What can we consider 'negative space' in games?

Most art can be boiled down to “the arrangement of items into compelling structures.” It’s all form-based – visual arts, especially. The play of color delights the eyes, coalescing in images we recognize and identify with. In music, it’s the structure of notes – not just the individual sounds, but their relation in context to one another to generate melody. Art is structured shape and sound within which our minds and hearts can explore. Games offer massive constructed worlds which we inhabit, travel through and change.

There is a concept, though only dimly expressed in Western criticism, of “negative” space. In painting, this is white space – on one side, the unfilled canvas awaiting form, but also referring to the spaces between the subjects that the painting depicts. It’s a concept that straddles the creation of the art (the artist fills the white space, but not completely, so that the subject is distinct) and the experience of the viewer.

Every medium has its own negative space. Musicians fade in and out of the not-form of silence, constructing sound, perhaps following the blueprints of a conductor, perhaps improvising a custom edifice that will never be heard again. Sculptors carve form out of the physical world itself, carving away the not-form to reveal the form. There are gaps between the words and stanzas of poets – meter itself shows the diversity of such gaps – and, as Ralph Richardson argued, acting “lies in the pauses.” Regardless of vehicle, all art and design is a play on form and not-form.

Think of a newspaper, and how busy it feels. Compare it to this:



There is an elegant term for this concept in Japanese – “ma.” Ma refers to things disparate but unified by a perspective. Ma is “gap,” “pause,” the space between two presented objects. Of ma, Lao Tze wrote:

    Thirty spokes meet in the hub,

    but the empty space between them

    is the essence of the wheel.

    Pots are formed from clay,

    but the empty space between it

    is the essence of the pot.

    Walls with windows and doors form the house,

    but the empty space within it

    is the essence of the house.

Ma exists only in perception; there is no actual open space (after all, the universe is brimming with molecules all the way through!). But we attach less inherent meaning to “unstructured” space. The act of our focus generates form, and everything else becomes the backdrop. Understanding the play between the subject and the backdrop is essential to mastering any art at all, regardless of whether that backdrop is canvas, silence, an empty stage or the basic rules that govern a digital world.

Ma can be a valuable lens for both game creation and game criticism. The easiest way to explore this is by example. Let’s look at Dark Souls, because it has a couple of good instances of gaming ma.

Since the time of Pong, games have had soundtracks. Music is emotionally powerful, and can add an additional layer onto an experience. Final Fantasy VII would be diminished without it’s breathless, driving battle music, which also adds an auditory partition between the over-world and the combat engine; Halo would be diminished without the reverent chant of its main theme, which accentuates the feeling of wonder the player experiences on the ring-world; Oblivion would be diminished without its heroic refrain, which serves to remind the player of their role in the world even while they’re dueling with mud-crabs. Left 4 Dead uses music as cues to prepare the player for what’s about to happen.

Dark Souls takes a minimalist approach to its soundtrack. Music appears in only two instances – when the character is at the tiny hub of the massive open world, Firelink Shrine, where violins offer a melancholic sense of safety and fragile community, and during boss fights, in which bombastic composing crashes from the silence to bring the player rushing into the high-risk encounter.

The rest of Dark Souls is full of uneasy silence, broken only by the clash of metal, whistling of wind, and the groans and roars of the horrible monsters that inhabit Lordran. That silence, more than anything, is responsible for the loneliness of the game – it’s an absent silence, one that the player will often want to be filled by something. A Dark Souls that, like Oblivion, regularly evoked a beautiful, heroic theme as the player traveled would not work nearly so well. This is an instance of ma. The absence of music serves a distinct role. It enhances those instances when music does play, or when another denizen of the world does speak, and it allows for the player to inhabit a desolate and un-heroic world.

Dark Souls’ narrative is also a study in ma. There’s no cohesive, fully-presented myth like that in most fantasy games, and non-player characters don’t recite the history of their world to you. We understand that this world is crumbling around the heads of the gods, but beyond that our place in the world is dimly understood. Once we’re plenty of hours in, far enough to have rung two bells and awoken the primordial serpent, he sets us on a path. We are, of course, the Chosen Undead that will Set Things Right; this much could be assumed. But the rest of the world is strung upon the old bones of the ancient world. There’s history in Lordran, not parceled out via audio logs and books, but ingrained in the living world, for us to make as much or as little of as we care to. It’s a minimalistic approach that serves the game well – this remains a world forever beyond us, and its distance and mystery make it simultaneously compelling and terrifying.

So far, we’ve applied ma to narrative structure, but it’s just as applicable to design. For instance, a game that normally allows high levels of avatar freedom might, for a scene, restrict the normal methods of interaction with the world to great effect. I think specifically of the scene immediately following the final boss fight in Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. The player stands above The Boss (that’s her title in-game), who is wounded, and is given only one option: to follow orders and fire a bullet into the head of Snake’s old mentor. But the game doesn’t automate this or house it in a cut-scene like most of the dramatic moments in the game thus far. This time, it places the player back in control of Snake, making the player complicit in pulling the trigger. It waits, the game world breathing and still, until the player realizes that he has to take the only action available to him. It’s a deeply compelling union of avatar and player.

Ma can also be applied in terms of total design philosophy. A well-designed, artful game is one that has a perfect amount of options for the player. This might mean excluding some popular systems. In Dark Souls, dialogue trees would diminish the vision; it would be fluff, crowding in on the form of what the focus should be just as surely as adding in vivid, colorful background elements to the Mona Lisa would detract from the intended subject. Negative space, when applied to the rule-sets of games, refers to those necessary limits that provide context for and give significance to the decisions that the player makes. This is valuable in a purely mechanical sense as we approach a game in terms of balance and challenge. Options provided to the player should have distinct purpose. A poorly designed game will have redundant choices, often by making one set of choices markedly superior.

In any art, ma is about letting the receiver absorb and discern. The pauses in an actor’s monologue allows the audience to digest; white space allows us to discern the subject, and the relationship between the subject and the rest of the rendered world, clearly. Ma clears the way for a viewer/player to make significance of their experience. And so a player’s actions should ring with significance. This isn’t achieved by merely increasing the number of options available to the player. It is important to keep in mind that poor options, or too many options, actually detract from an experience. When the promise of a new mode of interaction with the game world falls short, then the experience is harmed – that’s just human psychology.

If games have an analogue to the blank canvas, it is this: the wish of a player to assume a body (or if not a body, some tool or mechanism for interaction) and act within an imaginary world. But the realities of designing such a system means that those options are necessarily limited. All actions must be supported by the rules. An unfinished or inelegant game is like an unfinished or inelegant painting – it is unnaturally bare in a way that expectations remain unfulfilled. Options that seem obvious to the player are inexplicably unsupported, or the options that are present crowd each other out, or options exist that clash with the themes and tone of the game. Just as crowded images in visual art make a piece progressively harder to understand, game mechanics that don’t have enough conceptual space from each other make a game much less rewarding.

I certainly haven’t exhausted the way that negative space might be applied to games, but I do think it encourages stepping back and looking at some of the aspects of design and leads to some useful metaphors for understanding how we interact with game mechanics. Some of my favorite moments in games occur when my method of interaction with the game world is changed, when the limits a game places on me suddenly tighten to great effect and the whole notion of my agency and primacy as protagonist in a game world is challenged. I think ma begins to explain why those moments work.


  1. psientist

    I agree, ma is a great metaphor to use when explaining negative/positive duality paradoxes……to other Taoists 😉
    When talking to programmers, nuts and bolts object builders, perhaps information theory may be another helpful metaphor. Consider the comment you made:
                  “Ma exists only in perception; there is no actual open space (after all, the universe is brimming with molecules all the way through!).”
    Actually there is empty space or zero space, but the forces of the universe constantly fill that zero space with energy by forcing the creation of ying/yang particles. Is this because nothing but be made of something? Humanity is trying to untie the paradox of what nothing is made of, so far we know just that it needs to be made, that nothingness seethes with Ohm.  Empty space becomes the frothy noise, the static we hear between radio stations. Radio stations are the signal that floats on this seething sea. This sea is always expanding, the seeming spontaneous creation and annihilation of ying/yang particles pushes our universe apart. Physicists have calculated that the expanding force provided by the Ohm is enough to set existence on fire, but for some reason existence maintains a pleasant room temperature (maybe it’s the signal acting as a dampener).
    What does this mean for mmo worlds? I think it points to the genuine source of the noise of the Ohm.
    a concurrent playerbase

    • MattSchanuel

      @psientist I think the concept of ma might be of interest to a wider audience than you suggest. Negative space has found a place in Western criticism of other mediums, so I didn’t think it was too much of a stretch here.

      • psientist

        @MattSchanuel  @psientist I did not intend to discredit the concept of negative space or ma. Information theory is about negative space and ma, just a different metaphor that still describes the concept.

        • MattSchanuel

          @psientist Ah, I misunderstood. I’m unfamiliar with information theory; what differentiates it from negative space?

        • psientist

          @MattSchanuel  @psientist information theory is fundamentally about separating signal from noise. picture a heartbeat monitor. the flat horizontal line is the noise (negative space that is indeed not nothing the empty canvas) the blips of a beating heart the signal (the stuff)
          what i intended to show with my first reply was that Taoist metaphysics describe real world quantum reality…i just suck at getting it on paper

        • MattSchanuel

          @psientist Interesting! Thanks for sharing. If I wanted to read more on the topic, would you have any suggestions?

  2. EijiMusashi

    Nicely written article, sir. I can fully agree to your point outs and Dark Souls is a good example.
    Only thing i would have to add : there are actually 2 places with background music, Firelink Shrine and Ash Lake ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bvJ7UagoTc ) , such an great composition which makes me often travel down there just to listen to it for a while ^^
    Have a great Day and best regards,
    Eiji Sama

    • MattSchanuel

      @EijiMusashi Thank you! I haven’t made it to Ash Lake yet, hence my ignorance. Thanks for shoring up that missed detail!

  3. chischis

    I would highly recommend that any gamer playing Dark Souls investigates From Software’s precursor series “King’s Field”. It was their first release, there were 4 of them, and they’re all excellent FIRST PERSON dungeon crawlers. They exhibit many qualities present in Dark Souls, particularly so-called “negative space”, if not with music (which is ever-present) but in the game world, its lore and inhabitants.  They’re also much better games!
    Further, I would suggest trying the System Shock, Thief and Ultima Underworld series for more exemplary cases of first-person gaming that employ similarly tasteful world and audio design. If only there were more first person dungeon crawlers… there’s something compelling about being alone in a dark, malignant space deep within an edifice, structure, cavern or such where unknown terrors and treasures await. There are NO mainstream games out there, apart from Dark Souls, that bother to explore such gameplay. Gaming that – I would argue – thrives on so-called negative space, and ABSTRACT level design to be compelling.
    This was a fascinating article and convinced me to bookmark NM.

    • MattSchanuel

      @chischis Thank you! I will definitely be checking out King’s Field!

  4. Kelsey Rinella

    Love the front-page art for this piece. The realization that the absence caused me to wonder whether there was a browser error, and that this concern was foreseeable, illustrated the point in an amusing way.

  5. Robyrt

    Great post.

    Dark Souls actually has one additional song outside of the two you mentioned, which for me was the single most affecting moment in the game: the discovery of Ash Lake, the heart of the world, whose spare Gregorian chant gives a sense of ancient wonder and forgotten power. It’s really the negative space which sells the moment: the song is not a remarkable piece of music on its own, but the sudden introduction of music which breaks the rule the game created for itself creates a holy mystery.

  6. Exleus

    I think this concept is a pretty good way to get at what makes NES games compelling even today.
    Not only are the visuals of NES games full of ma (just picture all the black both behind and between the elements of the background of, say, Megaman, or Metroid), but the gameplay itself in being so strict (due in no small part to having only D-pad, A, B, Start and Select) and threadbare. The time between initiating the jump and landing again in Castlevania, the three shot period of Megaman’s bullets, the moment of invulnerability of himself or the robot masters immediately after getting hit, hell, even that tiny, pregnant pause not even half a second long between landing on a spike and vaporizing.

    Maybe I’m stretching the idea a bit, but yeah, I’d say ma can well explain what gives NES games that ineffable quality that even SNES games didn’t have quite so strongly.

  7. I always come back to this game but Shadow of the Colossus is another great example of “ma” in video games.

  8. jimmi ununger

    This makes me think abouth Unfinished Swan. Where it’s gameplay might strictly not be as filled with negative space the world the game is set in. The world itself are first devoid of space wherein you create it with blots of pitchblack ink (where if you covered the same space with the blackness, it would be as spaceless to the player to when s/he started.) Giving it corners, a distinction of where to go and explore if you just try to press the right button on your controller.
    The game, gradually, as you progress thru it, replaces the “nothingness” with story and a world with history. Rewarding your curiosity with varying input.

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