Take a look at your surroundings right now. Look at the little intricacies and the various items scattered everywhere. Your surroundings tell a distinct story. Maybe it’s something mundane like the glass you left on your table that has been sitting there for 2 days because you were too lazy to go to the kitchen. Maybe it’s a family portrait of that time you all went on a vacation and every time you look at it, you feel nostalgic of the terrific time you had all those years ago. Every piece of paraphernalia you have on your desk has a story of how it ended up there. Many poets just stride through some woods and get enough material to write something that will touch your very heart. The environment is like a novel that is constantly open and actively being written in. You can get so much through simply looking at what is around you.
This feature is a combination of my narrative and graphics entries into the Art of Gaming. I focused on narratives and how they worked within games and I also looked at the possible importance that graphics can have on a game. This time, we are looking at a hybrid of the two: environmental storytelling. To give a simple explanation, it’s when a game’s environment tells a story on its own by presenting elements that tell you more about the world you are playing in. It can either be done well or terribly. The games that have chest high walls, brown colour schemes to everything and buildings that look to be copy pasted from an asset store cannot deliver an engaging story with its environments. However, when it is done well, it can elevate a game’s narrative and the experience so much more.
Let’s start off strong with the game that I think has done it the best: Bloodborne. In actual fact, you can say the same for all of the Souls games, but I want to focus on Bloodborne in particular. The game has a very loose narrative. There aren’t any distinct quest givers or people standing around willing to spout exposition in your face. The story is almost entirely being told by the world. You enter an area and through exploration, you can figure out what is happening. Each area has a distinct personality that tells its own individual story. The plague-ridden streets filled with madmen with pitchforks instantly tell you that some calamity has befallen this world. As you progress, the environments become more distorted, more macabre. The setting changes, elements change along with it, monstrosities pop up that each have their own tragic story to tell of how they got into this world.
Bloodborne and all of the Souls games rely on their environments to bring their stories to life. Usually environmental storytelling accompanies the narrative and strengthens it, but Souls games make it a central focus point. You certainly won’t find much of a story from the various ramblings of the mad people scattered around the world. You need to explore and figure it out for yourself by looking at your surroundings.
Souls games aren’t alone in this whatsoever, however. Journey is also one of the strongest purveyors of environmental storytelling since the game has no dialogue at all and relies on its beautiful visuals and carefully sculpted world to deliver you a narrative. And it could drive you to tears. A game that doesn’t have a word spoken within it that solely relies on its environment and world can make you feel such strong emotion. Similarly, a game such as Unravel uses its environment exclusively for its narrative. As you go through the game, you see various mirages and past images of people that have interacted with the environment you’re in. Once again, not a word has been uttered, but the world tells a compelling story.
Besides the stellar examples of games using environmental storytelling, you can also find great examples in games that use it as an accompaniment rather than the central focus. A game such as Dishonored uses its world to set a depressive tone. Rat-infested streets, people dying in gutters, oppressive forces keeping the common man down and so on. This is mainly what environmental storytelling tries to accomplish: to set a tone and give the game its own personality. This is what makes survival horror games so effective as well. Dead Space did a terrific job at telling the tragic story of the game’s events just through its environments. The decrepit state and the horrific imagery creates a compelling and terrifying atmosphere that puts you on edge. P.T. also created an incredible environmental narrative simply through its usage of a realistic looking typical household that gradually turns into Hell.
There are almost too many games to mention when it comes to effective use of environments. While it can be done terrifically, it can also be the downfall of a lot of games with less ambition. Environments that simply exist to fulfil a singular objective and are more focused on function rather than telling a story can often be considered dull to play or, more specifically, explore. However, like we discussed in the graphics entry, games are becoming much more beautiful and designers are implementing more and more little features into the environment. I’m thinking we will see a sharp incline of games that make use of their environments as a tool for storytelling rather than simply being there as a space for players to move around in.