In Praise of Negative Space in Video Game Storytelling

Saying something with nothing. Adding by subtracting.

Negative space is one of the most powerful tools a video game storyteller has at their disposal.

What is negative space? In art, negative space refers to the blank space on the (possibly metaphorical) canvas where there isn’t a subject. Far from being just the unwanted leftovers of a finished piece though, sometimes what isn’t there, where it isn’t, and why it isn’t are equally important for the artist to consider as what is.

Observe the clever use of negative space in the logo above and how it adds to the composition.

The same concept, in a sense, can be applied to storytelling, where leaving strategic gaps in the narrative can actually add to the strength of a work by capitalizing upon humanity’s perpetual fascination with the unknown and endless drive to make sense of things. Giving people answers often destroys their curiosity and robs them of the opportunity to use their own imagination. And the audience’s imagination put to work is far more powerful than any storyteller could ever be.

The effectiveness of this principle is well illustrated in good horror: a monster is often scarier when you don’t see it because the terrors your mind can conjure in the absence of certainty are far worse than anything a developer can come up with. Who knows better how to unsettle you than your own brain, after all?

When thinking about video games, Amnesia: The Dark Descent was one of the first popular horror titles to embrace the use of negative space. It has long segments of gameplay where the only threat to the player is their own hyperstimulated imagination, and monsters, when they do show up, drive your character insane if you try to get a closer look at them. It also features, in one of the scariest sections in gaming history, a watery zone inhabited by an invisible creature who’s trackable solely by the splashing sound it makes and the ripples in the water as it moves towards you. In each of these cases, it’s the lack of something and the filling of that vacuum by a terrified mind that takes Amnesia’s horror to the next level.

Outside of horror, negative space in video games is commonly used to create a sense of weight and wonder. This is of especial effectiveness in open-world or exploration-focused games such as titles in the Metroidvania genre. Within this genre, the use of negative space takes advantage of a key strength of video games over other mediums of storytelling: interactivity. 

We’ve already established that leaving blanks naturally invites the audience to play an active role in the storytelling process. In games, however, this can take place not just within the audience’s mind but within the game itself, creating an experience that could be said to be the purest expression of “show, don’t tell,” and synergizing strongly with the pursuit of discovery so integral to Metroidvanias by further incentivizing careful examination and exploration of the world.

Under this lens, details in the environment gain sudden significance as elusive clues. And what the players are searching for in ancient ruins and abandoned homes is no longer just a hidden collectible, secreted behind a breakable wall, but answers to burning questions: What is this place? Who were these people? What happened here? And finding those answers (or rather, cryptic clues with which players are asked to draw their own conclusions) can deliver a satisfaction unmatched by any shiny trinket.

The benefits of utilizing negative space in video game storytelling is not limited to in-game effects either. It can also help build engagement within the gaming community. One need not look far to find endless threads of lore questions, theories, and explanations by thousands of passionate Soulsborne series fans, persisting despite the fact that Dark Souls III, for instance, released over four years ago. YouTuber VaatiVidya’s immense success, sitting now at over 1.7 million subscribers on his channel, was also largely built upon his in-depth exploration of Soulsborne lore.

These games have gained immensely from their coy refusal to give answers

This is by no means unique to the Soulsborne series either. You can also find a 296 page (and counting) PDF on the Path of Exile Reddit compiling all available lore in the game, organized in a chronological and topical fashion, or fall endlessly down the rabbit hole of timeline discussions for the Zelda series, whose diehard theorists have by no means been satiated by the release of an official timeline by Nintendo.

What’s abundantly clear in all of these cases is that these games have gained immensely from their coy refusal to give answers. In working with their players, they transcended a barrier to spin far richer tapestries of lore than they might have ever imagined themselves.

It isn’t easy to use negative space. It takes real talent as a storyteller to sell nothing as an intriguing blank and to not confuse laziness with deliberately seeded mystery. Indeed, pretentious tales and hollow worlds that failed to make that jump litter the fictional landscape. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight comes to mind as a game that tries to recapture the eerie beauty and dark tragedy of the Soulsborne series through the use of negative space but manages only to leave the player wanting. If used delicately and skillfully, however, negative space can be an incredible asset to a video game storyteller through its inclusion of the player in an endeavor, in a medium, where storytelling has always been — and should always be — collaborative by its very nature.

By Raven Wu

Raven Wu is a freelance writer from Canada/Taiwan. He’s also an amateur novelist, history enthusiast, and animanga lover. He enjoys hard games, spicy food, and thinking way too hard about everything. You can find him on Twitter @RavenNTW

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