As a prose writer it’s easy for me to get attached to my sandbox mentality. When you hit your stride with a story, you luxuriate in your solitary ownership of the process so much that it could potentially spoil you for anything that requires any diversification. Just lately I’ve been skimming the RPG Maker website since I’m way too much of a wuss to actually get a real engine and attempt ground-up game design.
Not that it was ever a terribly good idea to go into game design completely on your own in the first place: in the eighties and nineties, a game we would consider simple by modern standards would be a neck-deep passion project of a small handful of developers. The fact that the Mortal Kombat games were pioneered for 16-bit arcade cabinets by two people may have been uncommon for the time but by today’s standards it’s almost Herculean. Being a total Final Fantasy fan girl, I’ve been following the development of the FFVII Remake and the FFVIII Remaster with bated breath and the developers have said repeatedly that video game development is rapidly reaching par with filmmaking as the most expensive and collaborative of art forms.
This specific comparison has been on my mind lately because I recently finished playing through a game called The Space Between that I first found out about through John Wolf’s YouTube channel. Put simply, The Space Between is completely narrative driven; no puzzles, no combat, no normal video game mechanics of any kind. Your job is simply to move through the linear story through exploration and dialogue. In other words, it’s an interactive short film.
In the last few years (going on decades) this has hardly been unique: we’ve all heard of the TellTale Games along with Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment: interactive video game “films” have pretty much blossomed into their own genre (to say nothing of visual novel games). Most of them, though, typically rely on a combination of polished graphics (whether that’s attempted photo-realism or an emulation of hand-drawn art) and exploiting opportunities to work in more conventional gaming mechanics into the cinematic narrative. Telltale Games produced two Batman games that use elements of stealth, puzzle-solving and beat’em up combat. Life Is Strange relies on puzzles and Vampyr is an action-RPG. These games also typically have ordinary and recognizable situational and narrative cues that give you a pretty clear idea about where things are going.
With films, there are definitely several precedents for auteurs forgoing these expedients: something like Elias Merhige’s Begotten or David Lynch’s Inland Empire require you to take it in like a painting or a sculpture. These films are almost purely visual with little to no use of narrative craft. When I was in college I encountered a helpful way of describing this in an essay by Tania Modleski about cinematic excess. According to Modleski, cinematic excess is when the visual content overwhelms or outpaces the narrative content. According to this model of filmmaking as visual art and narrative craft, mainstream film is basically a hybrid medium: stories are largely what people are looking for from a mainstream film, making them a combination of literature and graphic art. A “pure” film, with no emphasis on literature, would probably be something like Dali’s Andalusian Dog, since it’s a series of images that are held together by a thematic thread but has no frankly expressed story. Begotten and the films of Kenneth Anger could also be classified as “pure” filmmaking with little to no reliance on literature.
Before I go on, I just want to bottom-line the fact that Modleski’s breakdown is meant to be descriptive and not judgemental: something that uses visual presentation along with a story is, in the most literal sense, a hybrid of literature and graphic art. Even dramatic writing is a sort of hybrid since, along with its visual presentation, drama and theater often have their own academic and artistic partitions. A novelist and a playwright are not interchangeable.
The application to video games should be pretty clear: something like Pong or the very first Mario or Donkey Kong games are good examples of “pure” video games. They have virtually no reliance on story-telling of any kind- all of the content is in the gameplay. No one who has ever enjoyed those games has ever required narrative context for them to make sense.
When video games became more mainstream in the late eighties and early nineties, fictional scenarios were implemented more and more to make them conventionally compelling, since stories are something we all have some familiarity with. It could be argued that this was where the expectation that video games be as “real” as possible emerged. Since then, the majority of popular video games, like popular films, have been literary hybrids according to the Tania Modleski analysis. Clearly, Telltale Games, Quantic Dream and Dontnod Entertainment have become specialists in this hybridization, making it even more frank with their cinematic influence (not that they were the first game developers to be seriously influenced by film, obviously).
I’m bringing all this up because it offers a more streamlined way to talk about the use of narrative devices in video games. Specifically where The Space Between is concerned. If video games have widely adopted literary hybridization with the same success that filmmaking has, then the recent popularity of linear, cinematic video games is a useful point of comparison. Life Is Strange is a hybrid game and The Space Between is definitely, obviously a hybrid game. But even between hybrids (and especially between ones influenced by film) there are degrees of specialization and craft convention.
If, for the sake of argument, we designate subgenres like Metroidvania and Soulsborne as the middle of the spectrum (since they often employ a vast, single map, mostly visual storytelling and a narrative pace that hinges on puzzles, combat and other ordinary gaming mechanics) then The Space Between easily lies closer toward the cinematic end of the spectrum.
Like I said, the story is firmly linear and, as the player, your participation is limited to putting one foot in front of another until the end. What makes playing this game different from watcing someone else play it is that, from a first person perspective, you have a deeper sense of immersion and participation (although your interactions and relationships are dictated by the script). You hear things happening around you based on your movements and locations which gives the impression that your actions matter, that you are tapping on one side and something on the other side is tapping back (very literally in some cases). One of the cooler instances of this involves…snipping sounds.
Lemme back up, and this where we’re gonna go into some spoilers (if you wanna close out of this and experience the game for yourself, I’ll include a download link at the bottom of the entry). Your player character has had a lifelong relationship with someone named Daniel, apparently going back to childhood. Potentially. There are only so many ordinary ways where one ends up in a blanket fort with chairs, talking to someone on the outside. I guess this doesn’t necessarily have to be in childhood. It’s a flashback, at any rate. So Martin (our player character) tells Daniel he doesn’t want him inside with him, but he doesn’t want him to leave either. He asks him to put his hand on the blanket and Martin touches back. Martin then asks if he feels his hand or the blanket. This flashback establishes some basic thematic language and has a few parallel echoes later on. It’s presented as fundamentally important for Martin but the specific nature of his relationship with Daniel is almost never frankly stated. Almost.
During another scene that could potentially be a continuation of the flashback, Martin tells Daniel to get a pair of scissors and cut one hole above and another below. When this flashback(?) ends and we’re back in the present, we’re standing in rows of sheets hung out to dry outside of an apartment building. As you’re passing through the corridors of sheets you hear one snip. A little while later, you hear another. After that, you glimpse a sheet with one hole near the top and one near the bottom. If there was any doubt that was what it sounds like, later on you see a curtain sucked around a human outline with a hole in its face and another between its legs.
Since many of the flashbacks seem to be dropped during conversations with another character named Clara, it’s probable that Martin is actually talking about these events as you, the player, are shown them. This possibility is emphasized even more later on when the momentum near the end picks up, when he says “Clara don’t do this” when eerie events that resemble his connection to Daniel start happening. If Clara is doing anything, the only potential reason the player is given is because of what Martin told her. The fact that the player has been in Martin’s POV during the mid-conversation flashbacks that show his story adds to the sense of participation. Even after the sections where you are basically forced to sit in Martin’s POV and watch him talk, you are put in very ambiguous and tense situations that will not progress until you go where you have to go to trigger the events.
Essentially, you are shown a visceral vulnerability of the player character that may or may not have been vocalized before, then, following this huge, personal surrender, the protagonist loses all sense of control and safety. Fear was overcome to let another person in, and then the fear was justified in spades. You’re not even sure of the exact threat and you will not learn how badly you fucked up until you walk yourself into the worst of it.
Think of the cut-scene in the second BioShock game where your awful ending will not happen until you press a button, and you will press the button because you can’t do anything else. That’s kinda what’s going on.
If The Space Between was a short film, the ending and the momentum that’s built up by Martin’s trust and his subsequent betrayal is where we would get the real payoff of the literary and photographic hybridization. There is even a word from early twentieth century German film that’s easily applicable to this: expressionism. Put simply, an expressionist film is set in a vacuum, establishes its own “rules” in the course of its story and needs no context. David Lynch has probably done more heavy lifting than anyone toward updating and localizing German expressionism for America with films like Ereaserhead, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Those films are not set in a vacuum, but the real world locations that they are set in tend to not inform the internal rules of the “world” any more than a vacuum. Usually, a psychological or emotional continuity takes priority over a literal one. All of the visual cues and character decisions make sense, but only if you accept the subjective dominance of one specific character over all others, since the things that have emotional connotations for them will end up controlling everything else.
If The Space Between was a film, the ending is where Martin’s psychological continuity would start replacing the literal continuity in the foreground. What makes this kind of narrative device different from, say, something like the Pink Floyd film The Wall which is strictly about a character’s internal life, is that The Space Between tries to draw your attention to an objective world that definitely exists but is still invisible.
The game begins with what appears to be a newspaper article about the body of Martin Melanson, a well-known architect, being found in a hollow within a wall. So we have a definite statement of something happening, but everything else is totally subjective. David Lynch has done similar things, such as in Lost Highway when Fred Madsen appears to magically change into Pete Dayton while he’s in prison. Pete is released from prison and the story, through visual cues, seriously begins to look like a separate, parallel event to the Fred Madsen story. What stops the viewer from firmly deciding that Pete Dayton is in a separate story is that he was followed out of prison and is being surveilled by two FBI agents from the Fred Madsen story. The presence of the FBI agents are a constant reminder that, no matter how much this looks like a broken continuity, one thing is still chronologically following the other. Like The Space Between, something is definitely happening in the real world, but the subjective continuity makes it totally invisible.
For film, this is an example of a well-established device that relies completely on the visual cues and the performances of the actors to overwhelm a frankly stated plot. The plot is overwhelmed with a visual and dramatic continuity that still has a thematic relationship with the plot, even while leaving it behind.
As much as I enjoyed The Space Between, though, I couldn’t help but wonder: what makes this different from an interactive film? Does its presentation as a video game actually bring any real hybridization, or is this simply a film via video game?
As previously stated, the orientation of the player in Martin’s first person point of view does much to differentiate the experience from that of watching a film. Dialogue is used often but many of the essential stories told by Martin are shown directly to the player through flashbacks rather than through explication. The next difference may not be a substantial one but The Space Between utilizes the same graphics as early nineties PS1 games which has a few different consequences.
One of them, which is admittedly negotiable, is nostalgia-tinged uncanniness for those of us that grew up with the PS1. It creates the experience of finding something startlingly foreign within something familiar. It also uses some commonplace technological limitations from that era to good effect. Most early PlayStation games used text-based dialogue to save information space and, rather like those very games, The Space Between‘s text dialogue allows the communication between characters to share the foreground with the atmosphere created by the music.
Which is to say, the dialogue happens within a sonic atmosphere rather than interrupting or embodying it like voice acting would. This, both for this game and older games, is a huge gain for the immersion. It’s this immersion that enables the player to be directly in touch with the subjective continuity as it takes over the objective one, making it an effective blending of cinematic trope with classic video game presentation. The first person player experience plays into the success of the expressionist structure.
Now….as cool as I think this game is and as much as I’m enjoying reviewing it, this review was not originally the point of this entry. What I wanted to talk about in the first place were ideas from filmmaking seeping into other mediums. There are a few different reasons for this.
The more selfish ones are, as the opening paragraph states, that I am growing curious about other art forms than the one I’m most accustomed to. So I’m skimming the more, shall we say, vanilla edges of game development. I’ve also had ideas for screenplays that I’ve been seriously excited about in the past but, realistically, filmmaking can be very difficult to get into. Which hasn’t stopped me from roughing out screenplays, but genuine difficulties exist. So perhaps it’s prudent to be aware of other expedients.
Was this what Christoph Frey, the mind behind The Space Between was thinking when he made that game?
I can think of some reasons why it may not have been, such as a wish to simply make an uncanny and dreamlike work of art, but if he was thinking about an alternative to filmmaking, I could hardly blame him. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a renowned filmmaker by any standard, struggled for decades to make a sequel to his 1970 classic El Topo and, recently, has decided that his vision was too pressing to wait any further on the convenience of the film industry. He then turned to an artist he trusted deeply and elected to make the El Topo sequel, called The Sons Of El Topo, into comics. I have read the first hard back English language volume, Cain, and Abel is expected to get a hard back English release later this year.
Being the pragmatic and opportunistic magpie that I am, I always jump at the opportunity to learn more about how my own ideas may benefit from similar adjustments. My recent desire to throw myself into RPG Maker started with a conversation with a friend about making our own video game together. My mind took off but at the time I wasn’t aware how obtainable RPG Maker software is. As I plotted the story out I realized I cared too much about it to let go and so resolved myself to write it as a novel. And then I saw the bad-ass retro SNES and Gameboy-style assets and skins on RPG Maker and now I just don’t know. So the pros and cons of different kinds of artistic hybridization have been on my mind lately, how a story may change from one medium to another. Especially since this particular story of mine is connected to the same world-building project of two different novels I have in the works.
Why not do both the game and the book? Good question, why not indeed. Neil Gaiman did a few different retellings of Neverwhere for different mediums. Butttttt Iiii dunnnoooo…..I like the idea of a creative exchange between different mediums that are all involved in the same project. Such things have their flaws, as the expanded FFXV and Kingdom Hearts universes attest, but…I wanna 😡
And, at least, I think the multi-volume El Topo saga indicates that success might just be obtainable on that front. Several things that had a very specific function in the original film, that worked specifically as cinematic techniques, have been translated to intriguing effect in the comic book continuation.
For example, the cross dressing and the seemingly random fetish imagery. Film, like theater, can get so subjective at times that you wonder if there is meant to be any actual context (I.e. expressionism). El Topo exploited this potential well. The protagonists’ transformation has a lot to do with a female phantom-self, a kind of Jungian anima, that may or may not actually exist. This female reflection is portrayed by an actress but, when she speaks, she has a male voice. Later, in a separate setting, an apparently female character also has a male voice-over when she speaks. Does the female reflection of El Topo exist in the same way that the named characters do? What about the same phenomena appearing casually in a different place?
The comic continuation has made it clear that at least some of these things literally exist: male to female cross dressers do, in fact, seem to be common place. Particularly in the clergy. And that El Topo, post-martyrdom, is venerated by Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims. This could either mean that El Topo has literally synthesized all of these religions into one or that this is a non-literal way of indicating that El Topo is universally revered in the fictional world. It is also now clear that the honey-combs that appeared at El Topos grave were not an illusory symbol but literally appeared as his dying miracle.
Another smaller but cool wrinkle is that the ghost of El Topo and the appearance of his sons are all meticulously drawn to resemble Jodorowsky himself in his performance in the original movie. Cain is identical to the violent pre-apotheosis El Topo and Abel is identical to post-apotheosis El Topo. El Topo’s actual ghost looks simply the way he did at the moment of his death. In the beginning, when El Topo’s final massacre near the end of his life is retold, the artist is very precise is recreating Jodorowsky’s specific facial expressions and it’s freaking beautiful.
The precise nuts and bolts there remain to be seen for English speakers, and my French is a little rusty right now so I don’t know if I’d be up to tackling the older digital versions of the French run. Another thing that has yet to be seen is whether or not the female version of El Topo will be revealed to have a literal existence after El Topo is dead- she was an essential character in the film and I would love to see her again in the comic.
So yeah. I find some of Jodorowsky’s words rather applicable to my current predicament: “There is no failure, only a change of direction”. Closed doors can definitely lead to successes of their own with the right mindset as he himself has made clear.
Link to the Ichio page where Christoph Frey’s The Space Between can be purchased-