Environmental Storytelling is one of those aspects of game development that you know it when you see it, but it’s hard to talk about what it actually is. When it works, environmental storytelling can elevate a game, and it is an effective skill for game designers to master if they want to improve their game designs and storytelling.
Environmental Storytelling combines various disciplines for one goal: To create a gamespace that is as lived-in as you can make it.
One of the biggest distinctions between old school and modern games has been a focus on creating believable worlds as opposed to just a gamespace. You can see this in the crazy rooms featured in platformers, action games, and FPS of the ’90s and early ’00s. FPS in particular created insane looking areas and tried to pass them off as “schools” and “hospitals.”
While there was certainly nothing wrong with designing games this way, environmental storytelling does add to a game. A major point has to do with architecture and creating a sense of place. Recent hits like Resident Evil 7, Prey 2017, and the Soulsborne franchise, each created very deep environments. It wasn’t just making a place for the player to run through, but having a world that is detailed enough to warrant a closer look, while still being unique enough to differentiate each area.
In a lot of older games, developers tended to recycle wall textures and room layouts, as the focus was on the gameplay and not the environment. This is where the maze-like quality of older games comes from, and why it was difficult to get your bearings.
With that said, let’s talk more about how to think along these lines and how it helps with design.
Thinking about environmental storytelling is more of an on/off thing as opposed to different degrees. Once you start doing it, it will become harder for you to stop. Being able to think about your gamespace as a world has some subtle advantages.
From a narrative point of view, environmental storytelling helps you build “the bible” of how your world works. Having that framework established allows you to think about your story organically as opposed to just making things happen. We’ve talked about some of the problems of video game storytelling before and how it can feel artificial. Environmental Storytelling done right can lead to stronger stories and a sense of place.
From a gameplay point of view, environmental storytelling has the side-effect of producing “deeper” levels. When we use the term deep in this context, we’re referring to level designs that warrant exploration by the player. In both Resident Evil 7 and Prey 2017, the areas are full of detail for the player to discover.
Instead of sprawling maps as we've seen in classic FPS like Doom, these titles go for smaller individualized areas that have more to explore. Each room is distinctive, which makes it easier for the player to build a mental map of the level.
When it comes to actually doing it, creating environmental storytelling comes down to answering one question: “How does all of this actually work?”
There is a greater topic here relating to realistic fiction, but we can talk about it briefly. Environmental Storytelling in video games is not about being as realistic as possible with your game, but grounding it within its own fiction.
Obviously, no one has firsthand experience living in a city like Rapture or being cannibalistic serial killers, but it’s about creating a setting that make sense for those respective situations. Instead of just putting characters and details haphazardly, you can start to think about how things work within the world.
By creating a believable architecture for your game, it makes it easier for the player to find their way around. From the video, a major part of level design is akin to building the world first and having the gameplay fit inside of it instead of vice versa.
As you start to define the rules and foundation of your world, it will become easier to start thinking about the gameplay and design within that space. In Prey 2017, the station of Talos 1 is not a military base, but a research station. Because of that, there aren’t a lot of actual weapon types, and instead, the player makes use of improvised research items as makeshift weapons.
Environmental Storytelling works best for 3D titles, but it’s still a useful skill to start developing regardless of your game’s design. Just being able to think about how things connect within the world will help you with fleshing out your design.
By itself, environmental storytelling is not going to save a doomed game, but it’s typically a component of the most popular games released each year. Being able to combine your design with storytelling is a skill that not everyone can do.
Besides the games listed here, can you think of other examples of excellence in environmental storytelling?