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The Importance of Story
The first secret is "story." When I say story I am not talking about a linear "once upon a time" type story. I am talking about an all encompassing notion, a "big picture" idea of the world that is being creating. A set of rules that will guide, the design and the project team to a common goal. It is this first step that will insure the created world will be seamless. If you are creating a game or attraction based on, let's say "pirates", you'll need to play your audiences expectation like a violin. You want to pamper them by fulfilling every possible expectation of what it must be like to be a pirate. Every texture you use, every sound you play, every turn in the road should reinforce the concept of "pirates!" If you successfully establish a strong enough "story" early on in your design process, you will have little trouble keeping your team focused. If you break any of the rules, more often than not your team will argue, "we can't put that in there, that's not at all 'piratey'!"
Most important of all is once you have created this story, or the rules by which your imagined universe exists, you do not break them! These rules can be broad, but if they are broken your visitors will feel cheated. They will be slapped in the face with the contradiction and never again allow themselves to be as lost in your world as they may have been at the onset.
"Where Am I?"
In the telling of your "story," the next most important task is to answer your audiences first question.... "Where am I?" No matter how well designed your environments are, if your audience can not answer this question in the first 15 seconds, 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 this question for themselves.
Your next question to answer is "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 marvelous opportunity to pull your audience deeper into your world. This need not be done with lengthy CD liner notes or costly Intro AVIs. Clues can be left throughout your environment. Although you may not know who you are, you should be able to begin to have a notion based on your initial location. Valve's Half Life does an award winning job of playing with the player's desire for self identity, but only lets them come to a conclusion through their experience of the physical space and random encounters with peripheral game characters.
Self discovery can be even more enjoyable than having the story spelled out for you in the opening credits. There are lots of ways designers can place story elements throughout their environments to lead their audience to conclusions designed into the games plot.
Storytelling Through 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. Some examples of "cause and effect" elements include, doors that have been broken open, traces of a recent explosion, a crashed vehicle, a piano dropped from a great height, charred remains of a fire... etc. 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. Putting in an element just because it is "cool" misses a vital opportunity to use that element to help further your story along.
Half Life is an excellent example of cause and effect elements triggered by actions of the game player.
"Cause and effect" elements can also depict the passage of time. 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. The best examples are found in games like Half Life and Duke Nukem 3D. In the case of Duke Nukem, the game player reaks havoc on his environment, blasting toilets, setting fire to palm trees, and making Swiss cheese of many architectural elements. After a lengthy Deathmatch, there is not doubt as to what has transpired in Duke's futuristic Los Angeles.
Another example of "cause and effect" is the use of what I call "Following Saknussemm." Derived from the story Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne. In Verne's story the main characters follow a trail of symbols scratched into subterranean walls by their adventuring predecessor, a sixteenth century Icelandic scientist, Arne Saknussemm. In this way, the game player is pulled through the story by following "bread crumbs" left behind by a fictitious proceeding game character. Whether you create notes scattered throughout your environments, or have the game player follow the destructive path of some dangerous creature, "cause and effect" elements will only heighten the drama of the story you are trying to tell!
The Power of Designing the Familiar
Another powerful trick is to use the familiar in your designs. If your goal is to create an environment that is totally alien, it pays to periodically give your audience something familiar to anchor them themselves to. All too often, game designers will create a level built entirely 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. Even something like "Wow! These look like alien toilets!?!" will bring your audience back to relating to the environment, and even lend a little humor.