“Which of you are writers or want to be writers?” Many hands went up, including mine.
“How many of you want to be writers for games only?” Only a few hands survived.
“Don't limit yourselves.”
On November 23, the IGDA London Chapter ran a discussion panel on “Environmental Narrative: Interactive Story Telling for an Interactive Medium” at London South Bank University. I had chosen to attend merely to extend my cyber-stalking of Tom Jubert into the physical world but anything I learnt about games writing would be a clear bonus.
Four writers had gathered to give their particular perspectives:
- Tom Jubert (Penumbra, Driver: San Francisco)
- Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword)
- James Swallow (Deus Ex Human Revolution, Battlestar Galactica)
- Andrew S. Walsh (Bodycount, Prince of Persia).
There was some initial banter about how every writer leaves certain jobs off their CV, things they don't really want to talk about in an interview. Despite this admission, the panel agreed there was no shame in doing Barbie games, because every job will teach you something about writing a narrative. The example thrown to the audience was the writer for Dead Space 2 also worked on the Pretty In Pink game.
I am afraid to say there are a few spoilers for the games discussed. I was spoiled. You can be spoiled too.
What is Environmental Narrative?
Each writer was asked to explain what environmental narrative meant, one of these amorphous concepts that evade definition.
Jubert said it's the parts of the story told without dialogue and games did this better than any other medium. Pratchett's definition was the nonlinear, nonverbal storytelling, such as the adverts in Bioshock 2.
Swallow put forward his view that environmental narrative was about discovery of the story – the players finding it out for themselves – rather than delivery, through dialogue or text. Pratchett added that Ken Levine refers to it as “pull narrative”.
The panel then moved onto using specific examples to demonstrate the effectiveness of environmental narrative.
Jubert: Bioshock 2
Jubert started out citing Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, about not wasting people's time when they play games. Mindless shooting needs to have some context to rise above banality. Since, mechanically, Bioshock 2 is still just about shooting people in the face, environmental narrative is how the game is tied to its thematics.
As an example of a missed opportunity, we watched the intro cutscene of Bioshock 2, which ends on a dramatic moment where "you" point a gun at your own head. How much better, Jubert pointed out, this would have been to experience through gameplay.
Jubert went through one of the best examples of environmental narrative in Bioshock 2, which unfortunately meant spoilering the lot of us who hadn't played it. There is a sequence where you play as a Little Sister and, through her eyes, there is a “filtered reality” in which Rapture is not seen in its present state of decay, but as the impressive, shiny city of Andrew Ryan's dreams. Only when you drain Adam from a downed splicer do you get a brief glimpse of reality as it is.
This moment of storytelling – of how the Little Sisters are effectively conditioned to see the world in different terms – is not expounded upon in dialogue, delivered purely through experience.
Jubert also added Bioshock 2 had used a 2D moral ending, with a vengeful/merciful axis as well as good/evil. Referencing Mass Effect which paints you as good if you use persuasion to negotiate a problem, he said, “I want to be a bad guy who uses deceit.”
In response to an audience question, Jubert acknowledged that the audio logs are a bit of a fail, because it's difficult to engage with them when running around a shooty game.
Swallow: Half-Life 2
Valve are renowned for their environmental storytelling and Swallow plundered their back-catalogue for examples.
In Left 4 Dead, there's a room where the walls are covered with graffiti, and each scrawl effectively tells the story of the people who have passed through the room. I often wonder, though, if graffiti is the new exposition. I recall “Remember Citadel” scrawled in blood on the walls of System Shock 2 and there was a recent bad example in Singularity.
Swallow went on to say Half-Life is given “texture and uniqueness” through its environmental narrative and its world is fully-realised through everything that you see.
One interesting example was the “children problem”. FPSes never feature children because some player will end up shooting them and you will get HEADLINES for all the wrong reasons. Half-Life 2 turned this issue, normally ignored, into a narrative feature. Breen, the puppet ruler of Earth, mentions in one of his propaganda broadcasts that people can't reproduce due to a “suppression field”. And voilà, narrative texture is concocted from a design problem. (This reminds me of an example I've previously discussed where a system constraint was developed into game folklore, over twenty years ago.)
Swallow pulled out another example where instruction is given through the mistakes of NPCs. When the player first meets the vicious antlions, stepping on open ground will summon a plague of them and lead to a pretty swift death. Rather than push the player through a trial-and-error sequence or even dialogue to make this plain, HL2 opts to show an NPC making this mistake and seeing them cut to shreds. It's a frightening demonstration which creates tension in the player. The audience mentioned that the ceiling-hugging barnacles were introduced in the same way in the original Half-Life.
Swallow also brought up the omnipresence of the City 17 Citadel. A permanent landmark throughout HL2, it's clear that you're going there at some point. This serves to heighten the anxiety of the player when he/she finally reaches the Citadel.
If you want more examples of Valve environmental narrative, play through one of their recent games with commentary enabled.
Pratchett talked about Double Fine's Psychonauts. The game is based around exploring other people's minds, which means the environment really does become the narrative.
Pratchett's favourite example is a secret room in the mind of one character. If the player enters this room, the game delivers a sequence of images that explain, without any assisting dialogue, the private, heartbreaking trauma that this character has gone through. If you don't enter this room, the secret remains secret. One lesson here is that not all aspects of story have to be mandatory.
But Pratchett covered a number of other great touches too: mental cobwebs that have to be cleaned and crying suitcases representing emotional baggage. Every collect quest builds into the overall theme.
Walsh: Prince of Persia 2008
Walsh apologised for using his own game as an example, but I forgave him because the Prince of Persia (PoP) project had some unique constraints.
He didn't have the luxury of applying a Half-Life-type environmental narrative because PoP was all about movement. The player can't stop and look around and, as the writer, you can never be sure what he/she is looking at.
One of Walsh's primary tasks was to develop the love story between the two leads, Elika and the Prince. What Walsh devised was a range of subtle cues that became more intimate as the game progressed. For example, the two characters move closer and closer together as they feel more comfortable with one another. They look at each other more often. The Prince's catching action starts out treating Elika as a “sack of potatoes” but transforms into a “lingering hold”. Even character barks carry the progression of the relationship: the Prince initially dubs Elika “princess” but eventually refers to her by name.
When Walsh brought up the importance of music, this segued into a larger notion that the role of a narrative designer is to get everyone in the development team to understand and buy into an overarching plan. (During the Q & A, Walsh returned to this point and called environmental narrative a “developmental group hug.”)
Q & A
A number of interesting points emerged during the Q & A at the end of the session.
Pratchett highlighted that the very term “writer” is misleading, because it was more akin to a director/cinematographer hybrid – and to come in late to a project kills off several of your tools. Many game assets will have already been built without your input.
Swallow made the concise point that narrative design is not a function of budget, as games like Penumbra demonstrate, but a function of time and focus.
One member of the audience suggested that all of this “environmental narrative” simply washes over the player, that as it is not part of the actual gameplay, it ceases to be important. The clever subtext is all but lost. Pratchett said that this ultimately depended on the type of player, but even if you don't consciously acknowledge it, the environmental narrative creeps in. Consider, she suggested, whether Bioshock would have been as interesting if it was simply boring brown corridors as opposed to the actual rendition of Rapture as seen in the game. Jubert added that we assume such things will filter into the subconscious and this assumption is present in all media, not just games.
Another significant discussion point was the concept of a player-authored narrative, exemplified by games such as Far Cry 2. Walsh's view was that it got designers off the “story problem” because it was difficult and such games did not tell stories but experiences. Jubert disagreed and said that telling a story without words is possible; like in a David Lynch film, you can bring your own meaning to it.
A final point was made about sound and music. Walsh and Pratchett promoted its importance, but lamented that the poor sound guys were always added to a project last, after writers. Jubert threw out some modern examples of great sound in games: Amnesia, The Void and The Graveyard.
And then everyone went to the pub.