The space between: when games allow our imagination to fill in the blanks

Cartoonist Scott McCloud wrote about the way comics depend on readers imagining the action between the panels. Do games ever give us the same freedom to wonder?

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

I’ve been trying to get closure. Not the therapeutic kind. The opposite in fact: something challenging, something unsettling, something hard to get your head around.

This closure was described by Scott McCloud in his 1993 book, Understanding Comics. McCloud’s book is a comic that shows us what comics are capable of. Closure is just one of the medium’s many powerful tricks. 

McCloud describes closure as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole”. He draws us an example. In one frame a crazed man swings an axe towards a cowering victim’s head. In the next we see a city skyline at night. The text above the rooftops reads “EEYAA!!”

What just happened? Did the victim die? How can we know? We didn’t see it happen. McCloud chose not to show us.

Let’s investigate. We can presume that the axe hit the victim and the victim screamed. But the hit happened in the white space between panels, in the void between what we were told. We can’t know that the victim was hit, and we don’t know if it’s him that’s screaming. We just make up what we can based on the information given to us on either side. Because of this lack, you could, says McCloud, argue that whatever happened to the victim wasn’t actually McCloud’s fault. If a crime was committed, it was the reader wot done it.

I love that idea – that creator and reader (or viewer or player) can collude in this way. It suggests that creative heavy-lifting isn’t completely the creator’s job. In fact, art can be more powerful if the reader, viewer or player’s imagination is left to it. It’s a little risky, allowing a stranger to intuit the meaning of a murderous white space. One person might read “EEYAA!!” as a victim’s cry, another as a police siren, another might hear a parrot’s squawk. That’s the thrill.  

The match cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Filmmakers know this. That tiny horror story – the axe swinging, the scream – would work just as well on screen as on the page. A match cut from bone to spaceship uses closure. Even if we don’t have time to methodically fill in the eras between caveman and spaceman, we understand intuitively what Kubrick is telling us: that time has passed, technology has advanced and some things – namely, human behaviour – haven’t changed since the stone age. Closure is a cinematic device.

Does closure work in games? Past cut scenes, which usually mimic film, I can’t really figure that one out. In fact I wonder if gaming is anti-closure, because a lot of games rely on the player seeing what is going on in real time. Interactivity and immersion – the hallmarks of what most people call a good game – require it. It doesn’t do to wantonly break the connection between player and game world too often. Modern game design dictates that you can’t let the player wander too much. But you have to let them wonder. 

BioShock (2007)

I think the best developers use something like McCloud’s definition of closure to enhance the immersive experience of their games. One of my favourite games, BioShock, strikes the balance between show and tell. It’s set in an underwater utopia in which greed, addiction and insanity have swamped society. Rapture is in ruins, and it’s your job as the player to piece together what happened by exploring the world. Admittedly there is less room for misinterpretation (the game is peppered with audio logs that explicitly tell you what happened), but for an early example of allowing the player space to think and to dream, as a game that resists the urge to paint in all the detail, BioShock is extraordinary. Not a lot of games do this, still. 

Dark Souls (2011)

Similarly, FromSoftware’s Souls games – action RPGs known for their intricate lore – have, I think, developed a passionate fanbase partly because they give players just enough information to allow them to build the world themselves. You pick up a sword, and its description text tells you something about a former owner. You fight an enemy who arrives injured from a previous battle.

These details are woven into the mechanics, the gameplay and the environment of the games. But they don’t get linked together by the developer; instead the connections are made by the player. Online this can lead to a fascinating situation whereby the authoritative voice about the games becomes the playing community. Through millions of cumulative hours of play the Souls games become an exercise in mass storytelling and the players themselves the narrators. They fill in the gaps between McCloud’s frames. They live in the white space. 

There’s some magic here, I think. That when we fall for something – a film, a TV show, a comic book, a game – we do so because our imagination melds with the creator’s. We give a bit of ourselves to their world in order for their world to feel more real. 

McCloud says as much. He writes about being a kid. He says that he would walk around sure that it was his imaginative investment in the world that made it so: “I had a recurrent daydream that the whole world was just a show put on for my benefit, that unless I was present to see things, they just … ceased to exist.” 

In culture – particularly games – that’s literally true. The world doesn’t exist for the player without them in it. That can be a curse. What if the player misses a crucial item and quits because they can’t progress? For them the item never existed so the world just stops. Because of this, a lot of games tend to over-explain, to make it extremely obvious what the player has to do in order to progress. Frustration is to be avoided at all costs. So there should be an obvious objective with an obvious path to achieving it. No more white space. 

But then, what’s left to dream about? I think McCloud is arguing for art that risks boring or frustrating the reader/viewer/player because the pay-off, if a connection is made, is priceless. 

Think about his two frames as cliff faces. We’re on solid ground on either one. The excitement, the uncertainty, the danger, lies in between. Great art leads our imaginations to the edge. It’s up to us to jump.

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