Speaking through Space: Analyzing Spatial Communication in Walking Simulators

Thursday Aug 16   03:45 PM to 04:45 PM (1 hour)
Recent years have seen the emergence of a new genre of videogame termed ‘walking simulators,’ where players explore a world in first-person perspective. These works emphasize narrative and setting instead of kinetic challenge, often tackling literary themes such as sexuality in Gone Home (The Fullbright Company 2013), the nature of narrators in The Stanley Parable (Galactic Cafe 2013), and modes of perception in The Witness (Thekla Inc. 2016). While many walking simulators use verbal and written communication in the form of voiceovers and texts strewn around their worlds, a growing subset do away with these almost entirely. In these works, the experience of wandering through an evocative place is primary, and the narrative is communicated through the design of the environment, its architectural elements, and the intended procession(s) through it (Jenkins 2004; Ching 2007). I will propose a methodology for analyzing these spatial works, developed out of research in embodied cognition, illustrating it with examples from the work NaissanceE (Limasse Five 2014).

Spatial experience is embodied: the materiality of a place, the activities it holds, and the affect of wandering through it are all framed by the affordances and perceptual biases of the human body. Scholars in a range of fields including philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and cognitive science have explored the role of the body in shaping and constraining human experience (Clark 2008; Gibson 1979; Johnson 2007; Lakoff and Johnson 1999; Shapiro 2011), and their findings provide a robust starting point for analyzing spatial experience, physical or virtual (Calleja 2011). The structures revealed by work in embodied cognition can be used by designers to craft meaningful environments (Goldhagen 2017), and they can likewise be used to analyze the potential impact of a work on its (embodied) player.

The methodology I will present spans a spectrum from physical interactions to mental structures of understanding. Gibson’s theory of affordances (1979) provides a robust way of mapping the interactions possible in an environment, and the routine motions that arise. These result in ‘image schemas,’ “recurring structures and patterns” (Johnson 2007, 21) of embodied experience such as CONTAINMENT, CENTER-PERIPHERY, and PATH. Image schemas gain meaning through associated affects (e.g. claustrophobia from containment) (Johnson 2006), and through a process of cognitive metaphor where concrete domains are used to structure abstract reasoning (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 2003). Examples include primary metaphors such as HAPPY IS UP, SAD IS DOWN and conceptual metaphors such as A PURPOSEFUL LIFE IS A JOURNEY (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 61). Finally, mental frames (also called ‘scripts’) develop for situations that a person experiences often (e.g. visiting a restaurant [Lakoff and Johnson 1999, 116]), helping them rapidly interpret new settings (Taylor et. al. 2006, 78; Stockwell 2005, 77; Goffman 1974). Environmental elements can serve as primes, triggering the use of a schema, metaphor, or frame: footsteps in snow primes a ‘path’ schema, and a room with a counter and tables may prime a ‘bar’ frame (Goldhagen 2017, 59). I have selected NaissanceE (Limasse Five 2014) as a subject, since it exemplifies the spatial storytelling this type of analysis can help unpack (Martin 2017).

In sum, I will argue that the spaces of walking simulators convey meaningful schemas, metaphors, and frames through both the player’s experience of the image schemas that arise during interaction, and their perception of environmental primes. Together, these elements provide players with loaded fragments for constructing a narrative.
University of Alberta
Graduate Student

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