5th International Conference

Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges

Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology

Hybrid - Corfu/Online, May 12-13, 2023

Playing with space: Visual and narrative representations of spaces in digital games and cinema
Date and Time: 12/05/2023 (14:30-16:00)
Location: Online
Natalia Arsenopoulou, Anna Poupou, Charalampos Rizopoulos
Keywords: spatial representations in digital games, cinematic space, film architecture, place attachment and identity, spatial narratives, open world games, interface elements and navigation

Digital games feature various types of renditions and representations of spaces and environments ranging from fully realistic 3D rendered environments to abstract 2D spatial representations such as map-like structures. Spatial constructs have been a stable feature of games since the early days of primitive 2D graphics, along with features such as (mini)maps and other pictorial spatial representations. This paper will discuss the role and importance of space in narrative and storytelling and highlight connections with cinematic techniques traditionally employed to advance storylines and showcase important expository elements. Space, in its multitude of forms, can act as a framework for building narrative content; the visual design of the settings and the ambience provide information and reveal the genius loci, the aura of a place, foreshadowing the larger context and the kind of the stories that can be experienced within and shaping the viewers' / users' expectations. In interactive environments, and in virtual environments in particular, open world games and walking simulators, navigation and space-related interaction affordances offer guidance and set the basis for emergent narratives and stories produced from the users’ actions. Punday (2017) discerns two different and often blending on-screen spaces, the “primary” as the representation of a place, in topological sense, where users engage in an act of make-believe and the “orienting” as complementary areas / windows comprising additional tools and information. Certain GUI elements, belonging to the latter category, may act as spatial metaphors and narrative links - world maps allow or block the transportation/transition between the locations of the gameworld offering the option to unlock story-generating (side)quests and to unravel site-specific storybits. This “shift” between areas / stories may lead to conceptual associations and narrative structure variations.

Early on in the field of video game theory has been stressed the importance of spatial elements in game storytelling and iconography, and the shared roots of game design with architecture and urban planning: As Jenkins asserts “games designers don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces in it” (2004:4). A similar assertion could be also be applied to cinematic worlds, as even since the beginning of the 20th century it has been made clear by critical theorists that films not only record real spatial forms, but mostly represent, create and reconstruct spatial environments, while filmmakers can be considered as architects or urban planners of imaginary cityscapes and worlds - a distinction also claimed by game designers and developers; various game scholars and theorists have argued in favour of the predominance of spatial elements, such as the function of levels, mazes, maps, spatial quests, navigational features, often at the detriment of other narrative features, such as characterization.

Furthermore, the notion of place, as opposed to space, can be regarded as an important element in the overall experience of the game; it may be encountered in most genres of digital games, and especially those that feature open worlds and allow for free roaming. Lynch (1960) has argued about the legibility of the environment, introducing an often cited and influential framework of elements - such as paths, edges, districts, nodes, landmarks - that describe and define spatial units of various scales. Analogous frameworks can be applied to spaces found in digital games, thus assisting the meaningful interpretation and appropriation of such spaces.

The transformation of spaces into places can also be witnessed in the case of purely digital / artificial environments, and may also be an important aspect of escapism (which is often the objective when playing games). Consequently, place identity and place attachment are often encountered in various forms of games, whether single- or multiplayer. The attribution of personal or collective meaning to parts of the environment, along with spatial learning, can often occur as one component of a wider sense of involvement with the game which also extends to other activities indicative of identification with in-game elements, such as avatar customization. In this paper, some representative case studies are presented and discussed in relation to the above, and a preliminary categorization of in-game environments and spatial structures pertaining to player identity is presented while also taking into account the concept of filmic space and its applicability to perceiving, analysing, and interpreting spatial structures in video games. Specific titles were chosen as case studies upon observation for the presence of the following factors: the inclusion of cinematics techniques, the diversity of visual representation of topographic facets and game environment design as interactive, free-roam navigable space, the use of interface elements for navigation and spatial transportation, narrative content emerging from or related to spatial features.


Jenkins Henry. 2004. Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In First Person, edited by Noah Wardip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, 118-30 Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.

Lynch Kevin.1960. The Image of the City, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Punday Daniel. 2017. Space Across Narrative Media: Towards an Archaeology of Narratology. Narrative 27(1): 92-112.

Natalia Arsenopoulou
Natalia Arsenopoulou is a PhD candidate at the Department of Communication and Media Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Her research interests focus on graphic design and visual communication, interactive digital storytelling, immersive narratives and experiences in virtual environments.
Anna Poupou
Anna Poupou is Assistant Professor of Film History and Theory at the Department of Digital Arts and Cinema (N.K.U.A.). Her research interests focus on Greek and European film history, cinematic space, and film genres. Her latest publication is Greek Film Noir, (co-edited by Nikitas Fessas and Maria Chalkou), by Edinburgh University Press (2022).
Charalampos Rizopoulos
Charalampos Rizopoulos is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Digital Arts and Cinema, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. His research interests lie primarily in immersive media and technologies, new media and computer games, and interaction design for immersive virtual reality and mobile platforms. He has authored and co-authored several publications in journals, edited books, and conference proceedings and has participated in several research and artistic production projects.

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