Gaps and Pauses: The Role of Negative Space in Games

At the end of Act 1 in Diablo 3, you’ve descended through the Highlands and the Halls of Agony, battling Khazra, Dark Cultists and the fearsome Warden to meet the Butcher. After a pitched battle across a fire-ridden arena, your character defeats the Butcher and continues into the Cells of the Condemned to find the Stranger. Here, there aren’t any difficult enemies and the rescue isn’t especially compelling storytelling. But the staircase is really long! It’s twisting and falling apart like most things in the Cells and it takes several seconds for your character to traverse. It’s a peculiarly empty moment in an otherwise dense gameplay experience.

There aren’t other long, empty places like this in Diablo 3 that I can recall. A second pass through will refill an area with enemies. A level will respawn skeletons or Stygian Crawlers after you clear it. Even when there are moments of travel without fighting, there will be loot to pick up or landscape to take in. 

The staircase is jarring. Diablo 3 isn’t a scary game. It’s not tense, it’s campy. And this use of empty game space fails to build suspense.

Compare this to the long and dangerous path to Nashandra at the end of Dark Souls 2. This too is a strange moment in the game, but so much of that game feels uncanny. In both cases, the intention was probably to build tension. If it succeeds, or just succeeds at testing the player’s patience is another matter — but it’s an attempt to intensify emotion and bring the player’s attention to a focal point. The “negative space” of the long walk up supports the fear or anxiety of reaching the boss or the big moment in a story. In visual art, we would say that it draws the viewer’s eye to the subject.

We don’t often associate video games with the concept of negative space, at least not in an intentional way. Our experience of the world within the game takes place in a void, a digital vacuum. We know that beyond what we can see there is nothing, a space of potentiality. But typically, it’s something we only experience when the game breaks.

Silent Hill

Lessons From Comics

As a comic artist, I’ve internalized countless pieces of advice about the medium. One in particular applies to games: the idea that the artist need not draw backgrounds in every panel. This shortcut is a way to make panels more “readable” or draw attention to a character’s expression, but most importantly, it’s a way to save time. The negative space of the panel is a technical mask that happens to also work as a focusing tool.

How does that work in video games? One example is the fog in Silent Hill. The blank space created by the fog is a major source of atmosphere and tension in the game. The player doesn’t know what is lurking in that looming emptiness. It amplifies how alone Harry Mason is and how unfamiliar the town is.

But the main purpose of the fog is technical — it masks the limitations of the system for which the game was designed. The PS1 didn’t have the capacity to render Silent Hill as the developers intended. Fog conceals the low draw distance and pop-in effects that would otherwise be jarring in what was supposed to be an immersive world. But it’s also impossible to imagine the game without it — the atmosphere and experience just wouldn’t be the same.

Mass Effect
It is precisely where there is nothing, that we find the usefulness of the wheel. (Lao-Tzu, Te-Tao Ching)

Another famous — or maybe infamous — example of negative space as technical masking is the elevator in Mass Effect. In place of loading screens between areas, Mass Effect places players in long elevator sequences. Players hear occasional dialogue between companions and announcements over the PA, but it’s mostly just empty downtime. Like the fog of Silent Hill, these sequences aim to hide the seams of the game world. But they also accomplish another aim of negative space in art: giving the eye a place to rest.

For myself and many others, Bioware games like Mass Effect are all about the relationships between characters. I appreciate getting to know my companions and developing friendships with them. From this perspective, the empty silence of the elevator rides is time spent in companionable silence.  

The empty moments in Mass Effect feel safe. In contrast, consider the mounting unease of the player as they ride out to confront another giant foe in Shadow of the Colossus. The game’s vast distances, while occasionally broken up by minor challenges, give the player ample time to think about what they are doing and why they’re doing it. Here, empty space gives the player time to breath. But unlike in Mass Effect, it also encourages rumination on the game’s central objective, since there’s little else to do in between battles.

Psychosomatic Reactions

Emptiness can be terrifying too, and I don’t just mean in an existential sense. Some common fears, like fear of heights or of the ocean are, on a basic level, fear of empty and unknown spaces.

Sometimes when I’m playing games I get an acrophobic or claustrophobic twinge of panic. In Skyrim, I’ll hesitate before entering a cave if the entrance is too small, the walls are too narrow, if I can feel the weighted void of the mountain pressing down on me. I’m scared of the ocean in real life, enough that I flinch when I dive into the frigid waters of the Sea of Ghosts. Sometimes I jolt on the couch, sometimes I get a pinch between my eyes, like a shortened version of an intense sinus headache.

In Bioshock, the ocean is only a pane of glass away, the surface an immeasurable distance further. The vast, dark water is a constant presence as you play, a background hum of trapped claustrophobia, against which more immediate threats emerge.

In From Software games, I’ll frantically mash buttons before being pushed into a crevasse. My stomach drops the same way it does during airplane turbulence. Even in games where falling off the edge of a cliff or building means instant respawning, I’ll jump in real life, startled. I might just be an exceptionally jumpy person, but I also think that this — the threat of the void — is effective use of negative space in games. 

Just as the space can convey danger, it can also provide a sense of scale or pressure. One of my favorite paintings, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth, does this well. The empty space of the prairie gives meaning to the woman’s place in relation to the house. It adds a sense of mystery and tension to an otherwise idyllic scene. I can feel how lonely Christina is. 

Many games use this kind of size contrast for a sense of loneliness — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a good example here. I’m constantly struck by how small I feel, how big the world is. Like Christina, Link is alone in a huge place. He is even small on our screens; less than an inch tall on the screen of my Switch Lite. This is not only helpful for the player to visually assess their surroundings, it accentuates the enormousness of Link’s task. He has to save the world, which is huge!

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breath of the wild ending
‘Cause you’re empty, and I’m empty (Pavement, Gold Soundz)

Of course, negative space doesn’t have to indicate a place that has no use. There is a story in the Zhuangzi — one of the two main Daoist texts — about a butcher who has never had to sharpen his knives. When the philosopher asks what his secret is, the butcher replies that instead of cutting through the animal, he cuts into the empty spaces between the bones. His knife never meets resistance and therefore never needs to be sharpened. The butcher’s knowledge of emptiness allows him to use his tools to their fullest, and for him to find satisfaction in his work.

Daoism has a lot to say about emptiness. It’s usually seen as a useful thing, a place where the Dao can flow or where things can begin. In games that use maps, we’re often given a single area to start, surrounded by blank space which fills in as we explore. In Breath of the Wild, the map is a void until you reach the Sheikah Towers. Uncovering the maps of these areas gives me the same joy as marking off a to-do list. As a person who will write things I’ve already completed just to cross them off, I adore this. 

This is negative space as potential, a place to be filled. The emptiness is a place we can fill with anything we imagine. It’s a way games can engage with us, spark our emotions or creativity. It’s fun thinking about games in this way; finding a point of silence or loneliness or pressure and figuring out how negative space is working to create that feeling.