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Nitty Gritty: Weaving A Fetching Environmental Narrative In Games

A game development article explaining the various ways in which spatial storytelling can be effectively applied to beget a believable and cohesive virtual environment that compels players to explore every nook and cranny.

Ever since civilization first materialized during the Neolithic Revolution, humans have been making use of the natural resources at their disposal to keep the fires of long-term survival, both from a physical and intellectual standpoint, burning. Whether it was through the plowing of fields or the erection of buildings, humankind told a unique story while interacting with their surroundings via a particular process, one that would embed their principles onto this Earth for others to uncover and understand how they evolved and should continue to do so. In the real world, this begets a desire for universal progress. In interactive entertainment, this reveals a tangible means of expression that encompasses the physical, sociological and psychological facets of human nature.

Pioneered in titles such as System Shock (1994) as a way of circumventing systemic limitations with regards to dialog and NPC interactions, environmental storytelling acts as both a narrative delivery mechanism that preserves the player's spatial awareness and a literal/figurative reflection of the setting's geographic and socioeconomic structure that can shed light on the mindsets of its occupants. In addition to adhering to the time-tested principle of "show, don't tell", spatial narrative taps into the gamer's exploratory instincts and drives the pacing at which the avatar negotiates the space through a medley of contextual props and audiovisual cues that leverage design, art, sound, writing and other disciplines. In other words, crafting a world redolent of individual and collective history requires a level of coordination among developers that can yield a universe with immaculate verisimilitude.

With the advancement of technology and broadening of presentational styles, the concept of telling a tale through the space became more widespread and conspicuous across sundry gaming genres. With evocative settings like the Baker Ranch in Resident Evil 7 (2017) and Fairfax Residence in SWAT 4 (2005), the avatar's surroundings have the potential to become more than just a challenge-ridden map with a particular pacing. They assume the role of detailed content dispensers that present a certain tone and backstory, all of which adds up to a locale that consequently represents its own character. Such a subtle metamorphosis lies at the core of the immersion factor that invests players into everything that occurs onscreen and within the game universe.

Environmental narrative can thus serve as an effective way of conveying information about the game world to the gamer, but its application extends far beyond the mere placement of objects and structures that act as the scene setters for the backdrop. As a multilayered medium that encourages active participation, gaming highlights an opportunity for designers to encourage players to take in everything their title's lore has to offer. Said opportunity should not only rely on themes and premises that gamers can empathize with in the same vein as other media like film and literature, it also ought to acquaint the tale it wishes to tell to the playing part of the experience, allowing the participant to fully appreciate the narrative intricacies while remaining engrossed in the experience's specific gameplay.

I shall expand my argument by listing five salient principles that can constitute a convincing and uncontrived approach to environmental storytelling, one that fully utilizes gaming's audiovisual merits. For each element, I’m going to give you an example of a title that gets that particular aspect right.

NOTE: The tips that I'm sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every game depending on the designer's philosophy and vision, but they serve as general guidelines that can benefit the virtual experience when well-implemented.

1 - Leverage level layout and content to communicate potent exposition

One of the first pillars of environmental storytelling that developers have to apprehend is to make use of the space to reveal details about the world and its inhabitants convincingly. This must be carefully handled because as players become gradually exposed to their surroundings and the context that envelops the in-game universe, they'll naturally expect a level of verisimilitude in the narrative that's presented to them as well as how said narrative ought to be delivered. From solidifying the thematic focus and scope of the experience to defining the technology and architecture of the virtual world, designers can achieve ludonarrative consistency and richness if they develop a clear understanding of the way characters express themselves through their property and possessions and are able to convey their thoughts and interests well enough.

Gone Home represents a fascinating case study in crafting an inauspicious atmosphere through its thematically multifarious level conceptualization. In this 2013 exploration game, players will be uncovering the manifold facets of the backstory by ferreting out the Greenbriar Residence. The sense of mystery is deftly executed through items that communicate the comportment of their avatar's rebellious sibling and conservative parents, as well as audiovisual touches (e.g. TV color bars, creaking floor plants) that accentuate the vacated nature of the house. By imparting information through such techniques, Fullbright manages to turn the environment into a pertinent reflection of the inhabitants' mindset that bolsters the communicative sentiment of purposeful place. 

Given that our real-life surroundings can reveal a lot about ourselves without relying on a vocal description, it only makes sense for developers to look at the virtual space as a multi-dimensional character unto itself, not just a platform for game challenges. Documenting the personalities and ideologies permeating the game world, and then dishing out exposition about them with the appropriate entities and locales can go a long way towards forging a rich environment that accurately evinces the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants, both former and current. It's through this eclectic attention-to-detail that the player can make the difference between a space embellished with window-dressing and another that is genuinely evocative.

2 - Teach and bake mechanics into the environment for narrative cogency

In addition to communicating information about the plot/characters/backstory through the virtual world, developers should attempt to incorporate the teaching of mechanics into the space to maintain the kinetic sense of immersion and spatial believability. Such a synergy can prove simple or complicated to execute depending on the number and malleability of gameplay systems, but it can greatly enhance 'flow' and add more depth to the player's surroundings when realized. Proper placement and triggering of interactive objects and characters can go a long way towards doing away with HUD pop-ups and other 'gamey' indicators to properly tie the participant's abilities to the world's physical rules, reactions and lore.

A swell display of having the environment broaden the gamer's understanding of the title's rules and story in an uncontrived manner is 2004's Half-Life 2. As Gordon Freeman travels from City 17 to Nova Prospekt, the player will come across sundry spatial details that hint at past and current events, as well as serve a mechanical purpose that the avatar will grasp through world insight. With examples such as the saw blades that litter Ravenholm and are effective against zombies, and the Restrictors strewn about Highway 17 that ward off Antlions, Valve efficiently shows the player what precisely they're in for as well as what they're capable of doing. This, in turn, translates to the participant achieving their objectives while learning more about the way the world operates, greatly enhancing the title's sense of immersion and pacing.

The synergy of gameplay and storytelling from an environmental perspective represents an enticing opportunity for developers to tear down the "gamey" barriers between players and the title's immersion factor. By incorporating the mechanics and systems into the world-building for the gamer to fully digest, the designers can circumvent several "kludges" that can clumsily teach the participant how the game operates at the expense of verisimilitude. This, in turn, can yield a virtual universe that not only has something to tell about its inhabitants and locales, but also shares with the avatar information that will give them a better idea of how to overcome obstacles and achieve goals throughout their journey, begetting a multifaceted game world.

3 - Contextualize information in a way that compels gamers to hunt for and scrutinize details

Logically, there's more to spatial narrative than merely filling the space with expository tidbits for the player to uncover. How they relate to the context the avatar finds themselves in can further entice the gamer to amble around their surroundings and better understand the objectives they wish to complete, which can prove frustrating if designers don't take the time to add gameplay value to environmental props. Whether it's scattering pieces of evidence pertaining to a crime or planting data repositories hinting at enemy weaknesses the player can exploit, developers should think outside the presentational box and seek ways to have the participant analyze the space instead of blazing through it with regards to marrying gameplay flow and storytelling depth.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided provides a fetching demonstration of adding storytelling value to objects and locations of interest that incite the gamer to probe every nook and cranny. While exploring the quarters of Prague which exhibit the world's reactionary aura through posters and character interactions, the participant shall be performing detective work in various areas to solve mysteries and cases through clues scattered across the environment. Such clues, like bloodstains that intimate foul play and cultish bricolages that suggest superstition, feed into the player's investigatory impulses and desire to piece together tales that can span multiple characters and quests, leading to the unveiling of pertinent commentary that expand the gamer's comprehension of what's at stake.

Like a highlighter that vividly marks sections of text in an effort to draw the reader's attention to them, context can be baked into the environmental minutiae in order to entice players to extract as much meaning from their surroundings as they can. With objectives and lore factored in, the designer is presented with various possibilities to mix scene-setting and/or gameplay-relevant details that can lure the avatar from one end of the space to the other in an uncontrived fashion. Through slick positioning of interactive entities within their surroundings and their proper contextualization, the designers can craft an environment full of convincing content that stimulates the player's adventurous instincts and solidifies their long-term engagement.

4 - Invite the participant to create their own interpretation of the story

Because spatial storytelling relies heavily on player intuition and inquisitiveness to be properly consumed, the developer can further tap into the gamer's conscious detail-scrounging by presenting a narrative or scenario that leaves room for interpretation. Given the sizable role subjectivity and control play in forging each participant's experience, providing a series of events with varying degrees of ambiguity that can be approached from different storytelling angles as well as gameplay ones can create another beneficial layer of agency and give rise to a "shared ownership" between gamers and designers. This, in turn, can beget a broader perspective that not only adds new meaning to the virtual universe, but also enriches it with the sense that players can "lay claim" to their view of the game and further immerse themselves into their constructed fantasy.

Inside serves as a good example of a narratively potent and malleable experience, inviting the gamer to create their topical impression of the title. Throughout the minimalistic adventure, the participant will pick up on numerous themes showcased through the world and scripted instances like slavery, control and experimentation. The "action over words" approach to displaying the ambiguous backdrop and sequence of scenarios that insinuate said themes means that the player will be compelled to draw theories that add contextual weight to Playdead's creation. Not only does this boost the gamer's participatory investment, but it also turns Inside into a "virtual canvas" that embodies interpretative properties of paintings such as those of an Impressionistic nature.

Camille Pissaro stated that "everything is beautiful, all that matters is to be able to interpret." Due to the gaming participant being active rather than passive, this dialog between the author and their audience becomes all the more crucial. With the former's handling of the thematic layers that define the game universe and the latter's ability to create a comprehensive assessment of the audiovisuals presented to them, the possibilities for interpretation duplicate and even intensify. By tapping into the collective unconscious and planning out the series of events representing the game's motifs, the designer can create a virtual world that not only embodies their personal message, but also acts as a topical playground for gamers to shape their own theories and ideas.

5 - Avoid being too "on-the-nose" or elliptical with spatial details and cues

Last but not least, there's a critical but oft-overlooked aspect of environmental storytelling that can make or break its intended effect on the immersion factor: lucidity. This is where the developer must exercise prudence as the sense of discovery the player would feel from combing the space can be lost to frustration or "auto-piloting" if the environment is far too abstract or clear-cut to engender the required participation for sound gameplay flow and mystery. However, with a solid apprehension of how the game's themes and plot elements can be naturally applied and picked up by the player, the designer can circumvent the issue of "face value" narrative and craft an environment that is logically put together and adorned with clever hints.

Thief: The Dark Project encapsulates the idea of baking details into the space which the gamer picks up without instantly realizing what might entail. Over the course of this 1998 stealth title, the avatar will be exploring sundry locales that audiovisually convey their respective tale and level of danger. From the vegetation in Constantine's Mansion that hints at the owner's veritable essence, to the changes in surface material that underline the theme of nature vs. technology and split between rich and poor areas, Looking Glass Studios covertly leverages the virtual world's narrative potential to subtly relay to the gamer their progress and imply the forthcoming scenarios that'll corroborate the inquisitive assumptions they might make about the level flow and story.

Of all the considerations developers have to make with regards to environmental storytelling, figuring out the right quantity and clarity for the spatial narrative details can become of the most grueling tasks to undertake. Their close link to the game's pacing and atmosphere means that the designers must thoroughly brainstorm ways to ingrain exploratory improvisation in the gamer's mind and impart the intended emotional involvement for each area and its subsections. With that factor taken into account, developers can properly determine the kind of layout and content that would provide an immaculate balance between enabling the player to find all the information they need to understand the world and preserving the immersion factor that envelops it.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once proclaimed that "God is in the details" with regards to minimalist architecture. It's a line of thinking that, in the field of game design, can yield a thematically focused and potent work when applied to all facets of the experience, including its narrative and setting. By looking at the space as an omnipresent tool for communicating the context and systems of the game universe, developers can potentially turn the environment into its own character that constantly induces the player to uncover its secrets and immerse themselves into the going-ons defining it. With the guidelines that I expounded, designers can brainstorm new mechanical and presentational possibilities that not only complement the overarching narrative, but also enhance the storytelling value and malleability of the gamer's virtual surroundings to the point of transcendence.

Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.

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