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  • A Theory of Compression and Funneling

    - Luke McMillan

  • Freud was kind of right...

    Before moving onto specific examples of how this principle can be applied, it is necessary to explain how the concept originated in order to put the emotional component into perspective. Jokes and sniggering aside, the phallus has been acknowledged by many as the inspirational basis for many design decisions, but rarely has the vagina ever been given such design importance -- especially in games. The notion of compression and funneling is derived from an observation of the game R-Type, released by Irem in 1987. R-Type is a traditional, side scrolling Shmup with rich aesthetics derived largely from the work of Swiss artist, H.R. Giger. In referencing the work of Giger, Irem put something powerful into the design of the game that elicited strong reactions from players.

    To understand this, we need to consider how a Shmup works, especially a horizontal Shmup. A Shmup has a consistent, scrolling motion that continually forces the player into ever tighter and more intense confines and the only way out is through. It is in this regard that similarities can be drawn between the kinetic semiotics of games like R-Type and the process of human birth. Freud believed that the trauma of birth played a large role in all later anxiety neurosis, however he later abandoned this theory. This however did not stop later psychologists such as Otto Rank and others exploring the process of birth and its effects on developmental process. Grof (2002) discusses the second stage of birth and describes it as the following;

    In the next stage of delivery, the uterine contractions continue to encroach on the fetus, but the dilated cervix allows gradual propulsion of the fetus through the birth canal. The reliving of this stage does not involve the exclusive identification with the role of the suffering victim like the previous stage; it also provides access to enormous reservoirs of pent-up murderous aggression.

    There are two very important things that we can take away from this, regardless of whether or not the notion of birth trauma is psychologically significant or not --constriction is often not desirable, and second, when constricted we feel the need fight against these forces. In the case of Shmups such as R-Type it is easy to see the similarities -- we have a genre which forces the player to move into tight spaces and the only way to resolve these situations and remove the constricting forces is to destroy them and remove them from the screen. It is important to note that there is much more to this argument that goes beyond the confines of this practice driven piece, however this information is more than enough to give context to the following practical examples.

    Putting Theory into Practice

    Now that we have some context for the origins of the theory, it is time to demonstrate the practical implications of such a notion. To do this, this particular piece will work within the constraints of the Shmup genre, which is particularly apt given the rise in popularity that the genre has had with the advent of mobile gaming. As this is a rational approach to design, it is important to indentify some key metrics before moving on.

    Figure 4

    For compression and funneling to be implemented, we need to understand the difficulty metrics associated with various approach vectors on the player. Once again, I have used R-Type as an example of this. In Figure 4, the primary axis is the primary fire axis --the axis in which barrage leave the players avatar. Usually, the player finds it easiest to deal with enemies or other compressive elements moving towards them along the front vector, labeled in green. Moving up the difficulty ramps are the front diagonal approach vectors and the most difficult approach vectors are those which are opposite to the primary axis. (as the player usually has no means of addressing these with weapons).

    Once you understand the approach vectors, it is time then to understand how the player can be compressed. Basically, any collision object within a game can be used as a type of compressing agent. In the case of Shmups, we have a couple of very obvious examples;

    1. The environment
    2. Barrages
    3. Enemies

    Environmental Compression

    Table 1

    Table 1 is an example of environmental compression in the case of R-Type 3. In the above example, the players intended movement is indicated using the green arrows and the elements of compression are indicated using the red arrows. In all examples, remember that we are dealing with fixed scrolling, so the player is continually being forced into these undesirable positions. If we look at Table 1 and follow the chronological order of screen grabs we can see how the player is initially forced to move through a small funneling point. Now funneling is slightly difference to compression in the fact that funnel points are often beneficial to the player and the way it works is quite straight forward -- move the enemy into a bottleneck to make them easier to deal with. In Figure 3 of Table 1, we can see environmental compression at work. The player is forced beneath a ledge which subsequently proceeds to collapse along the players vertical approach vector. The player is than forced to "expand" along their rear, diagonal axis to avoid the risk, all while being forced forward.

    In terms of RLD and difficulty metrics, we can see that Figure 1 of Table 1 is an example of putting the player on the offensive by giving them a strategically powerful position. Figure 2 of Table 1 demonstrates how the player is put in a far more difficult positions as they have now way of using force to remove the compressive element and further to this, they are dealing with a compressive element which is moving along some of the more difficult movement vectors.


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