Space in video games is purposive. It has purpose. It’s designed to be navigated and explored as part of the gameplay experience – for a lot of games, the sheer exercise of getting through a place is the bulk of the challenge. We’ve been talking recently about Resident Evil – those games are all about place. They’re about finding keys, unlocking doors – they treat place as a knot that the player loosens over time. And yet one of the curious things about space in video games is that the intentions for space are doubled. Consider this moment from the start of Maid of Sker, below. The player is walking down a path, which terminates at a locked gate (visible on the right). The gate can’t be unlocked: it stops the player’s progress. Instead, they must backtrack to the gap in the fence, on the left, with the fallen tree. That little path loops the player around to the other side of the fence, from where they can continue moving through the game. You can see how we’re dealing with two levels of intentionality, two types of spatial design. Within the fictional world, obviously the locked gate is designed to keep people out. We can imagine or expect that there are people living in this place who have locked the gate deliberately. And yet from a game design perspective, the developers can’t simply stop the player from moving forward. Thus the second path, the route around.
This image really neatly exemplifies the doubled intentionality of space in video games. Video game space is designed to be played in, but it’s also attributed to the decisions of fictional characters, who exercise agency on their environment and change it in meaningful ways. We play in game space under the auspices of that doubled intentionality. The player is both meant and not meant to bypass the gate: they feel that they are trespassing, transgressing against the fictional owner’s intent, even as they treat the space exactly as the designers intended. In that context, we can describe the designer’s job as to pop in and out of view, supporting the player through the environment without the guiding hand becoming too obvious. Much of the time that support can be as simple as flagging the path forwards. For instance, consider the image below, from Wolfenstein: New Colossus. We talked about this back in 2019 – in the middle of the frame there’s a ladder, and you need to climb up it – but the way the scene is lit doesn’t give you much indication that it’s there. You can see maybe half of one side of the ladder, lit almost accidentally just by being close to the rail. The environment doesn’t signpost the ladder, so it can be really difficult to find. That kind of signposting is crucial in games – when it’s good, you don’t notice it, but when it’s bad, you’ll have an awful time. Maid of Sker gives you a neat little signpost with the fallen tree, which frames the path forwards in a visual echo of the fence. That echo is actually really cute – it’s as if the developers are reassuring the player that if they go down this detour, they’ll still be on the right path.
Let’s zoom out a little, anyway, and introduce our game for the week. Maid of Sker is a 2020 horror game developed by Wales Interactive, a Welsh publisher and game development company. They’re most known for publishing FMV (full motion video) games – Late Shift is probably their most famous title, but we’ve talked about The Shapeshifting Detective previously as well. Maid of Sker is a more traditional animated survival horror, taking the structure of Resident Evil and setting it against a Welsh cultural backdrop. Sker House, which serves as part of the inspiration for this game, is a real historic building in Wales, with its own share of ghost stories – maidens who died with broken hearts, the usual. The house is also made famous by the novel Maid of Sker, written in 1872 by R.D. Blackmore, who – if you’ve heard of him, you know him as the guy who wrote Lorna Doone. The point is that this game is built on a very specific cultural heritage. It’s Resident Evil in Wales. It’s interesting but not amazing – it’s often pretty, and it sounds good, but the stealth sections are a little doddery – which in the broadest view is arguably less of a complaint and more just acknowledging how budget constrains scope.
In terms of setting, Maid of Sker is set in the Sker Hotel, a single location that you explore and unlock over the course of the game. We might describe it as a one-house horror – ‘one-house’ meaning not necessarily one literal house, but one space, one interconnected environment where the player can return to different areas at any time. We could for instance apply the term to Resident Evil 7 – in that example not one house, but one property. It has you return to earlier areas with a new perspective – after you’ve escaped the main house, for instance, Lucas has you return to get a keycard from the murdered policeman. Similarly, Resident Evil 2 has you exploring and progressively unlocking the police station, and Alien: Isolation has you passing back and forth across Sevastapol Station, pursued by an increasingly agitated xenomorph. As a design choice, this structure is very much in opposition to, say, BioShock 2, which has that notorious train system – if you’re not familiar, essentially you’re moving towards the main villain on a train, but at every stop there’s some nonsense that makes you get off and run around for a bit before you’re able to move the train forward. The risk with that structure is that the goal and the levels can feel disconnected from each other. The way that games make us move through space orients us to the space, telling us how we should feel about it – that’s part of the developer’s hand. In BioShock 2, we are oriented to the core levels as a series of distractions, as a series of impediments, delays, and cul de sacs. It’s frustrating. You don’t feel like you’re making progress – at each stop, you feel like you’re having your time wasted. And it’s not that disruptions or impediments are necessarily bad things, right. Resident Evil is full of lost keys and locked doors. Maid of Sker follows closely in that style: at one point it has this little train set with a bunch of crests, and you have to find all the missing crest pieces in order to unlock a gate – in both cases, you’ve got a puzzle or fetch quest quite literally gating progress. The difference is how you’re oriented to the space. There’s a broader spatial context for those puzzles and delays. In BioShock, at every stop you have to get off the train, run around the level, hit the relevant levers, and then get back on the train and go to the next destination. In terms of the spatial logic of this game, the train represents linear progression from start to finish. Every time you step off the train, you’re stepping away from progress and dealing with blockers, dealing with obstacles. After a while, it just feels like getting jerked around by dickheads. With Resident Evil, with Maid of Sker, the broader spatial context is the one-house horror.
So at the start of Maid of Sker, you turn up to this hotel, and you have to find your wife – who’s gone missing or whatever. She’s been kidnapped by her creepy uncles. And you get into the house, and you get a phone call – and it’s Elisabeth! She asks you to find the four magic things, starting you off on your quest to free the world from haunted Welsh hotels. The developers thus orient you to the space as an explorer. You’re not given a waypoint and a specific direction – you’re told to go poke around. It’s a very open-ended, playful process – it encourages creativity, trial and error, even failure. If you look around a room and don’t find anything, you’re still able to tick that room off the list. You have explored it. Well done. Similarly, where delays and obstacles exist, they are experienced as features of the terrain rather than as problems stopping you from achieving your goal. Encountering a dead end is a marker of success. Encountering a locked door – especially a locked door with a specific key symbol on it – is even better. It’s a promise. It promises a return, a future opportunity, an exploration that is yet to come. And I think crucially it assures you that you don’t have to get everything right the first time. If you miss some stuff, there will be another chance later.
And here’s the thing, right. If you lined up the fictional worlds of BioShock 2 and Maid of Sker next to each other, BioShock should blow the competition out of the water. Maid of Sker is good for what it is, but BioShock is in a whole other league. And yet in some ways I feel more fondly about Maid of Sker. The fictional world of BioShock is deeper, more textured, more varied, it has more to offer, it has a grander vision and the budget to throw behind it – but Maid of Sker offers its hotel as a place to explore and play. It’s not just about the texture of the fictional world. It’s also about what we’re told to do with it.