Environmental narrative, which Richard Rouse III defined as "the little stories told through the world itself" [PPT], has been around for decades.
Even in a game as focused on play as DOOM (id Software, 1991) world-building through environment was important. The second episode "The Shores of Hell" takes place on missing Martian moon Deimos where the sky is blood-red and the UAC research base is meshed with "Satanic structures", suggestive of the moon having been dragged into the Hell dimension. In the third episode "Inferno", the player descends into Hell itself and fights through structures constructed from flesh with mutilated bodies treated as decoration. Although this graphical re-skinning has no functional impact, they help reinforce DOOM’s holy wafer-thin plot.
We’ve since experienced Valve’s highly-regarded environmental work on Half-Life (Valve, 1998) and Portal (Valve, 2007), and recent indie games such as Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012) and Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, 2013) which foreground what most games consider background.
We're living in the era of environmental storytelling but, despite this, there's often confusion about what it is... and whether it's actually important.
Rouse's definition is a great soundbite but it's not enough in itself, which is why he went to all the trouble of making a presentation to explain it. But writers have no shortage of definitions for environmental narrative.
I grabbed a handful at an IGDA panel on environmental narrative in 2010: Tom Jubert, writer for Penumbra: Overture (Frictional Games, 2007) and The Swapper (Facepalm Games, 2013), suggested it was the parts of the story told without dialogue; Rhianna Pratchett, writer for Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory, 2007) and Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, 2013) said it was nonlinear, nonverbal storytelling; James Swallow, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011), said it was about discovery of the story – about the players finding out for themselves, rather than delivery of story through dialogue or text.
Environmental narrative fascinates writers. Splash Damage's lead writer, Ed Stern, said that the best character in a game is usually the environment. This fascination echoes the “show not tell” school of thought in literature and film, which asserts it is better for story to emerge naturally and not force characters to pander to the audience with exposition. Devotees of this approach would argue it's better to show or imply the origin of Skynet in The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984) rather than tell you about it because a lethal overdose of exposition can reveal the hand of the author and destroy the make-believe. However, sometimes budget will pull rank and writers will work their butts off to find a safe exception to the show-not-tell law. Kyle Reese has to tell Sarah Connor about the war with the machines because she would need some explanation about why she’s being hunted by a robot assassin from the future: the audience inherit this explanation.
Which makes you wonder whether the film really needs an opening wall of text.
This is also why game worlds are flush with amnesiacs as they give designers freedom to explain both story and mechanics. There are alternatives to the amnesiac. In Saints Row 2 (Volition, 2008), the player awakes from a coma and in GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004), protagonist C.J. has been out of town for five years. As these serve to justify exposition, it can still feel like a crutch to the writer.
But it’s difficult to get all smart in mainstream games because they’re the equivalent of the big screen blockbuster. No one goes to see Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) for nuanced subtext, they’re interested in bad guys, good guys, stuff blowing up, world saved and all that shiny shit. That wall of text at the outset of The Terminator is superfluous because the dialogue covers it later, yet it's there to ensure the audience isn't at risk of losing the plot. Mainstream writers conspire to add layers to their fiction which allows their stories to be regarded as thoughtful even though they are ostensibly populist. The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999) blew away cinema audiences with CGI-spiked gunfights and Kung Fu spectacle yet the film also incorporated a musing on the nature of reality.
Games have a more formidable problem as writing often tampers with player agency. Games such as Half-Life are action-focused and cutscenes that were intended as a reward for surviving challenges may end up being a punishment for the player making progress. That cutscene cockblocks the action, so best practice is to keep cutscenes short. A quick digression: this is a Western best practice. Metal Gear Solid (KCEJ, 1998) and its sequels are famous for long cinematic sequences in which the player becomes spectator, and the Japanese RPG is also synonymous with walls of text.
If we follow the Western logic of the short cutscene to its inevitable conclusion, we realise that the ideal cutscene has zero length. Sometimes Valve are applauded for dropping cutscenes from their games but this belies that Valve still champion them. The only difference with Valve’s work is that the player often gets to navigate around the cutscene or possibly even abandon it. Players are given as much agency as Valve can spare, but no more. The writer still tampers.
Amidst David Mamet’s ALL CAPS suggestions for the writers of The Unit is the following gem:
IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA. IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION, INDEED, OF SPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING).
There’s no obvious analogue to Mamet’s rule in gaming. Gaming, for example, resists easy definition and while it's easy to adopt the word “medium” to say “the medium of games” are we really thinking of Snakes & Ladders? Or Johann Sebastian Joust? Or even interactive fiction? Maybe we could restrict ourselves to single player games with a story and try “TELLING THE STORY THROUGH INTERACTIVITY (ALSO KNOWN AS GAME DEVELOPMENT)”?.
Writers and game designers would love to tell stories through pure interactivity instead of having characters chew the cutscenery. Environmental narrative is sometimes articulated in these terms but it is far from ideal. Instead of the story interrupting play, it sits in the background, to be engaged with if the player so chooses. There’s an example in Half-Life 2: Episode Two (Valve, 2007) where it appears someone had been hanging out with a few beers and using headcrabbed zombies as a target practice. It’s an example I missed but didn’t affect my game at all. We might as well dump environmental narrative in a bucket called optional narrative.
Some environmental storytelling is pure worldbuilding which can be appreciated passively as it feeds the subconscious, but there are also plenty of smaller, human stories written in this way. It's like asking the player to interpret a story from a painting. Here’s a scene – what happened? Stern has called it “CSI writing, because you're writing a crime scene.” A perfect example of this is mobile game Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style, 2009) which is primarily about spinning webs and catching insects but the game also spins a tale in its luscious backdrops. Another is Kairo (Locked Door Puzzle, 2012), a first-person puzzle game set in an alien environment which only delivers story through the appearance and behaviour of the environment itself (see Electron Dance article on the game's story).
Even though we have developers showcasing environmental narrative as the main attraction, it’s unlikely to be the only mode of storytelling. Even Dear Esther, Miasmata and Gone Home resorted to bucketfuls of voiceover and lore. Now there's disagreement about whether lore and audio logs are covered by the environmental narrative catch-all; Matthew Burns refers to Gone Home as an example of a "strict environmental storytelling approach" and Rouse's presentation includes "in-world audio" as an environmental narrative technique. What I’d point out is that the best lore shares something in common with environmental storytelling in that they both ask the player to piece together a story from what they have found.
Going further, both are echoes of events, a murky summary of what has happened. It seems odd to club a show-not-tell method in with something resembling exposition, but these modes of storytelling have more in common than first apparent. Despite the phrasing, show-not-tell does not demand we always show something, because implication is also a strong tool. Environmental narrative never shows anything, it always implies. It's about storytelling without the actors and is a creative response to a fundamental problem. After decades of work, games can still only offer crude approximations of interactive characters.
Games have managed to succeed in spite of this problem. Part of this has been through the use of some ingenious workarounds – scripted NPC responses, for example – and building expensive decision trees such as in Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007) or Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010). But the reason games succeed with limited NPC AI is because whereas books and cinema are about the characters in the story, single player games are about the one participant. Service the player's own story well enough and the rest can often figure itself out. Breaking this dictatorial relationship players have with the narrative will not be easy. Façade (Mateas & Stern, 2005) is a good stab at the problem which allows the player to converse in a freeform fashion with two NPCs. However, this game was no small effort and the resulting experience is still far from perfect.
Almost fifteen years after System Shock 2 (Irrational Games, 1999), a story largely told in retrospect through audio logs and notes where the only people you encounter are dead or to be put down, the cutting edge of storytelling is Gone Home, a story largely told in retrospect through audio logs and notes and the only people you encounter are in pictures. Even with wonderful works such as Kairo, Gone Home, Miasmata, Dear Esther and Spider, it is difficult to believe that the future of videogame narrative will be yet more beautifully crafted dead worlds.
Randy Smith of Tiger Style passed on some relevant references during a Twitter conversation this week.
- Turns out Smith wrote The Beautiful Dead four years ago, when describing the development of Spider in Edge Magazine. "I make it sound good, but it’s obviously a total dodge, similar to a space station conveniently populated only by audio logs and corpses."
- There's another great presentation on environmental narrative available in the GDC Vault. "What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling" by Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith.