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  Mechanic #001 - Negative Space

Category: Neg-space
Posted: 05/09/07

On a black and white canvas, there exists two worlds, inversely related. The negative space of one is the entire existence of the other.


This is not one of my oldest ideas (it is only about six years old), but it does remain my most cherished - for several reasons actually. First, it is absolutely unique. I've had many ideas that have (eventually) ended up in other people's games, but this one has never been replicated, nor likely ever will be. Second, it is inspirational. Nearly every time I mention this idea to somebody, they think it is exciting. It's gaming unlike anything that has ever been a game before. A playable optical illusion. And ink blot of a game that reflects the creator as much as it does the player.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I've never really figured out how to make it work. What exists here is not a game idea. It is a gameplay mechanic for a physical world, and within this world can exist a dozen different types of games and ideas. In my time, I've created cave shooters, artillery/worms combat, puzzle games, platform games, deathmatch multiplayer games, and even real time strategy games. This idea could be a hundred different games, but I have yet to stumble upon the idea that will most take advantage of the brain warping potential of this concept.

If ever there was evidence that not all video game ideas are alike, this is it, and it is for this reason that I think it makes a fitting introduction to the three hundred.


This is an optical illusion. Depending on how you look at it, it is either a white candle stick against a black background, or two black faces in profile speaking against a white background. It is the perfect illustration of the concept of negative space, or how the space not occupied by an object has a form too, and occasionally its own image.


Negative space is an important concept in art, perhaps more important than is usually given credit. It is what defines a silhouette. More often than not, it is the negative space which defines the physicality of an image. One of the first things you learn about character design is to give each character a unique silhouette. Our eyes see the negative space first, and from the shapes it creates, fills in the rest.

It becomes and optical illusion when the negative space and positive space have equal validity. That is, when what is not there forms its own image rather than defining a shape. This is most possible in monochromatic images, where the negative and positive spaces are put on equal footing. And that is the basic concept of this game idea.

The positive and negative space are at war.


This is, if not the first, then one of the first concept drawings I did for this idea. I even had this particular image printed out and hung in my cubicle at the game industry. As you can see, there exists two different worlds within this image. They define each other - they are opposite of each other. White in one world is solid matter while in the other, negative space.

Each of the two silhouetted characters there exist in this symbiotic relationship. While one may see a cliff to hop over, the other sees a small alcove to climb within. This inverted existence means that if you can create new forms in one world only by equally removing forms from another. In other words, as the white space grows, the black space shrinks accordingly.



  • Because of the nature of this idea, it must exist in a purely monochromatic environment. The positive and negative spaces must be completely equal for it to work. In the past, I have attempted to introduce minimal decorative elements in the form of moderate shades of black or white. Though it creates a more visually elaborate work, it obfuscates the nature of the idea. The idea can still be visually intriguing using just silhouettes - perhaps even more so.


  • Due to the nature of the silhouetted universe, it would get very old if it all solid spaces were treated equally. For example, in this example, if all black were considered a solid wall, then the ladder would impassable by both characters. As such, it would create more possibilities for movement and world design if there were certain objects that could be stood in front of.

    But then the possibility arises that if black can walk in front of a black ladder, then would it also be possible for white to walk in from of the negative space left by that ladder? I believe that such possibilities could work, but they'd have to be in contexts in which it is obvious that certain objects are non-obstructive. In this example, the ladder is obviously something you can climb on, but the negative space it creates forms no familiar pattern that would indicate white could move through there.


  • In order for this idea to truly be represented, destructible environments are required. This fully illustrates the concepts of an inverse universe. For instance, in this example, land mines have created holes in one universe, yet small bumps in the ceiling in the other. While this idea is nifty by its own merits, by making the inverse relationship of space into a gameplay mechanic, even the most mundane mechanics before are transformed into something more profound.




  • Copyright 2007-2014 Sean Howard. All rights reserved.