Dead Space - Storytelling through Level Design
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The environments in which our games take place have a story of their own outside of dialog and cut scenes. Embedded in these experiences are visual cues that help inform the player about where they are, and what may have happened before them. Much like a stage, a level is dressed in a way that sets the intended visual theme. This method can be as subtle as mud on a pair of boots or more direct like writing scrawled on the walls in blood. This is environmental storytelling.
Environmental storytelling can be found in just about every game out there. Some games even tell all or a majority of their story solely through their environments. Some great examples, but not limited to, include Gone Home, Fallout, BioShock, Hyper Light Drifter and Portal to name a few. However, with these write ups I like to focus in on one level at a time, so we’re going to venture into Dead Space.
You play as Isaac Clarke, a ship systems engineer who is heading to the USG Ishimura to try and repair it. Upon arriving the Ishimura looks in worse shape than expected. You must board the ship and discover what had happened to the crew.
The Level – New Arrivals
New Arrivals is the opening level of Dead Space. It opens up aboard a small ship in route to the USG Ishimura. Below is the opening visual that the player sees. Immediately you can gather a lot of information. The ship appears adrift amid a debris field with no indication of it functioning properly. The ship appears daunting in the distance, and you are slowly drawn into it.
Your ship crashes into the USG Ishimura because of technical failures, but once aboard you can instantly tell something is amiss. The ground is littered with trash and covered in dirt. Debris is scattered around and nobody from the crew comes to the aid of the crashed ship. The player can gather from the environment something is wrong, besides the crash.
Deeper into the Ishimura you come across the flight lounge and control room. Just by looking around you’ll see that bags are strewn about on the ground, and more trash litters the area. The player might gather that nobody has been here for some amount of time, or perhaps something is keeping them from performing normal duties.
At the door to the control room blood is splattered on the floor. Now not only can we tell something is wrong, but that blood has been shed. Past the door the situation worsens. Blood is everywhere. Something awful took place here, and given the amount of blood its likely someone(s) died. This escalates the situation and starts to build the player’s anticipation. The blood also plays double duty and leads the player where they need to go.
Once inside the control room the player gets their first true scare. The lights cut out and their crew is attacked by a necromorph from above. This is an indicator to the player that the necromorph is using some other way to get around, so they better watch their back. If the player didn’t quite catch it here there is some audio later in the game telling them to look out for vents. Regardless, the player is cut off from the others and is told to run. After a couple close calls, you eventually get into an elevator and head anywhere but there.
You have probably seen this visual from Dead Space before. It’s even the first image you’ll get if you google Environmental Storytelling (not this one exactly but the same scene). That is because it is an excellent example of instructing the player through the environment, and telling a story. Most games dealing with undead enemies before Dead Space taught players to aim for the head. Dead Space asks something different. The enemies won’t die if the head is taken off, but instead can be dealt more damage if you remove their limbs. Somebody, likely the some-body next to you, thought this information was so valuable he wrote it in his own blood before dying. This is also where the player picks up their first weapon and are now able to defend themselves.
Deeper into the bowls of the USG Ishimura the player finds messages and symbols written hastily in the halls. Some messages warn the player not to believe their lies, and others are short and simply say pawn. The player will start to form opinions around these visual cues. They’ll begin to create a narrative in their head about who wrote these messages and what their true meaning is. Can they be trusted? This is all part of the storytelling told through the environment.
And that is where I’ll wrap this one up. That is a tiny slice of what Dead Space offers in terms of environmental storytelling. Throughout the game you can gather and create a full narrative just from your surroundings, and that is a really powerful tool for immersion. If all games had were cutscenes to tell their stories, they would be little more than films. Being able to interact with environments is what sets games apart when it comes to crafting experiences.
Did you enjoy Dead Space? Do you recall any memorable environmental storytelling?
You can connect with me on Twitter for more posts about Level Design.
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you in the next level!