A Visual Feast: Learning the Movements of Environmental Storytelling

The time has come to talk about environmental storytelling. This article has been some time in the making, and while it is probably not what I’d say my defining piece (see my folklore one for that), it is one of my more important teachings on the subject of world building.

If you’ve been working in the games industry or been following the creation of game narratives, you’ve probably heard this term floated around a fair bit in relation to all sorts of games. In fact, environmental storytelling is a little bit of a hot trend right now everybody wants to say they’ve got it. It’s attributed to stories all across the spectrum from Bioshock to Minecraft. However while these games may use aspects of environmental storytelling, I would hesitate to describe them as a complete piece of environmental narrative.

For that, we need to look at those games I’ve mentioned a few times now – the Soulsborne series and games that inspired their unique approach like the classic ICO and its sequel/prequel Shadow of the Colossus.

Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creative mind behind Soulsborne has been quoted as saying:  “A well designed world could tell its story with silence.” (Miyazaki, 2013)

And it is this quote that is perhaps the very essence of environmental storytelling – using game design to do the heavy lifting of the narrative.

But before we begin on the nitty gritty of how that is done, it is, as usual, important to develop a working definition of this approach for those who have never heard of it, and for those who may have some idea, but nothing set in stone.

Environmental Storytelling – A Working Definition

So what exactly are we talking about here? Coming from a background in prose writing, I immediately gravitated to this form of storytelling as an interest due to the fact that it holds one large similarity to writing a novel or short story – that is, the golden rule of writing:

Show don’t tell.

Chuck Palahniuk, the writer of such classics of Gen X literature like Fight Club and Choke, in one of his essays on writing, challenges students to avoid using “thought” verbs. Words like: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, Loves, Hates, etc.

I’ll let him explain:

“…you can’t write: “Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night.” Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:

“The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it… …In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound and feeling.” (Palahniuk, 2013)

Palahniuk suggests this approach as a way to teach the golden rule I mentioned before. By taking the long way around, the author provides visual imagery to the reader so that they can formulate the meaning of that imagery in their mind. This is the point of our golden rule: It should be easy for a reader to interpret the meaning of a scene for themselves. The meaning of the scene should not be told to them – that would be a lecture, rather than a piece of fiction.

In the same way, Environmental storytelling is all about giving the player the tools they need to interpret meaning from the scene, plot or world of the game. This allows for a much more active engagement with the content we are producing and gives the player a sense of co-ownership in the story world.

This can only be done through game and level designers working closely in tangent with the narrative team.

Remember a few weeks back when I described the most important role of a Narrative Designer being to find ways of having the main gameplay loop reflect the narrative (if not, you can read it here)? Well, it’s the same thing with this. The role of the Narrative Designer when working with environmental storytelling is to make sure the visual and auditory elements of the game reflect the narrative and vice versa – but more on this later.

Breaking Down the Process

With this definition in mind of what we are actually talking about, it’s time to pull things apart and dissect them. Environmental Storytelling is an umbrella term for four things going on below the surface. These four things are a process of movement begun by the developer and finished by the player.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Movement 1: Strategic Tooling

We begin with movement one. Strategic Tooling. This is the process of analyzing the story you as the developer want to tell, and picking the best tools for the job. In an Environmental based narrative, how you tell your story is just as important as what your story is.

This means you must consider how you are designing your tools – what do they look like or sound like? Are you using contrasting elements? Creating variety in your tools – using order and disorder in tangent will stimulate and engage your player’s imagination.

Examples of the kind of tools you might like to use are: Level Design, SFX Design, Characters, Enemies, Items, Weapons, other pickups and Gameplay Mechanics – you can add and subtract as you prefer.

 

Movement 2: Contextual Usage

Once we have our tools ready, we move onto the bulk of the work. Contextual Usage. What do I mean by this term? Well, you’ll only get the best out of your tools if you know the right context to use them in. Make sense?

Contextual Usage breaks down into these subcategories:

Obedience, Location, Reason, Recognition and Influence.

Let’s look at each in some more detail.

First up, Obedience – this is both the simplest and potentially most complex of the subcategories. It is also arguably the most important. Obedience is all about following the rules of your story world. Any of the tools you want to use to tell your environmental story, MUST be used within the context of your world’s rules. That means for example, your SFX and music must reflect the tone of the world and your game mechanics should reflect the rules of the world as well.

Location builds off of obedience. It focuses primarily on issues of placement. You need to consider where you are placing not only your tools, but your player as well.

Let’s look at items for example. Placing a particular item in an area of the story world where it makes no sense that it should be, is what we are hoping to avoid. Proper placement means thinking about why objects, characters and enemies are where they are.

There is a reason why those trolls built their town in that particular cave.

This weapon is used only by the ninja from this region – therefore all ninja enemies in this region use it, and enemies in other regions do not.

This band of Knights belong to this particular faction, so all their clothing is emblazoned with that faction’s crest.

See what I mean?

But on top of that, we need to think about the player as well. The first thing a player will ask upon beginning a game – before even asking “what do I do?” is “where am I?”

Don Carson, a designer of both video games and theme parks explains this question in his essay “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park industry:”

“No matter how well designed your environments are, if your audience cannot answer this question in the first 15 second, you are already lost. This can be as simple as “Oh, I am in a dark warehouse.” Or “Ah, I am in the hold of a ship.” Wherever it is, your first job is to present your audience with the opportunity to answer the question for themselves.” (Carson, 2000)

This question of “where am I?” begets a second question:

 “ “What is my relationship to this place?” No matter how gorgeous your medieval castle, or abandoned space station might be, if they can’t figure out what their role is in this place, you have missed out on a marvellous opportunity to pull your audience deeper into your world… …Although you may not know who you are, you should be able to begin to have a notion based on your initial location.” (Carson, 2000)

We answer these questions through having an awareness of location, what to place where and by answering a third question, which also happens to be the next subcategory…

Reason: What does it all mean? If Tools are the medium through which your story can be told and Location is where you place your tools, then Reason is the story content embedded within.

These can be item descriptions that contain snippets of lore, they can be voices on tape recorders found throughout the world, or journal entries, letters etc.

We can also use crests, symbols and artwork to convey lore to the player, allowing them to answer the two questions from the previous category – Where am I and What is my relationship to this place?

Number four is Recognition. Carson calls this “The Power of Designing the Familiar.” He writes:

“If your goal is to create an environment that is total alien, it pays to periodically give your audience something familiar to anchor themselves to. All too often, game designers will create a level built entirely out of pulsating walls of intestine like material. Although the concept of such a place may sound “cool,” it does more to alienate the game player than draw them in. If you can periodically give them some reference point… such as, “Oh, I am in a spaceship” or “Hey, this must be the engine room” you will be doing them a great favor.” (Carson, 2000)

Carson argues that this occasional sense of familiarity allows players to recognize themselves and their world in the game, creating relatability and a greater sense of immersion.

Lastly, we have Influence: The story world is subject to cause and effect. This can mean that the player themselves is able to mess with the world, or – and this is the less risky approach – us designers show that the environment has already been subject to cause and effect.

“One of the most successful methods for pulling your audience into your story environment is through the use of “cause and effect” vignettes. These are staged areas that lead the game player to come to their own conclusions about a previous event or to suggest a potential danger just up ahead… …These “cause and effect” bits of storytelling can help the game player better understand where they are and what they might expect to experience further on.” (Carson, 2000)

More than this, showing cause and effect in your world can also help to depict passage of time in an otherwise timeless space: “A game character may return to a place that they had become familiar with earlier in the game, only to find it completely altered. This may be due to a cataclysmic event, or the disappearance of elements remembered from a previous visit. “Cause and effect” elements could also be triggered directly by the actions of the game player.” (Carson, 2000)

Movement 3: Confluent Narrative

Environmental narrative doesn’t hold the hand of the player. The story is not force-fed to them. Rather, this movement encourages the player to seek the story out themselves. This is the point in which our series of movements leave our hands and are turned over to the player to make sense of.

We call this Confluent Narrative – a great term penned by the fantastic YouTube channel Tales Foundry whom I’ve mentioned several times before.

We tend to think of video games as being the one true form of interactive, non-linear narrative, but in truth, what most video games present to us are illusions of interactivity and non-linearity. Let me give you a real world example:

My students might get to decide on what their game stories are about, how many characters they utilize, what genre it is, and what their gameplay loop might be, but at the end of the day, it is me giving them the assignment, and it is me who is monitoring the depth and level of their content.

In the same way, a video game might present you with two, three or even four paths to choose from, but this isn’t really freedom to create your own story – you’re working within the confines given to you by the developers.

Without getting too philosophical here, what we’re talking about is the paradox of free-will that is thrown around in theology schools around the world. If destiny exists (and in the context of video games – it kinda does), then can we ever really go against it? And if not, do we really have free-will to create our own futures?

Tales Foundry finds an answer to this question (at least for video games) through the use of this Confluent Narrative thing. Using Dark Souls to explain it, they write:

“…As you blaze your trail through the games, you collect bits and pieces of lore – hints and context clues form all the many aspects of the games that are built with story in mind – which sort of flow together into a single presumptive narrative created by you, the player.

…Unlike the emergent storytelling of open-world games where you make your own fun without an authorial narrative whatsoever, or the converging plot arcs present in films and books with multiple perspective characters, a confluent narrative is comprised of pieces of authorial narrative seeded throughout an experience with no explicit direction as to how these fragments of story are meant to fit together.” (Tales Foundry, 2016)

The player of an environmental narrative game is typically placed within the story world and given minimal directive on what to do. Through investigation of both the world and the games mechanics, the player finds the story if they seek it out and interprets it in a way that makes sense to them.

So instead of story instigating play, confluent narrative is all about play instigating story. See the difference?  

Movement 4: Super-positioning

Lastly we have Super-positioning – something I touched on in my folklore article. In it I talked about how the use of folklore techniques could allow greater engagement between players and their games. Folklore is by its nature contradictory. Many variations of the same story can exist at the same time, causing those who hear the story to hold conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time, something we call “plurality.” I wrote:

“The ability to do this opens up a whole new branch of possibilities both within the story world and outside of the story world. Within it players can now interpret information on a personal level and find emotional meaning that is true to them. Externally, players are able to then super-position themselves through social media (YouTube, Reddit, forums etc.) to develop their own fan-theories and create conversation and debate around them.” (Jones, 2019)

This super-positioning is incredibly relevant in environmental storytelling because the very nature of environmental storytelling is somewhat ambiguous and open to interpretation. Therefore, the fourth and final movement of this approach, is fan engagement with the story world and then creation of new content outside of that world in the form of fan practices such as fan fiction, lore analyses, theorizing videos and online debates etc.

Minimalism or Subtracting Design

The final thing I want to touch on in this article is something that is more of an optional add-on the environmental storytelling rather than a main component. That is, the use of Minimalism or subtracting design in the development of your games.

This approach has been championed by Hidetaka Miyazaki (Dark Souls) and before him Fumito Ueda (ICO). The is the process of removing elements of both the gameplay and the narrative to create “holes” in your game that players can fill in themselves.

We’ve looked at how Hidetaka develops his stories before, but for the sake of covering all the ground, here it is again:

“When Hidetaka Miyazaki was a child, he was a keen reader, though not a talented one. Often he’d reach passages of text he couldn’t understand, and so would allow his imagination to fill in the blanks, using the accompanying illustrations. In this way, he felt he was co-writing the fiction alongside its original author. The thrill of this process never left him – and it is very much there in his arcane and fascinating video games, the latest of which, Bloodborne, has just been released to wild acclaim.” (Parkin, 2018)

Hidetaka’s minimalist approach is more directly related to removing chunks of narrative. Whereas Fumito’s design approach involves the removing of mechanics as well.

ICO is the classic story of boy meets girl with an environmental narrative twist – the developers used: “…a method they referred to as “subtracting design:” every element of the game that took away from its reality was removed. Instead of having a varied cast of enemies with unique strengths and weaknesses, for instance, there would be only one enemy type; instead of a castle, its environs, and nearby settlements, there would only be the castle and an escape from it.” (Ueda & Kaido, 2008)

You can see how this subtracting of elements creates a more ambiguous story that relies heavily on the environment to be told. Hell – there’s hardly any dialogue in the game at all, and what there is, it’s in a fictional language without subtitles! Fumito clearly wanted players to rely on the visual feast he had built them to understand the game’s plot.

Like I said, this approach to using minimalism in tangent with your game is totally optional, but I would be remiss if I didn’t include it here.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. I’ve given you gold just now. The next time you’re beginning to develop a game and are considering in which direction to take you narrative, give environmental storytelling a go, use the knowledge I’ve built here for you, and see what you can come up with.

References

Carson, D. (2000). Environmental storytelling: Creating immersive 3d worlds using lessons learned from the theme park industry. Retrieved from Gamasutra.com website: http://www.primitive-eye.com/pdf_files/Enviromental_storytelling_pt1.pdfeye.com/pdf_files/Enviromental_storytelling_pt1.pdf

Jones, N. (2019, April 5). The folklore of video games: Using narrative design to create player agency. Retrieved from https://www.thepunkwriter.com/article/the-folklore-of-video-games-using-narrative-design-to-create-player-agency

Miyazaki, H. (2013, April 25). Twitter. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/hidetakamiyazak/status/327517644234305536?lang=en

Palahniuk, C. (2013, August 12). Nuts and bolts: 'thought? verbs. Retrieved from https://litreactor.com/essays/chuck-palahniuk/nuts-and-bolts-%E2%80%9Cthought%E2%80%9D-verbs

Parkin, S. (2018, February 22). Bloodborne creator Hidetaka Miyazaki: 'I didn't have a dream. I wasn't ambitious'. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/bloodborne-dark-souls-creator-hidetaka-miyazaki-interview

Tales Foundry. (2016, June 23). Confluent narrative. Retrieved from https://talefoundry.tumblr.com/post/146366184352/confluent-narrative

Ueda, F., & Kaido, K. (2008). The method of developing ICO. Retrieved from https://archive.is/20151102133446/www.1up.com/features/method-developing-ico