Exploring dens, private spaces, and room to breathe in game design through The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and merritt k’s Soft Chambers project.
As a kid, I spent most of my time after school playing at ‘the burn’; in Scotland, a burn is a stream or river, and this one was only a minute from my house, full of all sorts of “interesting spaces”, the kind that kids seek out and claim for themselves, even those that exist in fairly public places but are nonetheless made into a kind of temporary autonomous zone whenever they inhabit them. The burn I played at ran out to the sea, and in doing so, it crossed under a bridge that was part of the riverside promenade, and there was enough space to travel under it – provided you were adept enough to find the right stepping stones to get you through. The river also ran under the town’s train line – again, with enough space to play about underneath, all the way back under a series of bridges to the woods. There were trees to climb, smooth pieces of glass, ceramic and stones to find underwater, and tall plants and shrubbery to tread through like an explorer traversing the jungle. Most of my time at the burn was spent making “dens” – often just circles of big rocks I’d clustered together in such a way as to make a small wall, with a few flat stones included to act as seats or tables. Each den was a resting space, purposeless except to exist for itself, a demarcated space for me to exist in – a “room to breathe”.
(They also often acted as a convenient place to stash stuff, too; which at the time included a book of spells and potions I’d made, and probably quite a bit of change I’d kept from trips the local newsagent. They might still be there!)
Later, once I discovered The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, I remember doing much the same thing, translating what I’d done at the burn to the game and spending hours just exploring Clock Town. Climbing up onto a roof to jump across a series of platforms and find my own hidden spot; standing in the Laundry pool and watching the water pass through the bars at either end; watching the path that the bugs in the Stock Pot Inn’s empty kitchen traced as they scrambled across the floor. Exploration was more than just finding out where all the interactive objects were – since they may not always be the most important or even most relevant aspect of a game – but getting into the nooks and crannies of the town and finding out what each space felt like.
My need for interesting spaces was something that was present both in real life and in the games I’d played. They didn’t disappear as I got older; just took on new names like “urban exploration” or “psychogeography” to give them an admittedly-tiny bit of social legitimacy in a world where seeing adults playing freely in public spaces – especially by themselves – can be disconcerting and uncomfortable.
On one expedition in Majora’s Mask as a kid, I used the Deku flower-pad outside the Great Fairy’s Fountain in North Clock Town to launch myself up into the branches of a nearby tree. This tree has no purpose – unlike other trees in the world, rolling into it will not mysteriously shake money out of its branches (a fact one could only find out from exploration). It’s not on the way to anything. It doesn’t confer any kind of benefit in the game. It just felt satisfying to be there. And I’d sit in the tree for some time – sometimes wearing different masks in-game, pretending I was my character who was also pretending to be someone else.
Game designers and other folk savvy with game design in general might be tempted at this point to classify this an example of a player meeting “player-defined objectives” and feeling a sense of victory in doing so – but the experience wasn’t satisfying because I’d achieved something – it was because it felt “just right”. There’s a tendency in game design to reduce complex emotional experiences such as these down to tidy, pre-established categories that, while we can definitely describe the experience “the player wanted to do something without being told to, set a goal, and did it”, it says very little about why that felt important, or why that goal in particular was chosen.
The Soft Chambers project (archive.org link, website is now unavailable), headed by merritt k, is a radical approach to designing and writing about games, focusing on warmness, emotional connections, and tenderness, consisting of short written segments exploring principles related to how these concepts might manifest in games. One of these segments, “cozy digital spaces”, talks about the sensation of feeling at rest in a safe spot in the game, taking time to be passive, contemplative, and releasing oneself from the constant demand to act, to perform, to make use of all the verbs you’ve been given and the objects you’re permitted to act upon, and instead just take time to breathe.
In that tree, it became possible to see the game-world breathe around me; Jim, the young boy who leads the Bomber’s Secret Society of Justice, traipses to and fro across the path, his shoes making a waddling, warbling sound as he aimlessly ambles, before he shoots a few peas at a nearby balloon, which gently floats up and down. Not too far away, another balloon hangs in the air, this one tied to the back of a man dressed all in green, drawing a map of the area below him with a fountain pen. As night falls, you might spot a man lurking behind a set of pillars and a slide in one of the corners of town; at midnight, a woman steps out from the darkness of the city gate, and makes her way down the path, past the tree, past the nearby postbox, and towards the east side of town – but she’s mugged by the lurking man, and it’s your choice to help or to allow him to get away with her possessions by skipping past the guard through the North town gate.
You can watch all of these tiny movements from the safety of the tree, high above them, not only in space but in time – as a person who comes to know the daily routines of the townsfolk, they are bound to happen before you, but you are not bound to interfere.
When we’re designing games, the actions, or “verbs” a character can perform are often seen as the foundational, elemental particle for game mechanics; but a lack of action, an opportunity for contemplation, and room to breathe can be every bit as expressive, significant and welcome.
This feature was originally published on Feb 2015.