Welcome to Beyond Space 18, the Time-Space Experience to unravel your virtual boundaries
There is another world. It is an infinite space, an endless playground, a cornucopia of possibilities.
Virtual Reality has the power to surpass the boundaries of the real world - the reality where action has cause and physical laws are omnipresent. With the possibility to create things that lay behind those boundaries, how is a real human mind, a player, capable of understanding such events? The player must learn to play.
If we take any given game where a virtual character can move freely through the world, usually the arrow keys (or WASD) determine the next step, the character’s moving direction. The virtual self faces the direction, plays an animation and moves forward. That sounds quite intuitive so far, since that is also what a human would do. But the human isn’t doing it. The human is simply pressing the button wherefore the character moves. The player thinks of moving forward, and communicates this thought to the game. Now, if this communication would always be an active thought, there would be no way anyone could play games where a fast response rate is essential to the gameplay. In order to be able to play such games, naturally the player learns the meaning of specific controls and connects pressing a button to the meant interaction. A player knows now how to walk, but what about where/why and when? What’s more, a game does usually not only consist of walking but also more complex controls and combinations. To be able to play the game, the player also needs to understand game scenarios and how to behave in a given situation. For that, a player continuously obtains and accesses knowledge about possible game interactions, and connects game scenarios to their real world equivalent.
The Real World or IRL (short for ‘in real life’) is the world that has such consistent mechanics, that a human brain is not only able to function without errors on a daily basis but also has high probability of predicting specific future causes, of actions that underlie those mechanics. Given the real world is actually real, we can understand everything that we need to understand in order to survive. In order to play the game of life.
As a result, a game that simulates the real world, and a player that connects the gameplay to this real world, can be played intuitively by a player that knows its controls. The more a player has played the game, the more the player has learned(connected) and the more intuitively a player can interact with the game. That is the power of games, because with increasing gametime, the layers between real and virtual world decrease and a virtual becomes a ‘self’.
Until this point we have talked about perfect simulations, where nothing unreal ever happens. But in games that is not always the case. Imperfections, errors, glitches and bugs exist, impossible to the real world, which will always make a game a game. As a matter of fact there are so called ‘speed runs’ where a player makes use of those imperfections in order to finish the game as fast as possible. The speed runner usually perfectionates every move by playing the game over and over again, to get the best possible times. But how can a player understand glitches and even use them in an intuitive way while there is no matching real world scenario? It is same way we are able to play games that do not simulate consistent real world physics - Games that might even require the player to get an understanding of something they cannot understand?
At this point it gets interesting because how can we really know and prove if we understand something when there is no real way of doing so. What we can prove is that if the game follows an internal rule, written by a human, which it does and is, there is a way to play the game and to even enjoy it.
Existing Games(2) already do it and that’s what I am doing. I am trying to create the game Beyond Space 18 which simulates an intuitive gameplay but also requires the player to use an understanding beyond the real world - an understanding of virtual world mechanics. Furthermore, I raise the question, How are specific spaces and environments perceived in in virtual reality, and what can they make the player feel ?
A vast amount of games that ignore the boundaries of the real world already exists and some of them influenced me in my own making. Though, most of those games do not make this their main selling point, and simply use the lack of real life physics for an easier development and more fluent game play. For instance, flying simulators usually don't incorporate gravity and the shape of the earth in order to calculate the flight direction. However, in this section we will focus on the games that actually do focus those given properties and build a game around complex virtual physics.
Such games can be separated into being either closely related to extraordinary physical events (Wormholes, Low Gravity) or working with completely surreal mechanics (Perspective, Distortions). We will take a look at an example for both categories and see how they can influence the perception of the virtual world and a players learning process.
Probably one of the most popular games on extraordinary physics is Portal 2 . The idea of the game is that the player can create 2 “portals”, that connect to each other and form some sort of wormhole in the space. That means, objects entering one side of the portal will exist on the other, and vice versa. This mechanic is used for smaller puzzles, where the player has to drag a specific object or even himself into the wormhole to create momentum and relocate in order to progress in the game. Inspiring about this game is the visualization of the wormholes. Although wormholes are natural phenomena occurring in our real universe, it would be hard for human intuition to understand the physics of a wormhole. Let’s compare the visualization to mirrors. Mirrors already require a learning process in order to understand their properties. But instead of showing the reflected ingoing image, the wormholes would continue and show a non-mirrored space, different from their entrance position. In fact, Portal 2 visualized their wormholes like that. The portals are circular “mirrors” with the affiliated image seen on both ends. After playing the game, I can for sure say I understand the location of the visible space inside the portal but i can not intuitively use them to solve puzzles. Instead, the player needs to abstract them, and separate penetrating objects and movements into two, located at the ends of the portals. In the end, while that abstraction is the fun of the game it can also be really disturbing and confusing to be confronted with such unintuitive gameplay.
An example for a kown game related to completely surreal mechanics is Fez . In a nutshell, Fez is a 2D game that allows the player to switch between front, both sides and back view. All sides reveal different textures and content to the scene, which the player has to constantly explore in order to solve smaller puzzles in that world. This completely unnatural usage of space is genius on its own. But what makes this so fascinating is that it can be learned and played intuitively. That may be because it is possible to think of this space to a real 3D world. A 3D space, where the view is set statically to one side of the scene, at a time. However, that does not explain the effect that happens with the character when switching the view: When the character stands in front of the building and the view is rotated by 90 degrees, naturally the character will stand next to the building as seen from the side. Now, instead of having to move to the front, to walk past the building, the character already is at the front and can pass the side when walking left and right. For example, you could walk around a building by switching view, walking one step to the right, and repeat that four times. And that’s not how a human would walk around a building IRL. What makes this game, and not just any other 2D game, fall under the category of completely surreal mechanics, is the fact that this specific spatial moving dynamic is not understood by abstraction only, but by learning a new way of moving through space. While on the other hand plain 2D games simplify the simulation of natural physics, just all happening from the side view and a two dimensional event horizon.
This specific learning effect was mentioned in connecting thoughts and was the biggest motivation for the creation of my own game.
Until this point we have seen a lot of simulations that try to play with complex virtual physics, but what they all have had in common is that they have one (changing) main world, where the virtual self is located at all times. And here is where Beyond Space 18 tries to spice things up. Instead of just having one world at a time, the player has different so called “Subspaces” that, in a way, work like portals. But instead of portals where you relocate through space, the player can use the spaces simultaneously. That means, while being located on a main map, as he switches into the subspaces, he will move in all of them at the same time. Each subspace has a different property, that is closely related to its internal architecture and has to be used in order to solve specific puzzles on the main world. As a result we can observe different perceptions of space in terms of both, being in a main world or in a subspace, and the varying space dynamics in between all of the 4 dimensions.
The player starts in an abstract looking room with squared columns and some sort of altar at the center. There are four different textures, which appear around the room and at the altar. As the player looks around, he can see that those textures are not actual surfaces but rather look like “windows” to different spaces. There is a window into a sakura forest, a diamond stairway, a red aura and an abstract blue space. While the outer columns only allow for a view into, the player can actually access all spaces at the altar by simply walking into them. After arriving there, each space reveals a spinning object, which turns out to be the trigger that lets the subspace collapse and be absorbed by the player. Once, all spaces are absorbed, the player starts the game on the main world where he can use the power of those spaces.
The main world is a linear continuous space with simulated real life physics. It consists of 4 puzzles, which each need to be solved by the player in order to progress. The goal is to experience the world, solve all puzzles and get to the final room, where the game will terminate. The map (left and right) is constructed in a jagged shape, to counter linearity. It starts with a flat squared area, continues to the right, over an abyss, a high area and a final separated cube room, only accessible by a small entrance on top of it.
The design of the main world is abstract and has a mechanical vibe to it. The whole floor and some background decoration cast reflections that create a mirror/water feeling. It is a subtle way of confronting the player with a real life scenario close to portal textures, mirrors, and is meant to let a player connect to those two events. The main world has the role of creating a divergence of feeling home but also lost and abstract. That feeling is essential because, on one hand, the self-impersonating to the virtual self and its world should be questioned at all time. On the other hand, I wanted the player to have a place to return to and form a closer connection to. They both result from the design and animation between the visible part of the player and the world. While the feeling of distance is created by the metallic texture and rough animations, the same properties also create a feeling of stability and similarity to the word, resulting in a calm and almost familiar place.
The smaller subspaces are key to the actual game play. After being acquired, they can be accessed however often and at any point in the game. Moreover, the player can switch between the 4 spaces, and thus connect the subspace to the real world, once at a time. When connected, the view will only show the scenery of the subspace, but the player’s movements will happen of both of the spaces and is decided by the properties of the connected subspace. That means, the player has to activate a subspace to subconsciously solve a puzzle on the main world which he cannot see at that time. Once deactivated,the view will fade and the space properties are reset to the main world. The 4 subspaces distinguish in spatial properties, physical mechanics and overall mood, and are designed so that they give a hint to what they might be used for.
The bright rose, linear space of the sakura path is used for the first puzzle. When activated, the player can only move forwards and backwards on both worlds. Thus, it provides a form of linear tunnel and foundation, meant to be used to form a bridge to cross the abyss at the start of the main world. Its design is as the word “path” suggests very linear with physical boundaries on all sides. The full treetops, dark branches and a black ground, with a solid mirror path going straight in both direction, tries to create this almost holy way, which is bounded but also freeing by glowing leafs, white sky and a sparkling path.
The dimensionless red atmosphere solves the second puzzle. Accessing it means the player has zero gravity. Hence, jumps made in red aura will not end until returned to the main world. In other words, the player can solve the puzzle by making use of this space and jump over the high areas of the second puzzle. Zero Gravity and the feeling of dimensionless are what makes this space different to the others. A constant upwards flow of its great amount of red particles take all feeling of bounded space and lift the players view, giving hint that it can be used to defy gravity.
The path of the turquoise diamond, spiral stairway plays a role for the third puzzle. After entering, the player will start at the top of the stairs, with only one way to go: descend the spiral path to the lower end. Following the stairs to the center of the platform is the only way to access the top entrance of the final cubic room. The design of diamond stairs is inspired by a chandelier. Its transparent, convoluted elements and a circular architecture imply the required path in a very open and playful way. Moreover, the spinning diamonds hanging from a ceiling in the sky try to enhance the feeling of gravity, pulling downwards, and create a form of tension in the whole construct, possibly a force making the player wanting to descend.
The abstract, matrix space comes to play in the final puzzle of the game. Instead of giving the virtual self a different moving dynamic, it reveals a glowing path underneath the ground. A path that shows the player the way through a grid labyrinth of the final cubic room, and with that, finishing the game. This space is all about the feelings of control and knowledge, knowing the path out of the maze. For creating this kind of feeling the abstract patterns of matrix code inspired the overall look. To match the spatial, horizontal layout of the room, the space is only bounded by the glowing ground. Bouncing, interactable black holes spinning around the player, also give a hint of freedom of space in all horizontal directions.
Aside from the questions regarding the intuitive gameplay, we have asked ourselves what roles different spaces might play and how the player feels in different environments. So, what were my thoughts and what were they based on when deciding on the different subspaces and even using them as a concept?
A feeling of space I was really fascinated and inspired by a book, written by computer game researcher and philosopher Espen Aarseth and Stephan Grünzel . It touches onto the representation of spaces and distinguishes certain concepts, events related to spatial perception of a virtual self. For instance the topic of curves space (and Portal 2) is also referenced and they, too, define such extraordinary physical events as boundaries of human perception. What’s more, interesting concepts such as horizontal, linear and hodological are thematized, all defining some way of direction and degrees of freedom that come with their integration. In fact, a main driving factor of designing the concepts for beyond space 18’s subspaces is based on some of those defined characteristics in the book.
For simplicity I have referred to my spaces as main- and subspaces, since on a mechanical level that is what they are. Although, the actual goal of the game is to not differentiate and to define all different spaces for a player but to let the player experience them and form a connection or disconnection to either one of them. “What is the main space - what is the virtual space? What is the main self - what is the virtual self?” Are the questions that should be raised alongside playing this game. By layering spaces in an almost Inception like way, i wanted to pull a player into the game and to enhance the connection to one specific space at a time.
This paper should have touched on different topics all related to the feeling of playing in and with virtual space. After talking about boundaries of virtual space perception, I wanted to connect this abstract topic to actual known spatial characteristics and show the reader how this connection is realized in Beyond Space 18.
Even if the game is not as intuitive as originally wanted and is only created within 2 months it really does touch on the subject of learning virtual behaviours and feeling space. At least, that is what I learned in developing and playing the game.
In the end, all the games we have talked about have one thing in common. They teach the player to know their way through the game, even though at first it might be hard to understand. And it works no different than real life scenarios, the player does in fact learn by playing the game. learning by doing, learning by playing.
 Valve Corporation 2011, Portal 2, computer game, Platform game, Electronic Arts, Bellevue Washington  Polytron Corporation 2012, Fez, computer game, Platform game, Trapdoor, Montreal  Espen Aarseth & Stephan Grünzel, Ludotopia: Spaces, places and territories in computer games, 2019 transcript Verlag, Bielefeld  Warner Bros. Pictures 2010, Inception, Christopher Nolan, London