How and why do we remember places in games the way we do?

Neil Burgess’s TED talk on how the brain processes space is a fascinating look into the machinations of our minds but also treads some familiar ground. Burgess introduces the main component of how the brain processes and remembers space—the hippocampus—and then explains that each individual neuron within it corresponds to different areas or types of areas. 

Burgess’s work strongly features videogames and virtual landscapes as an easy way to put people in navigable “space” and monitor their brain activity. Beyond this though, his work resonates with memorable locations in videogames.

Halo’s “Library” level is infamous for being one of the best examples of confusing level design. The aesthetic and plot demand that the structure fit into the futuristic setting, a time where people are more concerned about how many lights and corners something has than how distinctive it is. With no discernibly unique features, each of the hallways and walls blend together into a maze. Many the frustrated gamer recount their attempts to struggle through the constant steam of aliens while maintaining a sense of direction.

Other games, like 2D platformers do not struggle with this problem. In most of these games, players only have one direction to travel. Yet the genre has produced some of the most memorable levels in gaming history. Everyone knows the beginning of World 1-1 by heart. Platformers lean more towards progression than emergence, a feature which makes them beautiful to see played well but leaves little room for exploration and innovation. There’s a real beauty to learning to play a level though. After countless deaths, you become more confident in your movements, mastering not only the controls, but the layout of the path ahead.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Minecraft, where players play a direct role in shaping their environment. The way this game represents time passed is the way that the world develops and changes. As players invest more and more time into the game, they excavate more caves, expand their castle, make a new place to call home. And as they journey throughout their world, the places within it are tied to their own work, experiences and efforts. Minecraft can incite genuine memory rather than recollection due to the way it involves the player.

Level design is often overlooked by the average gamer despite how important it is to every game. The way that levels are drawn shaped and designed determine how we move through and experience them—monotonously one-dimension to exhilaratingly packed with obstacles to a canvas, waiting for my brush. The next time you notice that the right way is lit by those lamps every time, thank your friendly neighborhood level designer. 

– Adnan Agha