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Storytelling in Games

PART THREE: ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVE

This is the third installment in a series on Storytelling in Games. ICYMI, check out Part One, Meet the Players and Part Two, Characters and Mechanics

The rule of “show don’t tell” applies in all stories. In games, this can be taken even further. It’s the details of a game’s environment that bring it to life for the player, not just visually, but in terms of interactions, sounds, lasting effects, and more.

Let’s return to Pip’s game.

In short story form, you might expect to read about the village Pip lives in. You would get just enough detail that your mind can imagine and fill in the blanks. Her home is made of stone that, since the volcano woke up, has been warm to the touch even at night. There is a bustling market and a small beach where the fishing boats go out in the morning. You fill in the details of the world based on a motif you have in your head — collected from other stories and films and real life places.

In games, this world is created for the player not just to see and hear, but to move in and interact with. The details of the game world make it more real, and they are a vehicle for the story. This concept of environmental storytelling is a deep well that borrows water from places like film, architecture, and history.

For instance, in any area of a game, what’s its purpose? What’s its past, and how does that show? What details tell us that something is off? Is the paint chipped, is there a broken window? Did the birds just go quiet? In Pip’s world, are there statues or monuments, and what do they mean?

The environment in a game can provoke the player to ask “what happened here?” through just a few small details.

Greebling Large.png

Just like a film set, the world of a game can allude to a bigger place just out of view, or convey a sense of scale with some illusions and tricks. “Greebling” is a technique used by model makers to add small physical details to their sets and set pieces. Greebling a game world with things like panels, pipes, and other interesting bits helps sell the illusion of a bigger whole.

In games, this can be used in the same way. But it can be taken further by building in small interactions that imply depth and believability. If there’s a soda machine in the game, the player will try to push the buttons; if there’s a door, they will try to open it; if there’s a coconut, they’d very much like to pick it up and throw it.

The lighting of a place does a lot of work too.

Lighting Large.png

For the story, it can tell us how to feel about an area. Is it bright and sunny? Or is it dark and gloomy? For the player, it can gently point out a path or place of interest. Is a path darker than the surrounding area? Or brighter? The contrast brings interest and guidance on where to go or what to do next. Players don’t always need a sign pointing the way; sometimes light alone can steer them.

If something is lit differently from everything else in the world, it will invite the player to pause, or to explore.

Sound is also fundamental to creating a game’s story. Just like a film’s score, the background music sets the mood and the player’s expectations. Changing the music based on what’s happening in the game- whether that’s a restful village or preparing for a boss fight- is another tool in the game designer’s kit.

All of these aspects of environmental storytelling are opportunities to add depth to a game. Some techniques are borrowed from other media, like film. Games, however, are different from film in at least one significant way: the player is the director, and decides what to look at. A game that weaves its story into the environment for the player to immerse themselves in and interact with will be more engaging and memorable.

In next week’s installment, we’ll look at what kinds of stories emerge from those experiences, which come from the player themselves: Emergent Narrative.