The Value of Uncertainty Part 2: Negative Space

This unassuming scene is key to mapping the negative space in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure.

In the last post I wrote a little bit about the value of uncertainty in the mechanics of horror games. The idea is that the game may obfuscate certain game play systems (health, remaining ammunition, the location of enemies, etc) in order to keep the player off balance. A key trait of effective horror is the feeling that one has lost control; denying the player precise information lowers his own self-confidence. It’s a lot more uncomfortable to make a blind decision than an informed one, to chart a new route rather than follow a routine path. Many horror games take explicit steps to hobble the player’s ability to see the system behind the context of the game, to keep him in the dark about key information in order to prevent the mechanics from becoming comfortable.

Another interesting trait of horror games is that the exact same logic is often applied to the narrative. Horror game narratives are vine-like, twisting and turning in ways that you don’t expect. Suspense is the feeling of knowing that something is coming but not knowing what, or when, it will arrive; this is true whether the suspense is generated by a static-emitting radio radar, a long staircase that seems to go impossibly deep into the ground, or the suggestion that an ancient curse may still be in effect. If the player knows what’s going to happen ahead of time, the feeling of tension is lost; as with the mechanics obfuscation, it is necessary to hide details of the story from the player so that they are forced to operate with incomplete information. They are not in control.

There are many names for this approach, but my favorite is negative space. In this context, the term describes the bits of the story that are never explicitly communicated to the player. If we write a complete narrative down on index cards, with one event per card, and then pour the whole lot on the table, the cards that land face down are in the negative space. The reader can probably piece the story together from the cards that land face up, but he’ll have to use his imagination to fill in the blanks.

Akira Yamaoka described his approach to the narrative in Silent Hill as “creating space for the imagination.” He provides a pretty nice framework for thinking about negative space: he talks about the “stacking” of clues, fragments of (often conflicting) information that provide enough detail for the player to form a working theory about what is going on. The key to Yamaoka’s approach is that these clues are designed to mislead the player into thinking they understand the story so that a late scene can pull the rug out from under them when the “true horror” is revealed. Remember, the goal is to keep the player from becoming comfortable.

It’s important to underscore the connection Yamaoka makes between negative space and the player’s imagination. In fact, the purpose of the negative space, above and beyond keeping the player uncomfortable, is to provide an area for the mind to explore. Noel Carroll writes,

Nevertheless, a great deal of the sustaining interest in horror stories concerns the discover of the unknown. The majority of horror stories are, to a significant extent, representations of process of discovery, as well as often occasions for hypothesis formation on the part of the audience and, as such, these stories engage us in the drama of proof.

We’ve all seen predictable horror films, and they are always terrible; even an artistically elegant film cannot sustain our interest if the arc of the plot is obvious from the onset. We enjoy horror in no small part because it allows us to explore that which we do not know–to try to map the negative space.

It’s also interesting to note that the mere suggestion of the existence of negative space can increase the effectiveness of a narrative. I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami’s novels because they are always about that which is unsaid; The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, one of my all-time favorite books, has enough negative space to house the Titanic. Another Murakami work, South of the Border, West of the Sun, is a good example of negative space as a passing suggestion of something far below the surface of the narrative. In it a man is suddenly reunited with a childhood friend, and he begins to fall for her. But the years intervening their childhood friendship and adult romance are a mystery, and her behavior is sometimes unexplainable. The book can be read as a simple drama about a man having a midlife crisis, but in typical Murakami fashion the ending reveals a small detail that throws all of the preceding events into question: the protagonist realizes that he cannot actually prove that his mysterious lover exists. The key to this revelation is so minor that you might gloss right over it, but for an astute reader it is the equivalent of Yamaoka’s “true horror”: the author has just thrown us into the deep end in the final pages by suggesting, only suggesting, that things are not as they appear.

I’ve written before about how culture shock can be a major horror affordance. The idea is that when we consume horror media that comes from another culture, we are thrown off balance because we cannot read the tropes and cliches. The work may not actually be complicated, but it’s almost certainly based on themes and patterns that are culturally specific. Another way to say that is that a foreign culture is often a large negative space upon which the work rests. When we look into the pool it appears to be very deep indeed. This might be why so many terrible foreign movies found resonance in the West in the early 2000s. After The Ring (a very nice film) opened the floodgates, all manner of cheap copycats and C-grade films from Japan, Korea, and China were suddenly snapped up by publishing companies, subtitled, and released to an unsuspecting public. Since the mere suggestion of negative space is enough to deepen the impact of a horror work, even the crappy movies seemed like a breath of fresh air because they were implicitly tied to foreign norms. People ate up films that would otherwise be regarded as absolute schlock because they were actually exploring an imagination space built out of unfamiliar cultural cues rather than one constructed by an agile narrative.

Negative space serves two major functions in horror narratives: it deepens our interest by forcing us to think about what is going on, and it keeps us unbalanced (and therefore, not in control) by reinforcing the idea that we are operating with incomplete knowledge. I’m a pretty hardcore Siren fan, and after 100%-ing that game I have a pretty good idea of what happens and why, but there are still a lot of questions that I don’t have answers to. Though most of the questions are eventually resolved, Catherine is keeps you guessing for most of the game. Hell Night doles its plot out in reliable chunks, but late in the game it does something that forces you to reevaluate all of your assumptions. And of course, Silent Hill 2, the king of negative space in games, remains one of the most highly respected narratives in game history. It’s no accident that these games are highly regarded; the existence of negative space is a boilerplate requirement for horror narratives.

5 thoughts on “The Value of Uncertainty Part 2: Negative Space

  1. When I saw this article, I immediately thought of this interview with Makoto Shibata, the director of the Fatal Frame series. In brief, he talks about this idea of leaving enough uncertainty to allow the imagination to create fear, but he calls it “Subtracting Horror”. The questions concerning this are towards the end of the article, but it’s a decent read besides.

    As always, a great write up. I disagree with predictability being wholly negative in a horror context, however. The Walking Dead and Fatal Frame 2 both end fairly predictably, but knowing that what’s going to happen makes the players actions feel futile or associates them with a sort of fate- futility is a pretty important theme of the Walking Dead, as is fate to Fatal Frame 2, and thus the predictability adds depth to the game. In the end, knowing what’s going to happen and not being able to do anything about it adds a lot of impact to those endings in my opinion.

  2. “knowing what’s going to happen and not being able to do anything about it adds a lot of impact to those endings in my opinion”

    Interesting comment, C McKay. I think that might be one of the main reasons why horror video games trump movies and television, at least in my opinion. The fact that you play a direct part in guiding the characters towards the end of the story, even if it’s a very cliched and predictable story, can foster this wonderful sense of futility. Whereas, if I finish watching a movie that invests zero creativity in its plot twists, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

    Of course, there’s exceptions to the rule on both sides, and I certainly wouldn’t encourage developers to get comfortable using the same cliched plots time and time again. But the element of interactivity does play a part in things.

  3. > C McKay

    Thanks for the link! I actually read this interview years ago (there’s a post with a broken link about it from back in 2006) but haven’t returned to it recently. Cheers.

    I disagree with predictability being wholly negative in a horror context, however. The Walking Dead and Fatal Frame 2 both end fairly predictably, but knowing that what’s going to happen makes the players actions feel futile or associates them with a sort of fate

    I don’t disagree that futility is a strong horror motif, but I am also talking about a more general story structure. Both The Walking Dead and Fatal Frame 2 pose questions as you play that keep you playing to see the answers.

    In The Walking Dead, for example, the main questions are “will Lee survive?” and “will Clementine survive?” There are other questions, like “Who’s the mysterious radio man?” and “Will Clementine meet her parents?”. The ending of the game resolves these questions, but they are still relevant because they keep you guessing (and indeed, your actions may influence the outcome). One of the strengths of that game is that it avoids the cliche of asking where the zombies come from.

    Fatal Frame 2 sets up a terrible fate for the protagonists and then lets you agonize about whether or not they’ll be able to avoid it. And, depending on which ending you get, the answer can change. Even though you know what is happening there is a lot of fragmented information (history of the village, fate of previous twins, mechanics of the sacrifice, fate of previous visitors, etc) to create plenty of negative space for your imagination to roam.

    The point isn’t that you can’t guess the ending (although being able to guess the ending can take the punch out of it; this happened to me in Dead Space), it’s that there’s enough structure provided to evoke your imagination but not so much that the story is so straightforward that it becomes boring. As long as negative space exists you will have something to think, and worry, about.

  4. This was a great post,
    I really liked your analogy on negative space by comparing it to throwing a bunch of cards on a table and only including the ones that flip face up into the direct narrative.
    I actually sounds like a good exercise writing.

  5. One of the strengths of that game is that it avoids the cliche of asking where the zombies come from.

    I agree. However, I’d also like to see some games that ask such questions, but provide inconsistent or conflicting answers coming from various sides, which are generally more or less wrong, and baseless.

    This enables the game to explore themes of superstition, religion, and science, and present the player with a more interesting world. Then it becomes (in part) about deciding who is right about what and what is known vs what is not.

    This could work especially great in a horror game, where the player can be misled to believe one thing, only to be proven terribly wring later, and can finally arrive at the conclusion that, except for bits and peaces of information, there’s no answer that can be relied on! Scary stuff!

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