Modern games have issues with scale.
This isn't to say that modern games are small. We are in a renaissance of massive open-world games, from Grand Theft Auto to Assassin's Creed to The Witcher to Far Cry. Game worlds are constantly growing larger and more elaborate as we make them.
Rather, these games don't understand how to use that scale to communicate emotion or narrative. This scale exists to exist; it's a self-justifying cycle of "always more content." Larger maps, more things to do, and more ways to do them is the direction these games are taking.
Paradoxically, this focus on more content and larger scale is destroying our sense of enormity.
Within visual art, there is a dualism known as positive and negative space.
Positive space is detail; the elements that break up the blank slate that is the original canvas. In a comic panel, for example, the positive space might be the character and what they are interacting with. In a landscape, it might be distinguishing details, such as cabins, trees, or mountains. In a photograph, it's the subject of the photograph, such as a bowl of fruit.
Negative space is the exact opposite. It's the space between and around objects, often devoid of or lacking in detail. For example, in a photograph of a bowl of fruit, the table around the bowl can be considered negative space. Negative space doesn't have to be between distinct objects either; the space between lines, if vast enough, creates its own sort of negative space.
This dualism boils down to the concepts of existence and oblivion. Positive space exists, negative space doesn't. In the same way that you can't directly see true black, only how it impacts the space around it, you can't see negative space in the same way that you see positive space. The most famous illustration of this duality is the vase-face optical illusion, where a positive space (a solid white vase) creates faces by molding negative space (the black background) around it.
This concept isn't confined to visuals either. Any creative endeavor can benefit from the positive/negative duality. Indeed, the basic structure of a story - conflict, climax, resolution - is easily defined in terms of space. The climax, the focal point of the story, is the positive space; it molds the negative space, the emptiness of the conflict and resolution, around it. The best stories rely heavily upon this duality, using negative narrative space to build tension and then using positive narrative space to release it in a way that emotionally engages the audience.
Emotionally, we tend to describe positive space in terms of direct emotions - anger, sadness, joy - and negative space in terms of indirect emotions - contemplation, solitude, loneliness. There can't - or rather, shouldn't - be one without the other. Without positive space, the negative space would have no direction, no outlet to provide it definition. Without negative space, positive space would have no distinct form, instead blending into itself like an ouroboros.
Mountains and Anthills
In Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are treated to countless pictures of grand space and scale. The initial sequence of the apes worshipping the Monolith provides us with arguably the most iconic picture of the movie: the Monolith's immense blackness rising from the bottom of the screen, consuming the sun.
This sense of enormity, created almost entirely through intelligent camera placement - the Monolith is little larger than a person, and yet appears to blot out the sky - is carried over through the rest of 2001. The shot of Bowman walking down the white, black-striped corridor. The slow, methodical scene in Hal's computer core. The grand shots of the spaceship and Jupiter, set against the engulfing twilight of an infinite universe. Even the most cluttered scenes, such as the rotating ship or Bowman's self-encounter in the otherworldy bedroom, are characterized by a use of negative space - often white, sometimes black, always slow - that convey a feeling of barren emptiness, solitude, and sadness.
Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments also deals constantly with scale, but of a different kind. Where the facades and grand landscapes of Egypt are huge and imposing, they are swarmed over by tens of thousands of people, each one working; a mason here, a merchant there, everywhere somebody doing something.
This isn't particularly unique to Ten Commandments. DeMille movies are often noted for their grand scope, but with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd. There are countless stories of DeMille yelling at extras for not paying attention or otherwise fooling around during shots where thousands of people were filmed in a long shot.
The difference between these two creators - both of which are incredibly influential upon the medium of film - is stark. To Stanley Kubrick, the mountain has value as a towering monolith juxtaposed against the land around it. He admires the enormity and scale of nature. Conversely, DeMille sees no value in the mountain itself, but rather in what can be done to it. He admires the enormity and scale of humanity; our ability to gather together countless thousands to accomplish seemingly-impossible tasks.
Where Kubrick sees the mountain, DeMille sees the anthill. And they aren't alone.
Far Cry 2's Solitude
The Far Cry series, created by Crytek but developed by Ubisoft since Far Cry 2, exemplifies these two contrasting viewpoints, and how sometimes pain and solitude can provide a more meaningful experience than a carefully-designed anthill.
Far Cry 2, which takes place in a fictional African country, details the journey of a foreign mercenary (selectable from a range of nationalities) and their goal to take down an infamous arms dealer during an intense civil war. Unfortunately, they must contend with brush fires, malaria, rust, and two equally murderous and despicable militias.
Generally speaking, Far Cry 2 does everything in its power to dissuade the player from actually playing it. Your guns can jam due to overuse or rust (especially bad if you are prone to swimming), you require a steady supply of anti-malarial medication to stay alive, and enemies are constantly returning to old positions and reinforcing them. There is no traditional fast travel, only buses with limited routes, and the map is quite large. The spaces in-between outposts and towns is mostly empty, with only the occasional patrol or diamond case breaking up the trip.
This aggressive dissuasion ends up creating a distinct negative space, both visually and narratively. Far Cry 2's landscape is barren brown scrubland with only a few living things, and its narrative is punctuated by long periods of downtime as you drive from spot to spot, gathering diamonds and fending off patrols. For every positive narrative space (a story mission, outpost clear, or radio tower), a negative narrative space (driving, gun replacement, malaria) precedes and follows.
The end result is a game of traditional duality; solitude and thoughtfulness intersparsed with intense violence. This mirrors our perception of Far Cry 2's antagonist as well; a man we consider a warmonger with delusions of grandeur is gradually exposed to have a philosophical side that concerns itself with rescuing the civilians trapped within the war-torn country.
Far Cry 4's Busywork
Far Cry 4, by contrast, takes a far more direct, and continuous, hand in guiding the player.
Far Cry 4 places you in the role of Ajay Ghale, a man returning to his native Kyrat - a fictional country intended to evoke the likes of Nepal and Bhutan - after growing up in America. Much like the mercenary of Far Cry 2, he discovers a country locked in a bloody civil war, with war crimes, drugs, and violence everywhere.
Where Far Cry 2 depicts civil war in an arguably more realistic way - bursts of action and violence followed by downtime of planning and sabotage - Far Cry 4 is far more direct. Almost every mission has you engaging in bombastic assaults on Royalist (the ruling faction) territory. Traveling is fraught with danger, either from animals, the environment, or enemy encounters. Karma Events - Far Cry 4's version of your average JRPG's random battles - trigger regularly, giving you small tasks as you move around the map. Fast travel allows you to settle into specific regions quickly and easily.
By sanding down all the rough edges of Far Cry 2 - the mechanical and narrative negative space - Far Cry 4 creates a nominally more engaging environment, but an infinitely less thoughtful one. You are constantly pushed into performing tasks everywhere you go, and the mountainous terrain of Kyrat swarms with soldier and animals to kill and loot. There is no silence in Far Cry 4, only the chatter of gunfire and screams of the dying.
This continuous use of positive mechanical space ends up creating a game that feels, ironically, small and cluttered. The environment around you is massive, with sweeping vistas, gigantic mountains, and cavernous valleys to admire, but all in service to constant gratification. In the same way that tilt-shift photography can make a grandiose picture appear small and diorama-like, Far Cry 4 makes the narrative and mechanical structure of Far Cry 2 feel petty and miniscule by adding busywork to the formula.
Action and Inaction
Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 4 are very similar games. Indeed, most of the elements codified in 2 - such as completing missions for free weaponry, and the general story structure, and the gun handling - are incrementally improved upon in 4.
It's ultimately this improvement that ends up sabotaging Far Cry 4's narrative ambitions. Despite interesting characters and an engaging narrative, the structural defects inherent in the lack of negative narrative space drag Far Cry 4 down. You never have time to breath, to think, to decompress. Far Cry 4 is one long action sequence, punctuated not by silence and contemplation, but by slightly less strenuous busywork. There is no space to mull over what happened, as you must capture an outpost, destroy a convoy, save a hostage, tear down a poster, destroy a mask, fight in an arena, and complete countless other activities.
Sometimes the most effective way to convey enormity and scale is to slow down, take your time, and force the audience to shut up and listen. There are countless games, movies, and books out there that are unrelentingly fast and loud, but precious few that understand the proper use of negative space and how it accentuates your message. Far Cry 2 does, and ends up a better game for it.
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