Spatial Storytelling

Locations carry a great deal of narrative potential for us, even in everyday life. Locations carry meaning in themselves and communicate temporal significance through their changes. Certain places evoke particular memories of times that were different. When one goes back to their hometown after an extended time away, we immediately mark the new shops, new development, abandoned storefronts, etc. The change apparent in a familiar place marks the passage of time more significantly than any clock or calendar. Today, I want to look at how locations tell stories in games and how that compares to the way we tell stories about the past via locations.

One of the most common beginnings to stories is: “Once upon a time…”,  setting us in some temporal location in the past. In writing classes, we learn to “signpost” our writing with terms like “next”, “then”, “after”, etc. When reading novels, we often encounter temporal phrases like “the next morning” or “after the sunrise”.

In games though, such temporal markers are much more rare. Oh, they show up, especially in cutscenes and opening movies, but it is less often and usually outside of normative play. Time is marked partly by how quickly you move through a space, but more importantly, by the different spaces themselves.

We mark space in a game story often by asking “where” we are in the game. It is a question that asks about both space and time simultaneously and that can often be answered by space alone. Say I’m playing Tales of Symphonia (one of my favorite games) and you ask where I am in the story. I could answer, “I’m in the dungeon of water,” and by that location alone, you would immediately know at what temporal point I am in the story.

In adventure games, these locative transitions often mark temporal movement by incorporating change. In King’s Quest VI (another of my favorites), I can enter the bookshop for the first time and see a mysterious hooded figure. Only after I have completed some event or task will the scene change when I enter again. In the game code, this is marked by a simple flag – has the character completed X or have they not. There is no temporal allowance there. It is a static place that is simply represented different ways. To the player however, that representation communicates the illusion of temporal movement because of its represented change.[1]

Games then are a) static structures of code that are represented differently in order to give an illusion of temporal movement, and b) a medium that tells narrative often through spatial progression rather than temporal progression.

How does this compare to how we view the past? Much of our understanding of the past comes from archaeology, a discipline centered on particular spaces, and through them, particular times. A couple of years ago, I was at a site just south of Rome. The story of that location was told through the space we discovered. In this village site, it was the different spaces we walked through and uncovered that told the story of the inhabitants. Time was somewhat murky and difficult to mark with precision. The space however was clear. There were dramatic changes apparent from one layer to the next, and from one section to the next. A narrative could be constructed telling the story of that city through the changes visible in the space themselves. Pottery finds could add some temporal anchors, but the pottery itself helped tell the story because of the location it was in. Objects found in a grave had a different meaning than those found in a settlement.

The past itself was apparent through the space we were in. Marked off from the land around it, that location was not just a different part of the Earth, but marked a different point in time as well. What time exactly? It’s unclear. What is clear is that it was before now, that one section of the site came before another, that the change in the space itself marked a change in time.

Time is a strict master of our lives. Our clocks tick like marching bands, and our calendars send reminders just on schedule everyday. But time in our mind, in the way we actually understand our lives, is quite different. We know that keeping busy makes time go faster. We know that vacation journeys pass more quickly on the way home than on the way away. We are shocked when we learn we have been in the same town for six years when it feels like only two. We understand time much differently than how we measure it, yet we continually try to anchor ourselves in objective time. Our photos are marked with dates. We schedule reunions at 5-year intervals as if that somehow matters. We are mortal creatures and thus bound to time, but perhaps change as evident in any space is more meaningful than some quantified measure of time.

In folklore studies, Vivian Labrie has shown how oral storytellers recall the tales they tell via the spatial progression within them.[2] It is the movement from location to location that helps them recall the story. Not the logic. Not the time. The space. Storytellers can map out their tales as pictures of spaces (holding characters) in a series connected by arrows. The logic of those connections comes out in the telling, but isn’t necessarily held in the memory. Location is. Even in Homer, we can see how the teller imagines narrative progressing between particular locations. There are temporal markers in the poem as well, of course, but the significance of that time, the change, is visible in the particular spaces themselves at different points in the story.[3]

So why is this important? What does it matter if space tells story? For one, I think it is important to realize that our minds may value space more importantly than they do time. For designing games, this means particular spaces and the progression of those spaces will be able to carry meaning without text and without temporal markers. Change itself, whether change in one location or the change that comes from progressing to one location from another, is enough to tell story. For teaching history, it may mean that understanding events as changes in particular places or as a progression of locations is more useful than understanding events as markers on a timeline. One is a story; the other is just a series of events.

[1] Black, Michael. Narrative and Spatial Form in Digital Media”. Games and Culture. April 12 2012.

[2] Labrie, Vivian. “The Itinerary as a Possible Memorized Form of the Folktale”. Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore. 37. (1981). 89-102.

[3] Strauss-Clay, Jenny. Homer’s Trojan Theater. Cambridge University Press. 2011.



  1. I definitely think you’re right about games favoring spacial storytelling over temporal. At the same time, I also think that leaves a lot of untapped potential for temporal thinking in game design. Temporal elements like running across the shopkeeper being mugged at midnight in Majora’s Mask add a sense of depth to the game world that you don’t often see.

    Of course, I don’t know what temporal storytelling in a historical game would look like, but I think it could open some interesting possibilities…

    1. One ‘temporal’ game that comes to mind is the classic RPG ‘Chrono Trigger’. Once you played past a certain part of the game, you could travel to any time period you wanted and explore the space presented there. Actions taken in the past did have effects in the future- but this was still a temporal presentation defined by space.

      Gamasutra had a feature on the design choices behind Chrono Trigger, and that might help flesh out my comment above:

      You could also argue that historical board games have a strong temporal element to their construction, even though they, too, are tied to a specific space. ‘Twilight Struggle’, for example, is really just two players creating an alternate historical timeline for the development of the Cold War. There is clearly a progression of space opening up (one cannot score Africa until the Middle War period of the game, for example) but this is still tied to a temporal progression that is meant to model the actual, historical development of the Cold War. In many other wargames, there is the ever present ‘march of time’ that ultimately determines if one wins or not- I’m thinking of games like ‘Empire of the Sun’, which recreates, on an operational scale, the War in the Pacific, or a game like ‘Reds!’ which puts the onus of progression on the commander of the White forces to make certain gains by established ‘game time’ markers.

      Maybe video games can play with the idea of space more freely than a board game, whose very construction mandates (generally) a static space representation.

      Great post and some interesting ideas to play with here, no pun intended.

  2. I think an important distinction in determining whether a game follows a more temporal or more spacial logic is whether or not the temporal elements are implemented in the game mechanics, or merely in the narrative structure of the game.

    Although the passage of time is essential to the narrative of a game like Twilight Struggle, this passage is primarily indicated by spacial changes on the game board. Like in Emily’s example of King’s Quest, there is no passage of time, only a sequence of events. Chrono Trigger deviates from this pattern by playing with causality through the different time periods, but I would still probably argue that it follows a more spacial logic than a temporal one. Although time travel is a central theme in the framing fiction, the game itself only progresses through spacial interaction. In order for time to pass, you have to move your character.

    The most extreme example of a game with a temporal logic I can think of would be Animal Crossing, in which “game time” and real time directly correspond to each other. Even when your console is turned off, time is effectively passing in your virtual world and the next time you play, you can see the effects of that time in your town.

    Temporal logic continues to be somewhat underutilized in videogames, but I can’t really think of any board games that incorporate time into the mechanics of the game, beyond having a timer for player turns. The closest thing I can think of would be a game like “Hot Potato.”

  3. Peter- really great comments. Let me see if I can address some of your points above.

    While I would agree that Twilight Struggle uses spatial movement to act as a marker to time’s passage on the board, the same does not apply to the deck of strategy cards that govern the deployment of influence on the board and the emergence of key ‘highlight’ events, such as the rise of Nassar in Egypt. The cards are separated into three ‘eras’: Early War, Mid War, Late War. As the game progresses, these cards are shuffled into the deck for players to utilize (on turns 4 and 7)- yet it is entirely possible for the game to end in the Early War or Mid War, meaning that players would never see either the Mid War or Late War cards, respectively, during their play. The same applies for scoring cards, which do not fully emerge until the Middle War (this is when Africa, Central and South America can be scored).

    Thus one could say that the temporal aspect of the Cold War is essential to understanding both the narrative and mechanical aspects of the gameplay. It would be foolish to place influence points in Africa on the first turn, as that region will not be scored until, at the very earliest, the Mid War. Players can do so, but they risk their position in countries that are more temporally (and mechanically, since the strategy deck ultimately governs what can be played) tied to the Early War. This design choice is deliberate, as the creators of Twilight Struggle sought to model, more or less, the pace of events as they occurred in the historical progression of the Cold War.

    Perhaps this explanation doesn’t fit your definition of ‘temporal logic’, as the board will essentially stand still until someone plays a card- but I would counter that this is not what the player experiences, what the player sequences as events that occurred during play. For them, the ‘temporal logic’ is compressed- they experience (a curated) 45 years of Cold War history in a 2-4 hour game. There is also the inclusion of media artifacts found on the board and cards themselves- when ‘Flower Power’ is played, the player is not taken to the space of the social unrest tied to Vietnam- they are transported to the time period which made the entire phrase ‘Flower Power’ meaningful.

    We might be coming at this argument through different definitions of time- if you mean a 1:1 correlation with ‘real time’, then I would agree that board games do not necessarily incorporate temporal mechanics. But one has to be careful with 1:1 logic, as Einstein’s theory of relativity reminds us- time is definitely relative to the observer.

    In addition to Animal Crossing, I would add that many MMORPG’s utilize a similar ‘mirroring’ of both game and real time. This is what gives something like Eve Online or WoW it’s ‘social’ angle- you have to coordinate with people to conduct raids in a manner that corresponds to both time in the game world and the real world. Wargames conducted by the military might also fit a ‘mirroring’ perspective, although many Wargames utilize time compression in order to achieve understanding of a conflict through its varied results. Still, I agree that true ‘mirroring’ mechanics are underutilized- but then again, such mechanics would (and are) demanding on the player as they must give their real time equally in pursuit of game time. (This is probably why WoW is seen as ‘addictive’ and why detractors scorn the level of obsession dedicated players possess- they simply can’t understand the investment of ‘time’)

    Adventure or Puzzle games (even folklore), like King’s Quest, can do away with temporal concerns because the larger story is not bound by time- it’s a fictional narrative whose boundaries are concerned with, and defined by, narrative progression. With wargames or historical board games time is at the heart of play. Waterloo can’t occur in 1856- it must occur on 18 June 1815. Designers may fudge this a bit, especially if the game is on an operational scale, but they do so with great caution as moving too far out of alignment with the historical narrative reality jeopardizes the validity of the model designed.

    Sorry to rant a bit here- clearly there is plenty of great ground for temporal analysis in games.

  4. I guess it depends on the type of game we’re talking about. When I think about temporal versus spatial logic, Magic: The Gathering has very little spatial logic but has mostly temporal logic. Cards’ worth are valued based almost completely on when they can have an impact.

    I think it has to do with the incredibly challenged relationship between narrative and mechanics in games. Temporal logic only becomes important when multiple different important narratives occur at the same location. For example, think of the way that a baseball park like Fenway has such history. Talking about the emotions of a World Series depends incredibly on the time that occurred within that territory.

    I also think games have the challenge of the conflicting logics of the narrative we tell as a result of play and the narratives that games present. Although a game might have its own temporal logic, the logic of our play becomes mostly spatial.

    But I’m not sure this is to say that games favor spatial over temporal. Perhaps its more about the type of game than games in general. I think perhaps strategic games might use temporal logic more than role playing games, whose focus on narrative might actually make spatial logic more important.

  5. Thanks for all your responses, guys. This is turning into a really interesting conversation.

    Jeremy, I’m glad you brought up the concept of the player experience, because I don’t think I’ve really addressed that point much in my previous comments. I would certainly agree with you that despite the lack of a time-based game mechanic in Twilight Struggle, the player experiences a sense of temporal progression as the game progresses into different stages of the war. At the same time, I would argue that any game that has a sense of continuous progression from one round to the next has the potential for the player to experience the sensation of time passing within the game world, whether the game mechanics themselves are more spatially or temporally oriented. In Animal Crossing, you experience the passage of time as the clock ticks and the seasons change. In King’s Quest, you experience the passage of time as your character moves through the world, triggering events in the code. Although both correspond to our perceptions of the in-game timeline, the distinction from a design standpoint is which mechanic drives that progression, movement, or time.

    You also draw attention to one of the common flaws in temporally based game design, the fact that a game with a 1:1 correlation between game-time and real time (or persistent worlds, as in your example of MMOs like EVE and WoW) puts constraints on your real life in order for you to fully experience certain parts of the game. On one hand, that temporal aspect is part of the fun – collecting special items in Animal Crossing on holidays, participating in raids or special events in an MMO. At the same time, having to play a Nintendo game on Christmas morning instead of participating in other activities has the potential to create some conflict in your real life.

    While a 1:1 correlation with the clock isn’t the only way of implementing temporal logic into a game, as I noted in my first example of Majora’s Mask, it tends to be one of the more common ones. These more creative temporal mechanics are the ones that I really wish more game designers would experiment with. Like you said, our perception of time is relative. Why not take advantage of that in game design?

  6. Author

    Nice to see the great discussion going on here! A couple of points:

    1) How a player understands time or how time is represented is different from time being an actual component of the logic. In King’s Quest, a player certainly understands a temporal progression of events – but that is not something present in the game. It is an illusion presented primarily through spatial change.

    I think there is a difference between time being a component of a game’s presentation, and time being a primary aspect of the game’s mechanics. To stray from story examples, in Civilization, turns are defined by years (though varying amounts of years) and tech flows in a temporal line. However, how do players actually acquire a sense of progression? Is it that the year in the top-right corner changes? Is it that the tech tree now has a new label (Medieval Age)? Or is it that spaces have changed, architecture has evolved, and borders have shifted? When someone says they won by 1400, what does that mean? Is it really dependent on time at all? To what extent does time matter even in this game that is a pseudo-simulation of history and that operates as incremental points in time? If we removed the markings of time in this game, what would happen?

    2) I would never say that spatial progression is preferred over temporal progression in all games (in reply to Stuart). Rather, I most want to bring to our attention what a powerful device spatial progression can be since we tend to prioritize temporal progression without much thought. I also just think that exploring the uses/limitations/representations of time in games, particularly those with a strong narrative component, is an interesting path to pursue!

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