 DiGRA International Conference: Changing Views: Worlds in Play2005). The team worked on their own vocabulary for defining the spatial configurations of video games as part of the Game Ontology Project that had just started. The team focused only on defining how computers generate visual spaces procedurally, so they explicitly excluded any games that import spaces from other media (such as text adventure and full motion video games).

Their analysis focused on the relationship between the game space and the screen: “The screen is the basic unit of space in videogames, since it frames the interface” (Fernández-Vara et al., 2005). The screen is more than a window onto the digital world, it is also the yardstick by which the entire space (which they dub the “gameworld”) may be measured. A gameworld that extends beyond the limits of a single screen is segmented into screen-sized fragments.

The team also focuses on defining game features by their cardinalities: the spatial axes those features are restricted to. Gameplay is defined by the cardinality of player movement. Spatiality is defined by the cardinality of the gameworld. Separately from both cardinalities, the spatial representation may be in 2-D or 3-D. Finally, how the screen frame moves across the gameworld may be defined as single-screen (entire gameworld shown on one screen), discrete (entire screen refreshes to show a new location), or continuous (smooth-scrolling).

Ontology of Spatial Configurations in Videogames, as presented in "A Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces" (Rowe, unpublished). Note that the "(includes wraparound)" note for Continuous Spatial Configuration should instead by added to Discrete Spatial Configuration.

This Ontology of Spatial Configurations (my term, not the Georgia Tech team's) has been an influence in my own work, especially the concept that the screen is the "basic unit of space" in digital games (which I posted about previously). My own approach differs on several counts, as shown in the following comparison of the Ontology with my own Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces.

Spatial Representation

This refers to the whether the game's world is presented as either a 2-D or 3-D environment. This does not take into account how the player navigates through said environment, which falls under Cardinality of Gameworld. The Ontology includes isometric projections (referred to as "perspective" in the Ontology) in the 3-D category, as they present the appearance of three-dimensional forms.

My theory posits that a sense of spatiality is strongly related to both a player's affordances for navigation in a virtual space and the visuo-spatial configuration of that space. Together, these aspects define the spatial paradigm that may be used as a guide for the knowledge and techniques for creating games of a specific artistic style.

In my Taxonomy, the concept of Spatial Representation is taken up by the Projection Methods used for the various Image Planes that make up an image (the conceptual Agents, Environment, and Background/Foreground planes). This system is heavily based on the Game FAVR system developed by Dominic Arsenault and his team at the University of Montreal (Arsenault, Côté, & Larochelle, "Game FAVR: A Framework for the Analysis of Visual Representation in Video Games," Loading… Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, vol. 9, no. 14, 2015) and goes far into details beyond 2-D or 3-D Spatial Representation.

Cardinality of Gameworld

This refers to the dimensions along which the player avatar may navigate through a game's space. This may or may not match with the dimensions of Spatial Representation.

My Taxonomy mostly focuses on how a player avatar is able to navigate through a virtual space, For example, Zaxxon presents a 3-D Game Space that the player flies through, but Q*bert's pyramid of cubes is really a 2-D, Triangular Grid of Discrete Game Spaces, with the unusual background layer a character may jump into to meet their doom.

Cardinality of Gameworld in the Ontology matches closely with my categories of 2-D and 3-D Continuous Spatiality in my Taxonomy. The Taxonomy further accounts for layered 2-D spaces and node networks of discrete spaces (such as in chess and the afore-mentioned Q*bert).

Spatial Configuration

This aspect strictly with the screen as a framing device on the gameworld. The Georgia Tech team defines this as "the dichotomy between discrete and continuous spaces."

This dichotomy considers how the virtual space is contained within [the] frame, whether the gameworld is encompassed within a single screen, or extends beyond its limits. In the second case, the representation must be segmented, and the player will experience that space in a fragmented way.

This segmentation can be realized either in a discrete or a continuous way. Discrete segmentation occurs when the screen contains one fragment of the gameworld, which the player navigates; when she reaches the limits of that fragment, the screen refreshes to a different segment of that space... This segmentation may also affect the gameworld, e.g. the player character can move from one segment to another, but the enemies will not follow the character to the next segment (e.g. Prince of Persia, PC, 1989). On the other hand, the space is represented continuously when the screen is showing with a scroll... or moving the point of view of the player as she moves around. (Fernández-Vara et al., 2005)

This game screen is what my Taxonomy calls the Framing Device and the closest thing to Spatial Configuration is Frame Mobility, which is loosely influenced by this very Ontology and by the Game FAVR system developed by Dominic Arsenault and his team at the University of Montreal (Arsenault et al., 2015).

"Single-Screen" spatial configuration is Fixed Frame.

"Discrete" spatial configuration is Discrete Frame Mobility. This is sometimes referred to as "page flip" scrolling, like in Pitfall or Adventure on the Atari 2600.

"Discrete" spatial configuration also includes "wraparound" single screens (there is an error in the Ontology of Spatial Configurations chart I copied from my document, above). These are what I define as Cylindrical or Toroidal Topologies.

"Continuous" spatial configuration is Smooth Scroll Frame Mobility.

"Locked Scrolling" is Auto-Scroll Frame Mobility. This is what the Game FAVR system refers to as "Authoritarian Framing Mobility."

Note the major difference here between the Georgia Tech team's concepts of discrete and continuous spaces and my Taxonomy's concepts of discrete and continuous spatiality, which I adapted from Noah Wardrip-Fruin's How Pac-Man Eats (2020) and wrote about explicitly at the end of my previous post in this series

Cardinality of Gameplay

This section deals with the axes along which the player is able to move the frame across the gameworld. This specifically excludes single-screen games, as the frame in that case is fixed and the entirety of the gameworld is presented on the screen.

One-Dimensional Gameplay is where the player may move through the world along a single axis, such as in side-scrollers and vertical shooters. This is akin to how I define the 2-D Frame Mobility Direction by the axis along which the frame may move (Horizontal Axis Only, Vertical Axis Only, or Diagonal Axis Only (like Zaxxon) and how many directions the player may move along that axis (One Direction or Two Directions).

Two-Dimensional Gameplay allows for scrolling along both the X and Y axes. This is equal to my 2-D Frame Mobility Direction definitions of Horizontal and Vertical Axis or Any Direction. Additionally, I have a category of Horizontal or Vertical Axis to account for the peculiarities of some Nintendo NES/Famicom games (such as Metroid).

Three-Dimensional Gameplay is accounted for in my 3-D Frame Mobility Direction classifications of moving the camera by Yaw, Pitch, Roll, and Into the Z-Axis.


The Georgia Tech team's Ontology of Spatial Configuration was a strong influence on my own work, although their Ontology and my Taxonomy are notably different. By their own words, the Georgia Tech team set out to define "basic spatial configurations" using "a few basic features" (Fernández-Vara et al., 2005). Conversely, my system is intended as a formal system to inform production and detailed analyses of digital games as aesthetic objects.

(Not) Game Genres, pt. 10: Espen Aarseth's Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games

Espen Aarseth is an academic who has long been an evangelist for the importance of the concept of virtual spatiality to understanding digital games. I've posted about Aarseth previously in regards to digital games as texts. Aarseth is well-known in game studies for the concept of "ergodicity" in games.

Aarseth tackled the subject in question in "Allegories of Space: The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games" (in Cybertext Yearbook 2000, edited by M. Eskelinen and R. Koskimaa, Jyväskylä Finland: University of Jyväskylä, 2001). In it, he argues that, "the problem of spatial representation is of key importance to the genre’s aesthetics," and that spatiality is, "the defining element in computer games." He analyzed the evolution of digital games with regard to spatiality and concluded that computer games could be classified by how they implement spatial representation. At the end of the article, he lamented that he could not do the task himself, so "a thorough classification… would need much more detailed analysis than there is room for in this study."

A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games

In 2003, Aarseth partnered with Solveig Marie Smedstad and Lise Sunnanå to write "A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games" (in DiGRA '03 - Proceedings of the 2003 DiGRA International Conference: Level UpUtrecht The Netherlands: University of Utrecht, 2003), presented at the first DiGRA conference. As quoted from the paper, this is an attempt to codify a model for classifying different "games in virtual environments." Aarseth et al classify games across 15 "dimensions" that are grouped under five different headings: Space, Time, Player-structure, Control, and Rules.

For my analysis, I focus on the heading of Space, which the paper describes as follows:

Space is a key meta-category of games. Almost all games utilize space and spatial representation in some way, and there are many possible spatial categories we could use, a typical one being the distinction between 2D and 3D games. However, this distinction seems to be mostly historical, since the early games were mostly 2D and the modern games are usually 3D. Also, it does not allow for a good representation of board games, which are two-dimensional in movement, but three-dimensional in representation. This problem holds for many computer games as well.

From this description, the Multi-Dimensional Typology specifically does not deal with the dimensionality of the space presented on the screen (2-D or 3-D). The paper derides the distinction as "mostly historical," with modern games tending to fall into the 3-D category. With the rise of indie games, nostalgic interest in older game styles and aesthetics, and the emergence of new game platforms (such as smartphones), 2-D games have remained in vogue in the years since this paper was published. 2-D spatiality is now a tool for game developers to use in order to best present their creation, rather than a concession to technological limitations.

Aarseth's &co's define three dimensions under the heading of Space: Perspective, Topography, and Environment. Each game may be classified by where it falls on each of these conceptual dimensional axes. 

Perspective: Omni-present, Vagrant

The perspective is considered omni-present if the player is free to view the entirety of the game space at will, like in many strategy games. Some of the game may be blocked by "fog of war," for example, but the player may still move around, typically as a disembodied camera.

The perspective is considered vagrant is the player's view is restricted to following a game avatar. These games may be classified by their visual perspectives as either 1st person or 3rd person.

Aarseth's "perspective" dimension deals with the ocularization of the game - who's eyes do we see the game through? Dominic Arsenault and his team at the University of Montreal include this concept of ocularization in their Game FAVR analysis system ("Game FAVR: A Framework for the Analysis of Visual Representation in Video Games," Arsenault, Côté, & Larochelle, 2015), based on the works of François Jost ("Narration(s): En deçà et au-delà," Communications, 38, p. 192-212, 1983) and Stam, Burgoyne, & Flitterman-Lewis (New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, and Beyond, London/New York: Routledge, 1992) in creating tools for studying storytelling in films. Arsenault et al modified the methods to account for digital game scenes like menu screens that do not appear in films.

My typology deals with the construction of virtual spaces and navigation through those spaces, not with ocularization.

Topography: Geometrical, Topological - 

A game with continuous freedom of movement is geometrical. The example of Quake Arena allows for player movements "in all directions, with millions of alternative positions, and the player's position in the game-world can be moved one miniscule increment at a time." This is what I call Continuous Spatiality in my own taxonomy.

A game with discrete, non-overlapping positions to move between is topological. The example given in chess, where only one piece may occupy any of the 64 discrete squares on the chessboard. This is what I call Discrete Spatiality that may be further categorized into Grid or Node Network. A chessboard is an example of a grid.

Environment: Dynamic, Static - 

dynamic environment is one where the player can manipulate and modify it during gameplay (such as constructing bridges and digging in the dirt in the game Lemmings).

A static environment cannot be changed by the player. A player opening and closing doors in an environment merely changes the status of those doors, thus the environment would still be considered static. Similarly, environments where the player may build buildings (Warcraft or Age of Empires) without meaningfully changing the environment still count as static.

My typology deals with the construction of a spatial phenomenon experienced by the player, not the ability to change an environment. This dimension does not match anything in my system.

Figure 1 from "A Multi-Dimensional Typology of Games" showing titles organized along three dimensions of Perspective, Topography, and Environment

The other Multi-Dimensional Typology dimensions deal with other aspects of games, such as how time flows, number of players, adversaries, and the ability of the player to save their progress.

The dimensions under the Space heading and my Taxonomy of Virtual Dimensions do not have any overlap except for the concepts of Continuous and Discrete Spatiality. I describe the differences between the two as follows in my paper, A Taxonomy of Virtual Dimensions (Rowe, unpublished):

Two of the earliest contenders for the title of “first video game” are Christopher Strachey’s Draughts (1951) (Figure 4) and Willy Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two (1958). Each title is pioneering in its own right: Draughts is probably the first game a computer game program and the first computer game with graphics on a cathode ray tube while Tennis for Two is the first known two-player action game. Analyzing these two games for their presentation of spatiality would help us articulate what is important about these two works.

Draughts has what Noah Wardrip-Fruin would describe as Discrete Spatiality. The entire game space is “divided into non-overlapping spaces, and each game action involved moving a piece from one discrete space to another with no in-between position available or meaningful” (Wardrip-Fruin, How Pac-Man Eats, 2020). Each square on the checkerboard is a separate point in space. The checkers do not move between the points as there is no “space” to move through. Many strategy games work in this same manner today. Sprites may animate as if they are moving between spaces, but the game only treats them as being in one space or another, never overlapping multiple spaces.

Conversely, Tennis for Two is the first example of Continuous Spatiality in a digital game, which “requires that there be many potential positions in the virtual space (so many that moving between them creates a feeling of continuousness)” (Wardrip-Fruin, 2020). It is also worth noting that time in the game is discrete (time tracked by alternating game turns of any length) or continuous in each example.

Monday, November 6, 2023

(Not) Game Genres, pt. 9: Steven Poole's Construction of Space in Video Games

In my previous chapter in this series about game spatiality, not game genres, I reviewed Nicholas Caldwell's paper, Theoretical Frameworks for Analysing Turn-Based Computer Strategy GamesCaldwell based his methodology for analyzing strategy games on Steven Poole's use of Charles Peirce's typology of signs as found in Poole's book, Trigger Happy (2000).

Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Video Games

Trigger Happy (Poole, 2000, Arcade Publishing)

Trigger Happy was an early text that took a serious look at digital game history and made attempts to analyze the aesthetics of such games, comparing them to techniques established in painting and cinematic arts. This was an era when academia all but ignored video games, one year before Espen Aarseth co-founded the journal Game Studies, back when we still referred to digital media as "new" media. Thus, the task of penning this book fell to a journalist, not an academic. Steven Poole has written articles for The Guardian, Edge, The Telegraph, and other publications, along with a number of other books. Since Trigger Happy's publication, it has been cited many times in refereed journal articles and books.

[References to page numbers in the analysis below refer to the "2007 web download edition" that Poole freely released on his website for a limited time and is under the CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 license. It can now be accessed on]

Digital Games as Art

Aside from the aforementioned typology of signs analysis work, Poole's work corresponds with my research in a number of aspects, including the need for a language to speak to the unique aesthetic qualities of digital games: "Videogames are an increasingly pervasive part of the modern cultural landscape, but we have no way of speaking critically about them" (pg. 30). Video games were not generally accepted as a serious form of art. Then again, neither were films or jazz music in the early 20th century, yet now they are generally accepted as important aesthetic forms of human expression worth of critical study and analysis. Poole predicts that digital games will hold the same appreciation by the middle of the 21st century (pg. 32). Hopefully, we are well on our way to beat that timeline.

Game designer Chris Crawford similarly stated that "computer games constitute a new and as yet poorly developed art form" over a decade earlier in The Art of Computer Game Design (1984, Osborne/McGraw-Hill). This pioneering book is now regarded as the first full publication devoted to what would later be named game studies (Wolf and Perron, The Video Game Theory Reader, 2003, Routledge). Crawford stated that we need to establish "a framework for criticism" as part of our "path to understanding" digital games as an art form (1984). Since Crawford's and Poole's books were published, game studies scholars have adapted "frameworks for criticism" from "new art history" methods used in Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial theories, for example.

I argue that the last missing element for Crawford's "path of understanding" is "our principles of aesthetics" (1984). We have the structure to critique digital games, but still lack an agreed-upon language for discussing digital games as an art unto themselves and "speaking critically about them" (Poole, 2000).

Poole cites a French text, L'univers des jeux vidéo (Alain and Frédéric Le Diberder, 1998, la Découverte), which includes digital games as the "tenth art." The six classical arts are music, poetry, architecture, painting, dance, and sculpture. The Le Diberders add new arts for the 20th century: television, films, graphic novels, and digital games (Poole, pg. 29).

The "ten arts" concept reminds me of Henry Jenkins' declaration that digital games are one of the "lively arts" (Jenkins, "Games, the New Lively Art" In Handbook for Video Game Studies, 2005, MIT Press, pp 175-189). Jenkins refers back to Gilbert Seldes and his early critical text on pop culture, The Seven Lively Arts (1923, Sagmore Press). Seldes defends "lowbrow" entertainments that he terms "lively" arts (including slapstick comedies, musical theater, popular music, vaudeville, and comic strips) against the seven major "hibrow" arts. At that time, the classical six arts referenced above had been updated to seven modern arts: painting, sculpture, literature, architecture, theater, film, and music. Jenkins declares that digital games are a new lively art, "one as appropriate for the digital age as those earlier media were for the machine age" (Jenkins, pg. 177).

Art History of Games?

"Videogames have... repeated histories of representation in art, on jittery, caffeine-fueled fastforward. But it is immediately apparent that so far, they have only reached a surprisingly early stage in that development, for by the eighteenth century in painting the classical ideal of beauty based on some cosmic mathematical order was already being challenged, and the shortcomings of perspective were already being identified. Videogame scenery, being an artifact of computers, is clearly still in thrall to the god of mathematics. Of the myriad post-perspectival ways of seeing such as impressionism or cubism, there is as yet no sign in the apprentice draughtsmanship of videogames" (Poole, 2000, pp 236-237).

I often feel that AAA studios seem like the French academic painters of the early 1800s, highly skilled at rendering ever-greater levels of visual fidelity, delicate interplay of light, and beautiful forms. Digital games only slowly creep toward what might be considered our versions of the modern art styles. Occasionally, a Grim Fandango or a Kentucky Route Zero will come along, paying tribute to one or more of these "modern" styles of last century. Rarely does a game attempt a sort of space-bending reality commonly seen in cubist, surrealist, Dadaist, expressionist, and other modern styles.

Digital Game Visuo-spatiality

Trigger Happy also includes a "brief history of the construction of space in video games" (pg. 236) in chapter 6: "Solid Geometry" (pp 199-239). Poole looks at the touchstone moments in stylistic presentations of space that bring developers closer to the "Holy Grail" of game environments: "a 'virtual' space that the player could inhabit" (pg. 204).

These stylistic innovations were afforded by means of technological innovations and advances in display and computing hardware. However, Poole states, "It is important to emphasize... that innovations... did not at once render earlier forms obsolete" (pg. 212). Innovations added more tools to the game developer's toolbox rather than just replacing the old tools. As an example, scrolling screens did not eliminate the need for fixed-screen games. Robotron 2084 (1982) works so well as a frantic, exciting game precisely because the player is trapped on one screen, in a claustrophobic space where there is nowhere to run. An interview with Robotron creator Eugene Jarvis confirms this was a intentional, aesthetic choice:

"With Robotron, I just stuck the guy on one screen... There's two hundred robots trying to mutilate you, and there's no place to hide... It was an incredible sweaty palms experience. It's just confinement. You are stuck in that room. You can't run down the hallway. You can't go anywhere else. You're just totally focused. A lot of times, the games are about the limitations. Not only what you can do but what you can't do. Confining your world and focusing someone in that reality is important." Quoted from Joystick Nation by J. C. Herz (1997, pp 78-79)

Poole intentionally likens the history of the projection of virtual spaces to innovations that developed in art history, especially with painting but also in cinema, "Videogames have rehearsed other histories of pictorial representation and come up with imaginative and original visual strategies themselves" (pg. 206). 

The following is an analysis of Poole's terminology (including some terms from Poole's pseudo-sequel, Trigger Happy 2.0 (2013), as compared to my own Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces. Poole did not name each type of projection method, sometimes merely describing This is similar to my analysis of Mark J. P. Wolf's "Elementary Spatial Structures of Video Games" (1997, 2001) that I posted previously (part one, part two).

  1. No environment - "In the earliest videogames... the environment had no characteristics of its own: it was not terrain, but simply a function of the relations between objects or a means by which time could pass while one object traveled across the screen, so that everything did not happen simultaneously" (Poole, pg. 207). I essentially describe this as no environment image plane, but Poole gives a compelling description for what is essentially nothing.
  2. Fixed screen - "The boundaries of the TV screen limited the play arena to a fixed, small size, and thus limited the type of action available to game designers... The screen was a prison" (pg. 207). This is a fixed framing device with no mobility (in other words, the game "camera" doesn't move).
  3. "Wraparound" screen - "Topologically, the spatial arrangement of Asteroids, though it looked flat, was actually equivalent to the surface of a torus (a doughnut with a hole in the middle)" (pg. 208). Just like Poole describes, I say this is a toroidal topology. Another form of "wraparound" screen may have cylindrical topology (like Pac-Man).
  4. "Scrolling" screen - "The superficial limits of the screen were further eroded by the invention of scrolling" (pg. 208). Poole's example of Defender uses smooth scrolling framing device with horizontal mobility.
  5. "Ineluctable scrolling" screen - "Unstoppable, ineluctable scrolling." "For reasons rarely explained by the developers of arcade games such as Scramble, your ship had a minimum speed below which it could not operate... moving forwards at a certain rate, towards your doom, was existentially obligatory... in sidescrollers and upscroller, the game scrolls regardless of your input. It's more like an enemy than a tool, even as it is also the engine of your apparent progress" (Poole, Trigger Happy 2.0, ebook, 2013, chapter 2). An auto-scrolling framing device.
  6. "Parallax" scrolling - A multi-planar background image plane.
  7. "Isometric perspective" - Regarding Zaxxon, "You could see three sides of an object rather than just one. And now, crucially, the game screen was not just a neutral arena - it had become an environment" (2000, pg. 214). For a time, "the most technologically sophisticated means of building a 3D world" (pg. 216). In comparison to "scientific perspective," "Foreshortening implies a subjective, individual viewpoint, so its absence in isometric graphics, along with the elevated position of survey, conspired to give the user a sense of playing God in these tiny universes" (pg. 216). This is dimetric projection environment plane and agent plane. "Isometric" has become a catch-all phrase for a number of related axonometric methods of projection (isometric, dimetric, and trimetric).
  8. "Perspectival" - Games like Battlezone use "scientific perspective" (pg. 205). The Battlezone example uses 2-point perspectival projection environment plane and agent plane.


"I will reinvigorate the retro game-reviewing vocabulary, since that will be the only way to distinguish oneself in an increasingly crowded media-critical space from the hordes of reviewers who are all now like Huizinga this and affordances that" (Poole, 2013).

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Summer 2023 Summary and Conclusions

I am happy to say that I was able to wrap up summer with some hands-on research at a terrific pinball parlor and video arcade while on an out-of-state road trip.

The author on a research trip to Spinners Pinball Arcade

I always prefer to experience these works on original hardware and in their proper context, and this location did not disappoint. There was a lot of machines, including many that I've recently been writing about. Also, I got to play some rare finds like Hercules (1979), the largest production-model pinball table and Atari's swan song in the pinball industry. 

This summer, I completed a digital project prototype and researched the evolution of game structures in the 1979-1982 period.

Taxonomy of Digital Spaces Project

I completed a prototype of my project to explore different spatial paradigms seen in digital games (spatial paradigm defined as the visuo-spatial configuration of a virtual space and the player's affordances for navigating that space). My first test paradigm is the "Filmation" paradigm that became popular on the ZX Spectrum in the 1980s and is still used in games to this day (such as in Elephantasy: Flipside). My prototype approximates the environment and navigation of Knight Lore, probably the first game to use this spatial construction.

"Filmation" games use a pixel dimetric method of screen projection, common for "isometric" games of the era (such as Zaxxon and Q*bert). The prototype allows the player to press the "T" key to change projection method to true isometric (like Monument Valley) or pixel trimetric (like Crystal Castles). Some room arrangements become unclear or ambiguous with certain projection methods, making the spaces difficult for the player to comprehend or navigate. This may or may not be intended, as the level designer may use an ambiguous layout to trick the player with an illusion or create a difficult navigational puzzle to solve.

In true isometric projection, my character appears to be in the corner of the room...

...but it turns out that there is space between the top platform and the walls

My development blog posts:

Initial plans and research

Refinement of terms




I have been able to replicate the "fake 3-D" environment from and older computer game and replicated it fully 3-D, polygonal game data. Reconstructing in this manner allows me to quickly test different projection systems (three options so far) without having to redraw or recalculate all of the art assets needed to display the space.

Next steps:

In the future, I need to expand my project to project other types of spatial constructions and navigation methods. My work on researching a "cartoony" spatial paradigm (see below) gives guidelines for what types of projections, "camera" angles, and types of environments would be best to start with.

The intent is to create a tool for testing and remixing different game qualities on the fly to see how these options change the player's phenomenological experiences of the same virtual spaces (say, playing a 2-D platformer game in first person). The point is not to replicate an entire game experience, but focus on the spatial qualities and navigation affordances. This type of tool is helpful in game development and other forms of research. This will also serve as a "museum piece" of various spatial paradigms in games, not dissimilar to Traversing Virtual Dimensions, my other project presenting the early development of digital avatar navigation.

Toward a "Cartoony" Spatial Paradigm

Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) paragon of cartoony gaming

Additionally, I performed some research on the 1979-1982 game era when what I call "cartoony" graphics developed and became popular both in the USA and Japan.

I see a lot of correlation between the visual techniques of early digital games and traditional cel animation, so I feel there is something to uncover at this point where games started to hew closer to cartoons (and I don't just mean Dragon's Lair). Both forms of media can use similar techniques to create a sense of space and enhance visuals.

Parallax motion conveying deep space in Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Parallax motion conveying deep space in Moon Patrol (1982)

Both examples above use scrolling graphics on layered planes to create hybrid, yet cohesive, images. In each case, the vehicle appears to move through deep space, yet the two vehicles never change their x positions in the respective images.

Many other techniques are common to both cel animation and game graphics: limited color palettes, simple shapes, repeated animation cycles, characters with big heads to show facial details, etc.


My research uncovered that there is not one but several "cartoony" spatial paradigms that evolved from one another during this golden era of arcade games with character. These will be directly useful in expanding my own lexicon of paradigm variations and options to incorporate into my digital project.

Also, even though my work specifically does not deal with game genres, I found myself coining new terms to understand these related families of games ("maze looter," "maze tunneler," "ladder/digger platformer").

This work is closer to the diachronic "art history" of evolving aesthetic styles I seek to create and I feel that my taxonomy of virtual spaces successfully conveys the exact spatial changes between game styles. 

How did digital games get a "cartoony" look? Part of the reason is because of technological advancement was required before detailed player avatar graphics and animations (think sprites) could convey a sense of character. ROM chips allowed far more detailed graphics than earlier diode-based images. ROM chips started to be used in arcade games by 1974 but the first "cartoony" game Cutie Q wasn't made until 1979. Toru Iwatani was likely inspired by the immensely popular anime Obake no Q-Tarō that he watched as a kid when he made an aesthetic decision to incorporate big-eyed, round, ghost-like characters in the game (he admits it was his influence for Pac-Man). Note also the similar "Q" designs in the titles of both:

Obake no Q-Tarō title card with upside-down smiling obake "Q" from the 1965 anime series

Japanese Cutie Q arcade instructions with similar "smiling Q" logo at top

It seems clear from my research that platformer games evolved from maze games. This is not surprising as "ladder" games have been considered a type of maze game. What is interesting is that Heiankyo Alien*, a little-known game here in the USA, may have been an influence on the biggest games of 1980 and 1981: Pac-Man and Donkey Kong (through influence on Space Panic).

*Fun fact: I bought my copy of Heiankyo Alien for Game Boy from fellow Drexel instructor and game history researcher Adrian Sandoval.

This section of study ends at 1982, which means there are plenty of other important examples that followed. 1983 would bring Bag Man, Bomberman, Congo Bongo, Crystal CastlesMappy, Mario Bros.Tapper, Track & Field, and more. All this in the midst of an arcade market slump and an outright crash of the home game market in the USA. I plan to continue developing this series in the future.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Toward a "Cartoony" Spatial Paradigm? pt. 5 (Maze Tunnelers)

Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces

This post continues my exploration toward evaluating a spatial paradigm of "cartoony" digital games, which evolved through the early 1980s. Part one analyzed two important early titles, namely Cutie Q and Pac-Man. Part two looked at some Pac-Man clones and Frogger. Part three analyzed some "maze shooters" and "maze looters." Part four explores how maze games evolved into platform games.

In the change from maze games to platformers, the view of the game environment changed from a plan view (bird's eye view, like a map) to an elevation view (side or front view). A new type of "maze tunneler" game developed that used a platformer-style elevation view that added an important aspect of gravity to the gameplay. Although characters don't fall, certain obstacles can fall toward the bottom of the screen and crush characters in their paths.

These games share some affinity with Frogger, in that they are maze games with dynamic environments. The major difference here is that the player has the power to create the shape of the maze.

The Adventures of Robby Roto! (a.k.a. Roto)

The Adventures of Robby Roto! arcade (1981)

Bally Midway released The Adventures of Robby Roto! (1981), a creation of Jamie Fenton (Datsun 280 ZZZAP, Gorf) and Dave Nutting (Gun Fight, Wizard of Wor).

See some raw footage of Robby Roto exhibited at the 1982 Chicago CES, including "Ron Robot" (a.k.a. Defender and Robotron 2084 designer Eugene Jarvis) trying the game and admitting, "I think it's beyond me."

Robby is a happy red Pac-Man-oid character with a mining helmet and tiny legs. His quest is to find the trapped miners (yellow unhappy faces) and rescue them (turning into happy faces) and lead them to the mine exit. Bally Midway seems to be staying close to cute aesthetic of Pac-Man, which they had license to arcade game for in the USA.

Robby can dig new tunnels in the game environment, but his power is more limited than later examples of this type of game. Robby can only carve out the "soft dirt" blocking the main shape of the maze - the player cannot dig outside of this maze into the "hard rock." Another difference is that there seems to be no sense of gravity in the game. However, this does appear to be the first of the "maze tunneler" type of games. Bally Midway marketing VP Stanley Jarocki described it as "an underground maze game."

The rights to Roto eventually reverted to Jamie Fenton, who has given permission for the game's ROM to be shared and played for non-commercial purposes using a tool like MAME.

Roto Visuo-Spatial Analysis: Just like Pac-Man, except the environment image plane is rendered in an elevation orthographic view.

Dig Dug

Dig Dug arcade game (1982)

Namco launched Dig Dug in Japanese arcades in March 1982 (Agaki, pg. 52) and Namco and Atari brought it to the USA one month later in April (Agaki, pg. 126). Atari boasted it as "a new and exciting type of maze game" where the player avatar (the titular Dig Dug) can tunnel their own mazes anywhere in the earthen strata of the level environment. Two types of enemies must be defeated: the cute, goggle-eyed "Pooka" and the fire-breathing "Fygar." The player can shoot a limited-range pump weapon in order to inflate and destroy enemies or may trap them under falling rocks before they can reach the surface and escape. Enemies prefer to follow the player-dug tunnels but may also freely "phase" through the untunneled earth.

Dig Dug is one of the first games where the player has agency to design the layout of the environment by tunneling. Lady Bug (Universal Co. Ltd., 1981) is an earlier maze game where the player may move gates to change the environment, which I wrote about previously.

Dig Dug Visuo-Spatial Analysis: The game has similar visuo-spatial structure to that of the early platformer game Space Panic. One difference is that Dig Dug has minor background image plane (the flowers at the ground level) using an elevation orthographic projection.

The Pit

The Pit arcade (1982?)

Centuri released The Pit to arcades in the USA in April 1982 (Agaki, pg. 113) after licensing the game from UK company Zilec Electronics. The Stamper Brothers (who I've written about before) were tasked with rewriting the game code to work with the hardware that would be used in USA manufacturing. I am unsure of the UK release date, but it may have predated the Japanese release of Dig Dug.

The player avatar lands on an alien planet in a flying saucer at the top of the screen. They are tasked with retrieving at least one large diamond in the pit at the bottom of the screen and returning to their ship before aggressors can destroy it with their "zonker" tank.

The Pit Visuo-Spatial Analysis: While other games described on this page feature a continuous spatiality, this game is a simple grid of discrete spaces. The characters and falling rocks move one tile at a time. Otherwise, the spatial structure is much like Space Panic.

Mr. Do!

Mr. Do! arcade (1982)

Universal Co. Ltd. released Mr. Do! in Japan in October 1982 (Agaki, pg. 15) and in the USA in February 1983 (Agaki, pg. 139). Depending on your point of view, Mr. Do! may be seen as a crass copy of Dig Dug or as a refined evolution on the Dig Dug formula.

Mr. Do! was designed by Lady Bug designer Kazutoshi Ueda. The player clears a level by collecting all of the cherries on the screen. Huge apples replace Dig Dug's boulders and Mr. Do has the power to push them. Mr. Do can dig tunnels like Dig Dug and is armed with a bouncy super ball that can kill an enemy instantly.

I previously wrote about the sequel, Mr. Do's Castle (1983), an early platformer that has very different gameplay from this game.

Mr. Do! Visuo-Spatial Analysis: This game is very similar to Dig Dug, although the method of projection for the environment is somewhat ambiguous. Some game literature describes Mr. Do as a farmer collecting the cherry harvest from his orchard, implying a plan view of the orchard environment. However, the digging action and gravity towards the bottom of the screen must show the environment in an elevation view.

Boulder Dash

Boulder Dash for Atari 8-bit computers (1984)

Peter Liepa's Boulder Dash (First Star Software, 1984) was first published for Atari's series of 8-bit computers. Exidy bought the rights to create an arcade version in that same year.

Liepa may have been indirectly inspired by The Pit. Liepa was helping fellow computer game programmer Chris Gray refine and develop the physics for Gray's game, which played a lot like The Pit. Liepa instead developed his own game concept of digging for diamonds underground through a series of large, puzzle-like, challenging stages.

1984 is a bit late for the era of games that I've been looking at for this series, but this game has had a long-running impact with countless ports, sequels, and its own clones (I'm looking at you, Crystal Mines). Later maze-tunneler games tend to be influenced by Boulder Dash and tend to be action-puzzle games rather than pure action games.

Boulder Dash Visuo-Spatial Analysis: Boulder Dash uses the same grid-of-discrete spaces, checkerboard of tiles type of world as The Pit, but with huge game levels. The levels can't fit all on one screen, so it uses a smooth-scrolling frame mobility.

(Not) Game Genres, pt. 12: Comparing Visuospatial Structures and Terminology

Taxonomy of Virtual Spaces Over the past several posts in my (Not) Game Genres series, I've reviewed numerous systems for analyzing vid...