No, not that gloomy shooter, I’m talking about what most might call “negative space”, an important art principle. It’s just that everything is better with a touch of the undead, right? And really, though there’s nothing really all that active going on in that negative “dead” space, it’s still a crucial part to a living composition.
Speaking of the undead, though, I submit as Exhibit A, my beta testing Unit Card from Zomblobs!, as demonstrated before:
This card is, well… busy. There is a nonmetric crapton of information jammed into that visual space. It’s a bit overwhelming. There aren’t many blank spaces for your eye to rest. Sure, there are some interstitial spaces here and there, but on the whole, there’s a lot going on. This is something I actively fought on these cards, but there’s just so much information to communicate that it’s hard to devote much space to just taking a visual breather. This is a big part of why I left the Health grid on the card, though it’s unlikely that most players will bother with putting the card in a sleeve and marking off HP loss with a dry erase marker. The Health grid serves a visual purpose on the card itself, if not a huge gameplay purpose.
Humans need that negative space, a moment to breathe. We need it in temporal matters, too, as Syl so nicely summarizes over at Raging Monkey’s in the Precious Time-Outs article. We just aren’t really wired to be going all out, all the time. (Incidentally, this is a great tangential article about Star Trek and “social media”, and how the fictional Star Fleeters just don’t function like the rest of us, especially in this regard.) We need a break, whether that’s actually stepping away from your primary function or just little mental breaks here and there. It’s healthy to let your mind and body shift gears now and then.
This is a critical component of visual composition, it’s important to auditory design (notice the pauses and almost silent moments in something like this little gem of classical music mixed with modern music or this crazy-awesome piece of very modern music), it’s important to narrative (look at the changes of pace in something like a Harry Potter novel; the world is burning, but there’s time for worrying about snogging practice… because it’s important at some level), it’s important to pacing in game design. To be sure, sometimes a frenetic pace with no rest is exactly the point of design, as it does affect the overall mood, it’s just that sometimes designers don’t always think about just taking a bit of time to let the player do, well… nothing. Just… stop and smell the virtual roses, look around, soak in the ambiance.
This might be an important function of relatively mindless grinds in games, or noodling around in character progression schemes like the FFX Sphere Grid. The player can still be doing something to push along the main game’s narrative or develop their character, but it’s a differently paced activity. The whole point is that it’s a low-impact activity, but it’s still part of the game.
Maybe that means that not every choice at every moment is Meaningful and transcendent (whatever that means), but that’s OK. I think it’s important to let players feel comfortable enough to rest in your games. That, to me, suggests that they want to be there, and that’s probably a Good Thing. Maybe that means they aren’t doing anything more than the equivalent of dancing on a mailbox in the buff, but they are there, they are engaged.
Borrowing again from art, negative space also acts as a subtle (or blatant) way to suggest what is really important about a presentation. This drawing of mine uses the old “vignetted” look from early photographs to put the focus on the pirate and his character. There’s a lot of space there that doesn’t have much in it, but that still communicates something. This is a character at ease, content with himself. He’s peaceful, almost restful, and though much of this is communicated by his pose, his environment reinforces the message simply by not intruding.
In contrast, this bit of art that someone else painted up is about the same pirate (from the Puzzle Pirate forums thisaway)… and man, it’s busy. There’s a totally different tone to the art, and a totally different feeling evoked from the viewer.
There actually still is negative space in there, it’s just in very different configurations. Thing is, that’s intentional. It’s busy because it’s supposed to be. It’s uncomfortable because it’s supposed to be.
Incidentally, I still use two spaces after periods. It’s an important typographical pause that I find very preferable over a single space. It’s more aesthetic and even more functional, as it gives a greater weight to the differences between sentences. Some typographical gurus loudly decry the “rivers of white” that double spaces can create in blocks of text, but I even find those to be a nice visual break in an otherwise monolithic mass of type.
The way an artist uses negative space, whether visual, auditory or temporal, can have profound effects on the audience. It may sound odd, thinking that artists need to sometimes do absolutely nothing, but sometimes, it’s the most important thing they can do.