Landscape and Gamespace in Latin American Videogame Design

May 15, 2015

This article draws on material from Phillip Penix-Tadsen’s book, Cultural Code: Video Games and Latin America (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2016), which brings together the critical vocabularies of game studies and Latin American cultural studies to offer the first synthetic theorization of the relationship between video games and culture, through the analysis of both in-game cultural representation and the real-life economic, political and societal effects of games. ​


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Papo & Yo, Vander Caballero, Minority, 2012, Video game

The use of space in video games is key to their design and play, and the way games use space is different from other media such as painting or film. Most significantly, video games provide a responsive environment where obstacles and affordances are affected by player input. Within a game’s particular spatial framework or gamespace, the contours of meaning shift according to the user’s interaction. In the following paragraphs, I will analyze examples of video games from the history of game development in Latin America that illustrate the critical and theoretical concepts necessary to understand how space works in video games.

In his 1944 study Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga coined the term “magic circle” to describe the sacred, mysterious space, quite separate from “real life,” in which play occurs. Though this concept was generally upheld by later analyses such as Roger Caillois’ Man, Play and Games (1958), the separation between play and reality has increasingly come under fire, especially since the advent of video games. This is because gamespaces are at once present in and separate from the spaces of everyday life.

Although videogame spaces are sites for action and interaction, they also provide myriad opportunities for players to pause, contemplate, and consider their surroundings. Unbound by the constraints of a 90-minute narrative arc, video games open up landscape as an experiential and interactive event within a broader environment. In many games there are moments when the action is momentarily halted by something akin to what Henri Lefebvre called the “landscape gaze” with regard to film. The difference with video games is that these “landscape moments” are not centered on static images, but depend on an act of discovery by the player. This is one example of how interactivity distinguishes gamespace from earlier traditions of spatial representation.

Setting is the use of space toward dramatic ends, in theater and film as well as in video games. Filmmakers conventionally use setting to reflect the overall tone of their work, employing space as a metaphor for the protagonist’s state of mind and a symbolic rendering of cultural context. This is why Fredric Jameson famously referred to space as the “fundamental organizing concern” in the process of cognitive mapping. The viewer of a film, like the occupant of a real city, creates a mental depiction of the space they or their narrative occupies, a cognitive map that allows for a sense of spatial context.

By inhabiting gamespace, videogame players internalize the game’s architecture and create ever more complex cognitive maps. As players explore a game’s environment, their embodied experience supplants the cognitive map with inhabited space. If setting is the space in which events take place and landscape is space freed from eventhood, the videogame environment can be characterized as evental space. In other words, videogame spaces are virtual environments in which actual events occur: areas are explored, discoveries are made and gaming literacy is increased. Rather than space in isolation or as a setting for the narration of events, videogame space is an environmental context for the active creation of meaning.

But gamespace is notoriously difficult to theorize in any singular or absolute manner, because of the broad range of spatial frameworks that have been used over the history of the medium, ranging from text-based interfaces to two-dimensional planes to immersive 3D environments. Therefore when we look at how space affects meaning in video games, specific examples are crucial. The paragraphs below explore four of the prototypical spatial frameworks of video games, focusing particularly on examples from Latin American designers. Those spatial frameworks, broadly categorized, are:

  • Two-dimensional planes, employing flat space
  • Miniature worlds, which may be two-dimensional or use isometric perspective, and in which a player may control several miniature characters rather than assume the identity of a single avatar
  • Platformers, in which players advance over literal platforms, gaining expertise through the repetition of maneuvers
  • 3-D environments, which may allow players either to move freely, or constrain their movement within a three-dimensional space

Two-Dimensional Planes

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Turista fronterizo, Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez, 2006, Video game

Wherever we look across the globe, the earliest videogame spaces were two-dimensional planes, allowing for only those types of actions and narratives that could be portrayed within a flat spatial framework. Within Latin America, a paradigmatic example is the 1982 game Truco by the Argentine uncle-and-nephew design team of Ariel and Enrique Arbiser. A digital version of the internationally popular card game, Truco has been identified by the Argentine Video Game Association and other sources as the first commercial video game ever created in Argentina, and possibly in all of Latin America.

Because playing cards use a scoring system based on suits and numbers, the two-dimensional spatial frame lends itself naturally to a card game simulation. But Truco was also beloved by its audience for another way it communicated meaning in two dimensions: through text. The game incorporates the poetic national version of “trash talk” into gameplay, the computer responding to player actions with rhymes and taunts such as, “Pa’ pintar una pared/ Tuve que usar mameluco,/ y pa’ ganarle a Usted/ tengo que hacerle algún truco” (“To paint a room/ it was the coveralls I picked/ and to beat you/ I’m going to have to pull a trick”) or “Un gaucho bajó del cielo/ en un plato volador,/ al pasar junto a una vaca,/ Real Envido le gritó” (“A gaucho on a flying saucer/ came down from the sky/ when he passed by a cow/ Royal Bluff he cried”). Truco uses the two-dimensional plane as a forum for humorous yet simplistic gameplay dynamics with a barebones digital aesthetic.

Like early videogame developers such as the Arbisers, contemporary artists and avant-garde game designers frequently turn to retro mechanics and aesthetics in their use of two-dimensional gamespaces, showing the enduring appeal of this framework. A number of such games were presented at the 2005 Tijuana-San Diego based art event inSite 05, the fifth installment since inSite began in 1992 as a series of events focused on public art related to the specific context of the border region.

The game Turista Fronterizo, “a virtual journey through the San Diego-Tijuana borderlands,” is an ironic and humorous border-themed electronic variation on Monopoly designed by performance artist and theorist Coco Fusco and media artist Ricardo Dominguez. The player of Turista Fronterizo must choose between four playable characters, each with particular economic and demographic characteristics: they are El Gringo Poderoso, La Gringa Activista, La Todológa [sic] and El Junior. The two-dimensional gamespace of Turista Fronterizo is the proving ground for the game’s procedural rhetoric, a term coined by Ian Bogost to describe how computational systems can be used to make persuasive arguments.

In Turista Fronterizo, the avatars’ demographics define their possibilities for interaction with the spaces on the game board. At Qualcomm Stadium, for example, El Gringo Poderoso spends lavishly but profits nonetheless, taking a Japanese executive to the Chargers game and spending $500 but scoring a big deal for his company; meanwhile the Gringa Activista spends $100 on photocopies in order to “Hand out flyers to Mexican workers,” while her participation in a meeting to plan a protest leads to her incarceration and a costly $1,000 fine. Because of the way it reflects the impact of privilege and nationality by providing different outcomes to the same set of circumstances depending on the attributes of the character being played, Turista Fronterizo offers the player critical insights through the use of humor and a highly replayable set of game dynamics, characterized by each avatar’s variable relationship to the spaces within the game’s two-dimensional platform.

Like Turista Fronterizo, media artist and scholar Rafael Fajardo’s Crosser (2000) and La Migra (2001) use familiar gameplay mechanics to raise questions of personal and national security revolving around border crossing. Like Turista Fronterizo’s modification of the Monopoly board, Crosser is based on the arcade classic Frogger (Konami, 1981), while La Migra is an emulation of Space Invaders (Taito/Midway, 1978). In the original Frogger, there are a total of thirteen rows that the player must cross in order to get to the destination. Three of these are free of obstacles or threats: the starting row, the middle row (which offers the player a halftime respite after crossing the highway and prior to crossing the river) and the final destination row of lily pads.

Crosser operates on a relatively reduced scale, with seven traversable rows of space: two are free of moving obstacles—the starting point on the Mexican side of the border, where the protagonist is surrounded by humble but colorful abodes and a series of prickly pear cacti, and the destination border checkpoint. Once the player makes it across the river in Crosser, she gets no respite as in Frogger but immediately faces the highway, replete with obstacles: first, a squad of Border Patrol agents on foot, then a lane of the authorities’ vehicles, and finally a stream of helicopters zooming overhead. In Frogger, the player goes from a precarious state to one of security, making her way home. In Crosser the topography is reversed, with the player starting out in the relative comfort of home, then having to cross the river and the highway in order to reach the goal, which instead of a secure lily pad is the looming monolith of a government visa office.

While game developers were once inescapably bound to the use of two-dimensional planes, games such as Turista Fronterizo and Crosser show the enduring appeal of simple play dynamics and aesthetics, especially for artists and avant-garde game designers.

Miniature Worlds

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1811, Trojan Chicken, 2011, Video game

Another prototypical form of gamespace is the miniature world, a space seen from the perspective of a player perched high above and looking down. Though some miniature-world games also use two-dimensional fields of play, they often feature what is known as isometric perspective, a technique borrowed from architectural drawing for the presentation of three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional form.

Gamespace seen through isometric perspective is inhabited by a multitude of manipulable miniatures that make up a non-player character (NPC) population. While an avatar is meant to fix the player’s identification to a single entity, miniatures are characters that can be fully or partially controlled by the player, but which do not represent the player. Gordon Calleja argues that this dispersion of character identity results in “environmental agency,” a form of control that, rather than being anchored to a single avatar, encompasses the entire gamespace.

Examples of miniature worlds that require the player to adopt environmental agency include the games of Uruguayan game theorist and designer Gonzalo Frasca, who is not only an early proponent of game studies as an academic discipline, but also a prominent figure in the history of “serious game” design. Frasca coined the expression “video games of the oppressed” to describe the potential of using the medium as a consciousness-raising tool, building upon Brazilian educational philosopher Paulo Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed and playwright and drama theorist Augusto Boal’s concept of “The Theater of the Oppressed.”

One of Frasca’s most noteworthy projects is September 12th: A Toy World, an online Flash animation game produced in 2003 as a response to the US-led global “war on terror.” Perched high above a miniature world, the player of September 12th observes a Where’s Waldo-like space of tiny animated figures circulating busily and quickly in an unnamed middle eastern city lined with buildings of varying sizes, bazaars, fountains, vendors’ stands and palm-shaded plazas. Most of these characters are civilians, but approximately one in ten is a machine gun-wielding terrorist. In the game’s interface, the player’s cursor is replaced by an aiming reticule, so that the only manner of interacting with the simulation is through the manipulation of the targeting system: pushing the reticule to the right or left extreme extends the player’s view in that direction up to a finite point, meaning the reticule is both a ballistic mechanism and a tool for spatial navigation.

Eventually, of course, nearly every player of September 12th will be tempted to click. When they do, after a brief pause that allows for the targeted population to shuffle around and rearrange, a rather imprecise cruise missile rockets down from the sky, striking roughly in the area where the player aimed. The strike will usually kill several individuals, perhaps some terrorists and almost certainly several civilians. When they die, others begin to assemble and mourn at the bombsite.

Then the twist occurs: the characters that have gathered to mourn the victim begin to flash and transform, changing from their original civilian selves into an exponentially expanding population of terrorists. Each time the player aims to take out a single terrorist, she in fact ends up creating many more. The buildings will eventually be reconstructed, and with the passing of time between missile attacks the number of terrorists in the population begins to thin out, but they will never disappear altogether. This is a gamespace in which there is no way to win—one can only lose less. And from the start, the player’s best option is simply to do nothing at all, meaning the procedural rhetoric of September 12thfunctions in a manner antithetical to the heroic triumphalism one generally expects from violent video games.

1811 is another Uruguayan game set within a miniature world, but one that differs from September 12th in a number of important ways. While the latter was clearly designed to ideologically challenge and stimulate adult players, 1811 aims to teach schoolchildren about national history. The Montevideo-based independent design studio Trojan Chicken developed 1811, a free-roaming role-playing game (RPG) in which older primary and high school students learn about the nation’s independence movement through firsthand interaction with NPCs whose dialog and activities round out the game’s spatial contextualization of early 19th-century Uruguay. By interacting with the characters of this miniature world, players of 1811 participate in the development of the game’s narrative, allowing them see the nation’s history play out before them in a manner quite distinct from other representational traditions.

The 2011 iOS and Android app game Kingdom Rush is yet another example from Uruguay’s rapidly expanding game development community that requires the player to develop environmental agency through the manipulation of multiple elements of a miniature world. With this game, developer Ironhide Studios set a new bar for the tower defense genre, in which players construct obstacles and fortifications to stymy an advancing siege of NPC miniatures.

Kingdom Rush evidences the spatial dynamics that have made the miniature world so attractive to designers of warfare simulations, which frequently feature miniature worlds and/or the isometric perspective. Within the history of Latin American game design, other examples include Malvinas 2032 (Sabarasa, 1999), a turn-based strategy game in which the player commands future Argentine forces in an effort to take back the Falkland Islands from the British, or Inkawar (Luis Grimaldo 2005), a Peruvian game set within the pre-Columbian Incan conquest of the Andes region. In each of these examples, the player goes beyond the individualized avatar in order to play the game environmentally, their agency dispersed across the space of the miniature world.

Platformers

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Guacamelee!, Drinkbox Studios, 2013, Video game

The platformer genre is characterized by a gamespace involving literal platforms across which the player must guide their avatar in order to advance and succeed. In the 1980s, scrolling platformers from Nintendo like Super Mario Bros. and Metroid established the parameters of the genre, which enjoys an enduring popularity among Latin American game developers. Several recent examples modify the simplistic spatial dynamics of earlier platformers, playing with conventions and expanding the possibilities for this established spatial framework.

Platformer games frequently involve the player in a recursive trial-and-error process, in which they are required to repeat the same steps over and over until mastering the maneuvers necessary for spatial (and narrative) advancement in the game. The 2014 platformer Fenix Rage, from the three-person team at Costa Rica’s Green Lava Studios, requires the player to master frenetic button combinations and combo maneuvers as they proceed through a blitz of more than 100 single-screen levels. The development of Fenix Rage was helped along by Sony’s Latin American incubation program and distributed online through PlayStation Network, evidencing the growing appeal of the region’s game designers to major players in the global game industry.

Sony’s incubation program also supported the publication and distribution of the game To Leave, “a puzzle-platformer about a boy trying to escape a city that seeks to drain him dry” created by an independent game development studio called Freaky Creations in Guayaquil, Ecuador. As with Fenix Rage, To Leave offers its own unique take on the platformer genre, in this case by using a different form of mobility within the gamespace: the player embodies a boy hanging precariously yet steadfastly from the door of his home, which floats continually skyward, requiring him to work through obstacles vertically as well as horizontally.

The 2013 platformer Guacamelee!, conceived by Mexican game animator Augusto Quijano and developed with around a dozen other designers and programmers at the Toronto-based indie developer Drinkbox Studios, offers a final, emphatic illustration of how the spatial environment of the platformer has been enhanced by innovative game design. The game is rife with the conventional videogame iconography of Mexican culture—the protagonist is a masked luchador, enemies include skeletons and laughing skulls, and sacred temples and pyramids dot the map. But what is most interesting about Guacamelee! is the way it allows the player to switch, at the push of a button, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This dynamic is key to gameplay, as different obstacles, affordances, enemies and allies appear in each of these two dimensions. Mastery of the game thus requires dynamic and continuous shifting between the two worlds. Like Fenix Rage and To Leave, then, Guacamelee! reflects how innovations in the platformer genre expand the possibilities for what is conventionally a two-dimensional spatial framework.

3D Environments

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Zeno Clash, ACE Team, 2009, Video game

Since the mid-1990s, three-dimensional environments have provided the dominant spatial framework for mass-market video games. 3D environments include open-world or “sandbox” games, which give the player free rein to explore and interact with a three-dimensional world without being bound to a linear game narrative, as well as games that are “on rails,” with clearly delineated borders to spatial exploration. As with the other gamespaces examined here, each of these types of three-dimensional environments has unique implications for the gameplay experience.

In Latin America, the standard for the design of unique 3D worlds has been set by Chile’s ACE Team. This Santiago-based independent developer’s critically acclaimed debut Zeno Clash (2009) is a surreal first-person melee combat game that established the firm’s imaginative and unconventional style of game design. Zeno Clash is a first-person shooter that frequently relies on the use of fists rather than advanced weaponry, set in another planet inhabited by a vast array of strange and surreal creatures. The game’s seemingly open spaces are in fact functionally delimited by obstacles both natural (i.e., mountains and cliffs) and manufactured (i.e., furnishings and closed doorways). The player must complete a given battle scenario in order to unlock the passageways to new spaces in the game, making spatial advancement contingent upon successful completion of in-game tasks.

Another exceptional game set in a 3D environment is Papo & Yo, an environmental puzzle game that is also an allegory for growing up with an abusive parent. Papo & Yo is Colombian designer Vander Caballero’s passion project, designed to reflect his own childhood use of fantasy and games as a form of emotional escapism. The game’s child protagonist, Quico, feels powerless in his own life, but through his imagination exercises complete control over his surroundings, turning the favela in which the game takes place into a responsive and manipulable space. As Quico discovers his ability to alter his environment, he starts to stack buildings into staircases, and his chalk drawings magically transform into ropes, ladders and moving gears. In this way, the protagonist of Papo & Yo proceeds to construct a series of increasingly complex passageways and mechanisms that enable him to reach new areas in the game, all while proceeding along a journey that is at once spatial and also deeply personal, enabled by the particular spatial framework of the 3D environment.

Conclusion

The choice of a spatial framework has a profound effect on a video game’s potential for creating a meaningful experience for the player. Games set within two-dimensional planes, for example, have vastly different ways of conveying meaning than those set within responsive three-dimensional environments. Each gamespace has its own particular ways of pushing the player to respond to spatial cue. Likewise, each spatial framework has implications for a game’s potential to entertain, ideologically challenge, or emotionally affect the player.

The history of videogame design in Latin America now spans several decades, and today the regional game development community is creating innovative visions of what gamespace can and should be. As seen in the examples discussed here, the different spatial frameworks chosen by game developers reflect not only particular historical or technological circumstances, but specific design objectives. Within the ever-diversifying world of videogame design, every type of gamespace has its due place.