Here is your first mission. Wherever you are at this moment, as you read these words, look around. The space surrounding you may be large or small, indoors or out, public or private, empty or full, familiar or strange. What possibilities of gameplay can you imagine occurring in this place: here and now and with no beyond?
Many videogames take the player on a journey through space, often to explore and conquer it. However, the carefully rendered game-world – celebrated in marketing hype as ‘vast’ – is mostly inert backdrop. Even games which claim you can interact with everything in your environment are limited by what the designers have actually programmed. For most of the time the player character might as well be wearing boxing gloves. Not this time: what could a player character do where you are right now by taking the gloves off?
One familiar version of this exercise is to magnify your surroundings so that objects appear many times their usual size. The premise of your game might then be how a human being can navigate a world that’s suddenly become bizarrely and dangerously out-of-scale – as in the black-and-white classic film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, where a spider and other mundane objects become monstrously huge. Or your heroes might be creatures who are already small, like the characters of Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story series or Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man. What aids and powers will enable players to navigate the outsized obstacle course, and what traps and foes await them? What will be the milestones, ultimate goal, and heroic story of their quest?
Alternatively, what magical behaviors can you imagine for the everyday objects around you? Where are the secret portals and warp-holes from other worlds, who or what comes through them, how friendly are these invaders, or how do they need the player’s help? What communication devices enable the player to reach beyond the space without actually leaving? What mysterious and puzzling objects are hidden around the room, how did they come to be here, who possessed them previously, and what powers stored within them await to be unlocked?
This is an exercise you can do anywhere, ideally in many different locations. Attend closely enough, and every space is unique… implying the possibility of an endless number of games or game variants. Try it when you’re cooped up with strangers – in a waiting room, train carriage, elevator, or airplane, say. Any second now there’ll be an accident or disaster and you’ll be trapped with these people and left to pass the time while awaiting rescue. Tensions will boil over between the inmates, or the room will become a giant puzzle you must solve from inside in order to unlock the exit (as in so-called escape-the-room games).
Perhaps you’ll find inspiration in ‘Tango,’ a short film by the Polish animator Zbigniew Rybczyński, whose central idea has been borrowed by various music videos and television advertisements. The scene is a sparsely-furnished bedroom. When a red ball drops through the open window, a boy in shorts climbs in to fetch it. Various other characters enter, either through the window or one of the two doors. Each character exits and then reenters to repeat exactly the same motion as before. Without bumping into each other, they weave an elegant, choreographed dance. Gradually each character makes his or her final exit. The boy is the last to go, climbing out with his rescued ball for one last time and leaving the room empty once more. Who or what enters the space you currently occupy? Whence do they come, and whither do they go? How might their paths cross, and what might the player do to put them in each other’s way or to untangle their knots?
In H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine a Victorian scientist mounts his machine and travels nowhere in space but thousands of years in time. The space occupied by his London laboratory in the 1890s transforms into a garden reclaimed by nature after the future collapse of civilization, and then into a desolate beach at the very end of the world, beneath a dying sun. Similarly he can travel to the same spot centuries or millennia in the past. Even at different times of day or seasons of the year the immediate space you’re occupying at this moment changes its character. Or what temporal paradoxes could arise through the sudden visit of your past or future self?
Your bedroom is an obvious choice of room. For many of us, this is where our inner worlds are most intimately expressed, in our dreams, relationships, illnesses, and personal items. It’s the room we know best and which has greatest emotional resonance. Your bed alone is a potentially vast landscape.
To take this exercise to an extreme, imagine games taking place on your body: in the folds and pockets of your clothes, on the surfaces and crevices of your skin and hair.
Once you enter the interior of the body, the potential space expands again. Medicine has revealed wondrous landscapes beneath the skin, from the level of organs down to that of cells, all full of activity and potentially a scene for action. In Fantastic Voyage (another outstanding movie memory from my childhood) a group of scientists aboard their submarine are miniaturized and injected into a man’s body in order to navigate through his bloodstream, fight off antibodies and saboteurs along the way, and carry out microsurgery on a blood clot in the brain that will otherwise kill him within the hour. There’s a game premise here.
Even vaster as potential fields of play are the realms of the conscious and unconscious mind. Consider those individuals confined within the cells of prisons, asylums, and monasteries. Extraordinary worlds of memory, desire, microscopic awareness, and cosmic drama must occupy their voluntary or enforced solitude. Take these incarcerates as your models for how to imagine a game that’s all in the mind.