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Environmental Storytelling

As a game designer, what can you do with a huge open world filled with thousands of different kinds of objects? You can tell stories with the environment itself.

Bart Stewart, Blogger

November 12, 2015

5 Min Read

Weapon at the ready, you slowly open the door.

No movement ahead. No sounds behind you. You relax slightly and enter the room.

Along a far wall, beneath pale strips of peeling wallpaper, is a bed: a sagging mattress atop broken boards, covered with the decayed brown remnants of a bedspread.

On the bed is a small skeleton. One of its arms reaches toward the room's lone window, and one short leg rests inside a moldy leather brace.

The window is boarded up, but a pale golden light sneaks through the gaps in the planks. On the floor below the window lie a baseball glove and a weathered wooden bat. On the rotted windowsill, glowing in the sunset, sits a baseball bearing the faded signature of someone named "Dizzy Dean."

Around the window are drawn simple images: stick figures playing with a ball on a sunny day; a house with something warm being taken from the oven; a brilliant flash of light; multiple angry stick figures wrestling with two horizontal stick figures drawn with their eyes closed.

You step back and close the door, leaving the room as you found it.

As you read this description of something that might happen in a game, did you create in your mind a story to explain these observations? Do you also do this when actually playing a game?

If so, you've been enjoying "environmental storytelling." As Gamasutra Editor-in-Chief Kris Graft pointed out in discussing giving up the use of quest markers in Fallout 4, unexpectedly encountering small stories told through clever use of a game's environment is one of the great pleasures of exploring game worlds.

Environmental storytelling is the art of arranging a careful selection of the objects available in a game world so that they suggest a story to the player who sees them. (I'm using "story" in a fairly loose sense here, so let's not get hung up on what is or isn't a story -- I just mean a sequence of events that has emotional meaning.)

Many games featuring characters in an imagined world tell their stories overtly. Developers may animate a non-player character who talks to your character; they may dramatize events using cutscenes; they may place notebooks or audio logs; they may simply display text as exposition. In all these cases, a story is imparted directly to you, the player, with little or no interpretation necessary.

Environmental storytelling is less direct. Instead of explicitly describing events, environmental storytelling shows the final outcome of a sequence of events, then it invites players to make up their own stories about what happened to cause that outcome. This mode of telling stories is more collaborative than performative: a game's content developer will select objects for a location, arrange those objects in some way that feels meaningful, and then leave the final interpretation of that tableau to the player.

In combination with more direct storytelling, this is a wonderful way to deepen the player's immersion in a virtual world. Players can be told directly what happened and why, and then developers can give that dry information more emotional punch by creating vignettes that allow players, through their characters, to perceive the consequences of the events described elsewhere. As players invent stories to explain these vignettes, they become more immersed in the world of the game. Do it often enough, and well enough, and many players will even begin to discover meaning in things that the developer never thought of.

A game whose developers have taken the time and care to arrange its objects in ways that living people might have done is a game that is a joy to explore, even if the story that some environment tells is not a happy one. Each new scene helps to give the game world more meaning, and makes it a place to which one wants to return, because who knows how many such scenes remain to be found, or were missed the first time through?

It should be said that environmental storytelling probably has the most value in game worlds that, for whatever reason, don't contain many non-hostile NPCs. Beyond just being an additional way to communicate the nature of the game world, the nature of environmental storytelling -- arranging objects to show the outcome of a sequence of events -- is a particularly valuable content delivery tool for game worlds that are post-apocalyptic or rest on the bones of long-lost cultures. Games about things ending benefit from showing stories about the endings of individual people.

It's probably not a coincidence that the two major franchises of Bethesda Softworks -- The Elder Scrolls and Fallout -- are both deeply wrapped around what could be called "the melancholy of lost civilizations." There aren't many people around (to deliver story) because they're mostly dead. So the stories to be told, by those whose lives ended long ago, are rendered through the local environments in which they lived and died:

A skeleton reclines in a bathtub filled with empty gin bottles.

A decayed cake rests in the center of a circle of toys, a brightly-colored party hat placed on a single chair.

A dessicated corpse drapes one arm over a trapped chest.

A skeleton slumps over a chair outside the entrance to a bunker, in its lap a pistol with one round missing.

A tattered clipbook contains faded pictures of two girls laughing.

A room is filled with plungers attached to every conceivable flat surface.

Two skeletons lie on a bed, their hands touching.

A secret room holds rows of shelves on which are stacked cheeses of every description. On one shelf, instead of a cheese wheel, is a tarnished coin.

You get the idea. Behind the door to any room in the game world might lie the last moments, frozen in time, of someone who once lived in that world, and whose ending (as revealed by the last objects that mattered to them) tells you a little something more about that world.

I can't think of many game worlds that wouldn't benefit from some thoughtful environmental storytelling.

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Bart Stewart


Bart Stewart is a senior Technical Project Manager with a major aerospace firm in Fort Worth, Texas. His encounter with the BASIC simulation game "Hammurabi" led him to earn a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, to work for thirteen years as a software developer for a large systems integration company and eleven years as a manager of several complex software development projects, and to a lifelong passion for player-oriented game design. Bart is presently compiling a field guide to personality styles in the workplace. He has also created several game designs (currently looking for the right development platform) that consciously provide content for different play styles.

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