I’ve recently started listening to the Idle Thumbs podcasts, which I’m finding very interesting an contains a great deal of useful information for a budding game designer. I began by listening to the Tone Control show in which Steve Gaynor (founder of game studio Fullbright) speaks with the developers for various games and talks to them about the games they have worked on. In particular I took a great interest in his talk with Randy Smith who began his career at Looking Glass Studios working on Thief: The Dark Project. A recurring theme that I noticed kept coming up during this cast was that of environmental storytelling.
“Staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.” – GDC Vault
In other words, telling the story of a game using the environment instead of using an exposition dump such as a through conversation with an NPC (Non-Player Character).
The most oft used example when referring to environmental storytelling done well is Bioshock, in fact Gaynor and Smith to make reference to the opening level during the podcast. The player enters a bar and lounge clearly decked out for a New Year’s celebration complete with banners, party hats and streamers strewn about the place. But in addition to this there are more sinister parts to the environment, the contents of a cash register are scattered across the room, floor boards are ripped up and the room is slowly flooding.
These juxtaposed elements serve to explain to the player both the affluence and extravagance of Rapture before the fall as well as it’s broken and dilapidated current state, all this even before the player finds their first audio diary explaining the events after the 1959 New Year’s party.
I find that the creation of a strong narrative inside a game space is greatly improved by environmental storytelling, it could be argued that Gone Home is a game almost entirely reliant on the environment to tell the story. The core mechanics of the game are very simple, the player can move around the space, open doors or drawers and pick up objects they find about the house. The game play itself is quite basic but simply moving around the environment is compelling. By walking into one room the player sees that several drawers are open and clothes are strewn about the floor haphazardly, suggesting someone has been here looking for something. This is achieved with nothing more than the placement of assets in the game space, in their talk Gaynor and Smith go into this in detail, explaining from both a developers and players perspective what effects this game space had and was intended to have.
It is also possible, given the right tools, for a player to create their own narrative using the environment and this is also touched on by Smith, in his example he recalls how players of Thief used to create their own narrative for the first level, in which the main character is stealing a Scepter form one Lord Bafford.
“A bunch of players did this thing where they knocked out every single guard in the place with the blackjack, and then piled all their bodies in the dining room, and they like kinda posed them as well as they could, like draped them across the table and on the ground and in the corner and stuff like that… and then they went and got every wine bottle in the entire place and threw all those in there too… they made this story that when Lord Bafford comes home he’s like ‘well the guards got trashed and someone stole the scepter’ ”
There are other games that have seen this kind of player created narrative, in particular Skyrim lent itself to this, in particular various players have documented hoarding large amounts of a particular object such as cheese wheels or Deadric hearts in their homes, inventing their character as the eccentric collector.I have some personal experience of this also, in my case this was playing Dishonored, in most cases whenever I had to incapacitate an NPC I would attempt to leave their body in such a way as to be less suspicious, for example leaving unconscious guards on a bed in the guards quarters, my thoughts being that when they were found then the inhabitants were less likely to suspect foul play.
There are of course some downsides to Environmental Storytelling, especially as the main engine for narrative delivery. Smith notes that the biggest con of environmental storytelling is that it “all happened in the past” and there is “nothing interactive about it” meaning that the player can only absorb the information and does not get to play a part in the story unfolding before them. This means it is not useful for telling a story that involves the player as one of the main parts of a story happening right now, only what led up to that point.
I would argue that every game has a place for some level of environmental storytelling, we as humans seem to be fascinated with what has come before, there are entire fields of research dedicated to the interpretation of both the recent, and distant past and I feel this is being reflected in the games we make.
Gone Home 2013, computer program, Fullbright, Portland, Oregon.
Bioshock 2009, Playstation 3 game, Take-Two Interactive, Boston.
Dishonoured 2012, Playstation 3 game, Arkane Studios, Lyon, France.
Smith, H Worch, M 2010. ‘What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling’, GDC Vault, < http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1012647/What-Happened-Here-Environmental >.
Thief:The Dark Project 1998, computer program, Looking Glass Studios, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Tone Control Episode 6: Randy Smith 2014, poscast, Idle Thumbs, 1 January, < https://www.idlethumbs.net/tonecontrol/episodes/randy-smith >.