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:


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.


Additional References

Randy Smith of Tiger Style passed on some relevant references during a Twitter conversation this week.


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29 thoughts on “The Beautiful Dead

  1. I’ve been writing this one for a good month. Originally the seed was the title “the death of environmental narrative”. But I kept hearing this Robert Yang conscience angel on my shoulder moaning “what, really dude?” who kept me second guessing every sentence. He made me delete my rant against graffiti as well.

    I wanted to get out of my system that env narrative aids story but making it your main storytelling device means you’re making a specific type of game like a musical episode of Buffy. These things are great but should not be confused with the future of storytelling.

  2. I guess it’s an updated version of “Dear Esther is interesting but isn’t it a one trick pony?” which was mentioned plenty at the time of Esther’s release.

  3. I am playing Assassin’s Creed II at the moment and the death of environmental narrative would be appropriate.

    Fuck, I hate that game for not giving me any time to breathe and understand the world.

    On the other side, I would really recommend trying out Condemned: Criminal Origins. It is great, especially if you skip the cutscenes (I had forgotten that the game even had them) and take in the environment.

    It also has actual CSI-like investigations.

  4. BC – I find it so interesting that you skip cutscenes in practically every game? Do you find game story always boring or do you prefer story to be delivered in a different way?

    Is Condemned on PC? I don’t know if I’ll going the time especially as I am currently being harassed into installing Bioshock Infinite.

  5. As a rule I skip cut scenes because they are generally rubbish and keep me away from the part of the game I am interested in. People tend to use the cutscenes as you mentioned them in this piece – as a reward for beating the gaming part.

    I can’t stand that and seldom is it that ‘reward’ sufficient to keep me playing a sub-par game (I think the Legacy of Kain games are the only ones, possibly Spec Ops: The Line).

    At the same time when there is a sharp contrast between the gaming story and the cutscene story, I get really annoyed and spend a lot of the time resenting the cutscenes for even existing (if the gameplay is actually good so not LA Noire).

    I wouldn’t say that I prefer environmental story telling – I cannot stand how heavy handed a lot of Half Life 2 was, all they did was replace bink with in game areas where I was forced to listen to a lot of bull shit that stopped me using gravity guns and being utterly terrified by head crab infected groans.

    I do love me some emergent gameplay but that isn’t the be all, end all.

    This post is now going nowhere.

  6. Matt, afraid Eric beat you by a week in terms of harassment.

    BC, I like your opinion because it feels like its rare to find someone who indulges in a lot of mainstream games but simply has no time for videogame story efforts. That is, you’re really interested in the mechanics part and the story dressing just isn’t going to fool you into thinking “this ain’t so bad”. I know a lot of hardcore gamers will denounce games like Dear Esther et al because “where’s the gameplay” but it’s a different thing to be quite so dismissive of story entirely. Am I imagining this – that this kind of opinion is actually common?

  7. Mamet’s advice is cowardly, empty-headed bullshit for hack writers who are afraid of their own tools.

    I’m not quite sure how it happened but some sort of paranoid fear of storytelling seems to have entered the culture, or at least the brains of a great many artists. They fetishize certain elements of writing (“conflict, it’s all about conflict” / “show, don’t tell”) instead of actually embracing the vast spectrum of possibilities before them and dealing with the challenges of actually being *good* at what they do.

    The majority of storytelling in games is shit because it’s *badly done*. The words are shit. The underlying structures are shit. The stories are shit. So the results are shit. We’ve taken to thinking that storytelling and writing are things just about anyone can do, and that it’s all about whatever buzzword is currently flying around. And we’ve all gotten so immersed in shit that when something well-written comes around, we don’t even fucking notice. (And I don’t mean my own games, though I probably should. The best-written game I’ve played recently is Borderlands 2, and nobody even fucking notices half the things that game does, because ooh it’s funny and it has references so it can’t actually contain anything else.)

  8. @HM – No, I am almost completely on my own with this one. Shaun, Potter and the rest of the guys always moan at me whenever I skip cutscenes. That said some of my favourite games in recent years (The Walking Dead, Journey) have mainly been about the story rather than the gameplay so I am not resolute in my standing on this.

    That said, the way I played Mass Effect (all dialogue choices were: pick positive one first and then spam the X button to get through the talking as quickly as possible) baffles everyone but it was the only way I found it even remotely tolerable.

    Jonas pretty much nailed it on the head. In early gaming a lot of game stories were written by people who hadn’t a clue about how to build a story, now it seems that they are written by people that seldom know how to write a story for a game (that or the point where the writer is dragged in, it has already become too late to make it flow next to the gameplay already present).

    I think Borderlands is an interesting point given that I really appreciate what Anthony Burch tries to do and where he is coming from. The fact that some people have dug so deep on some of the writing (picking apart certain things that don’t gel) is a testament to how good it is.

    When stories in games are less rubbish then I will pay attention. Unfortunately, most of them are utter dross so my default reaction is skip as soon as possible.

  9. Jonas reminds me of a good point, I see some friends going the route of say, Kairo in terms of wordlessness and I wonder if it’s necessarily a good idea to be completely hands-off with a written narrative…to seem to condemn the presence of any words whatsoever and leave the rest to environment…

    I was talking with Jon (dev partner) and he was mentioning that while you can do environmental storytelling, it’s sort of being hostile against a player who is naturally not as introspective, and so they will at best just think “oh neat atmosphere, I guess, though I gain nothing from this.” Which happened very often with Anodyne, though we tried to alleviate that with stray NPC interactions or occasional NPCs that comment on an area and have no story purpose otherwise (worked to limited effect, employing something similar in current game),

    And that level of skimming over and missing things definitely happens with Kairo – and that’s fine I suppose as it can still appeal to the naturally analytical, but I think that as more people who are proficient at storywriting, and who are also design-minded enter the ‘scene’ things may get better when we find different spaces of balancing this narrative-gameplay sort of deal.

  10. Not to be too self-centered here, but I wonder if my Lands of Dream games count as having environmental narrative? We associate that term with a lack of text, but my games are the exact opposite – they’re overflowing with text out of every corner of their being. None of it is strictly “necessary” and it’s very much about the environment you’re in… but I suspect that what people usually mean is something more like “words are bad, no use words, unless maybe spoken words, spoken words less scary than magic scribbles, I go hunt mammoth now, but mammoth make me sad.”

    Apologies for the sarcasm, but I think it’s a shame that we’ve forgotten how to take pleasure in words.

  11. @badgercommander, you are crazy. The only reason to play ME1 is for the dialogue and the pleasure of navigating the conversations. The shooting parts are shit.

  12. Jonas: Yes, I imagined you enraged with fire emerging from your nostrils as you typed. But – and this is key – I imagined this scene with no dialogue whatsoever, like a silent movie. Mamet has a particular style and his points are in service to it. Personally I find what I’ve seen of Mamet’s work difficult and slightly unreal. I’ll concur that there are real problems in games writing and efforts to trim down cutscenes, push more plot into optional engagement and put action first have had a neutering effect in many cases.

    I had a discussion with Erlend Grefsrud on Twitter yesterday who feels that the narrative in games experiment is over and it was a big failure. I noted that story is used to skin mechanics most of the time, which is why Cart Life was a revelation to me. But there’s a big movement to write games where the story comes first. Obviously any piece of IF or point-and-click comes from a story-first perspective, but there are plenty of works now which are about putting some narrative idea into game-form. I’d say the results are mixed and I completely understand Grefsrud’s perspective. But Torment is story, Cart Life is story (of people’s real lives) and Nicolau Chaud’s work is always story. These works are story-first and could not have come from designers whose first order of business is a set of interesting mechanics. I put it this way in a tweet: narrative can inspire new game mechanics.

    As per usual I agree and disagree with everyone. This is good.

    I wouldn’t want to stretch the term “environmental narrative” to cover anything to do with words. I think we have way too many terms being stretched out of shape in games, I mean we’re even having discussions about what that mouthful ludonarrative dissonance means. There’s already disagreement about the constraints of environmental narrative. I see it as a term regarding game visuals and physical properties of a virtual space. I just don’t think it’s an appropriate concept for point-and-click adventures. It’s like the term “mechanic”. It’s not a helpful concept for interactive fiction because it doesn’t tell us anything theoretically or practically useful, you just end up with half the internet wasting good tweets arguing about what a mechanic REALLY is but the kicker is whoever is right NOTHING CHANGES. (Note that it doesn’t mean a game has to have a 3D environment for environmental narrative; Spider is a 2D game.)

    (why has the nonword gameism entered into common parlance. I fucking despair.)

    DJ Badger C: I’m with Eric on this one regarding Mass Effect even though I’ve not played it yet. I couldn’t imagine the story-stripped game of Mass Effect to be much fun! But regarding “written by people that seldom know how to write a story” my sense is that the AAA games industry has developed to a point where the story is meant to support the gameplay and that it always has to bend – it rarely pushes back against the design process. The title of Tom Jubert’s blog is something he’d been told about game development – “Plot is gameplay’s bitch”. Which is the general attitude of AAA development. But then I haven’t played Saints Row IV.

    Borderlands. One of these days.

    Sean: Yes Kairo was an experiment which went over the heads of many of its players as it turned out. I still have people coming here just to read The Secret of Kairo. And one neoGAF member thought I had just imagined the story because you could read whatever you wanted into the game! Gone Home backs away from full-blown environmental storytelling and uses audio logs to provide context. You might argue the audio logs are the wall of text at the opening of Terminator, but I wonder whether it was possible to figure out the story without them. OH LOOK YOU MADE ME GUILTY I HAVEN’T PLAYED ANODYNE AGAIN.

    Amanda: Thanks! I wrote this whole thing just to write that paragraph! Gone Home crystallised my view on this and not because it was bad at all but because it was acclaimed for being so human… without people actually being it. I did have some line in here about “it’s the execution that has improved not the concept” but it just diluted the message.

    Eric: Yes, I know, Dark Souls is a big environmental winner. Perhaps one day. One day… (Enough about Bioshock Infinite already.)

  13. It seems everybody has said what I wanted to say already, but in a more convoluted way (which is ok, storytelling in games always raises everyone spirits, including mine).

    So I just wanna (re?)phrase it as how I’ve been seeing narrative lately: Storytelling could use any approach as it fits (environmental, dialogue, monologues etc), there’s no right or wrong here, the issue here is The Quality of the approach and How It Fits in the game.

    e.g. I will skip/button mash (angrily) through every 3D zelda cutscene and dialogue because they’re all crap and dum; but I probably won’t do it on SMT: Nocturne (even though I wished I could skip the “battles”) because they are great. I’ll read carefully every single word in Planescape Torment; but not gonna even care to Elder Scrolls (in most cases).

    And that’s my point.

    Also, can I add Kentucky Route Zero to your list? It’s the most intriguing environmental narrative + dialogue narrative I’ve played lately. And it’s so contemporary in the whole visual design and how it approach Words. It’s a beautiful game in so many levels.

  14. Very thought provoking. It never occurred to me, the parallels between System Shock 2 and Gone Home, nor did it occur to me what those parallels might say about how far (or not far) storytelling has come.

    Environments are interesting storytellers because they are collaborative: each player makes the story with their environment and everyone’s mileage varies. And environmental narrative is (well, can be) separate from the straight-up story. STALKER’s environment has its own separate story. All of STALKER’s themes are environmental – the actual story arc is pretty straight science fiction: mind control, brains in bottles, the usual. But who remembers STALKER’s story? The real story is in the environment in that instance. Same goes for Pathologic, which I’m replaying right now. The amount it communicates within its limitations is astonishing.

    Eric speaks the truth. I’m glad someone else said it so I didn’t have to. Dark Souls has turned me into such a one-trick pony it’s beginning to affect my career. But there again it hits it out of the park. Environmental mood is super-prevalent, but the real star of Dark Souls’ in terms of environmental narrative is the secret details. It’s a game that gives you nothing you don’t earn and even that you’re expected to see and understand on your own. The paintings decorating a lavish palace tell a loooong story of a profoundly fucked-up family and provide clues to a whole garden of things.

    Jonas is right, Borderlands 2 is VERY well-written. And acted. My feeling is that it focuses its storytelling elsewhere than the environment (which is fine, just a good contrast to some of the others we’re talking about). As singular as the environment is, it doesn’t actually have much impact on my personal experience with the game. The writing, though, is priceless. Actually funny comedies in the world of gaming? You could count the number on one of Bart Simpson’s hands.

  15. Antonio,

    Welcome and hello! That’s pretty much the deal here; we choose the mode of storytelling that works best. My only point is that despite Gone Home being about human drama, there are no actual humans in the game. This is a constraint that Fullbright took on, of course, but I feel like I can’t take the bluster that videogame narratives have finally matured because the only way to pull this off was to dump human interaction. We can’t keep doing that forever and expect the plaudits to keep rolling in. (I actually think Gone Home is a game suited for an educated player, in terms of WASD skills and 3D environmental conventions, not a newbie who we might be trying to bring into the fold, so to speak.)

    I haven’t landed on KRZ yet although I’m sure I’ll end up there eventually. I’ve been getting some mixed signals on that game from people I trust.


    Hello again. I like environmental storytelling because it’s a creates a different kind of puzzle (the crime scene kind). That’s why you can make a game with pure environmental storytelling with nothing else: the puzzle is figuring out what happened.

    But it has limits. It’s a supporting actor, not the main story. It’s just another tool.


    You never let me go to sleep. Please. Please let me go to sleep.

  16. I’ve previously read the anecdote that System Shock 1 used email and audiologs because they couldn’t solve the problem of depicting human AI. Not much has changed it would seem. Thinking about horror sci-fi films though, there are quite a few that only have a few characters so maybe this kind of small cast of characters is a good place to start.

    Re: Stealth gamesstealth, one thing that I find strange playing Alien Isolation is thinking that it may not be so merciful to stun hostile humans giving that the Alien is likely to find them and kill them / implant an alien in them. POSSIBLE SPOILERS as I surmise that the end of the game will be initiating a self-destruct sequence END POSSIBLE SPOILER.

    So yeah, you could spare them but why would you since they also tried to kill you without provocation. Very nihilistic situation.

  17. Hello AndySkyrim! I think even with a small cast of characters it can difficult pretty fast so, if anything, they put things on rails. Important characters behind locked doors or interaction only via screens. Perhaps the solutions are to start by limiting the size of the world, so making the focus the other characters rather than turning a spacious, empty world into an escape from the developer’s technical hell of inhuman AI. But then it’s a different kind of game, I guess.

    It doesn’t sound like Alien Isolation offers much in the way of options at all…

  18. I was going to suggest making the AI non-human ie an ecosystem of simulated needs like Waking Mars (which I haven’t played yet) has, or like the action-adventure LoL (Which had was trying to show you the puzzles without using text so used the way the creatures behaved as clues) .

    I’ve just read that Randy Smith worked on Waking Mars was done by Randy Smith!

    What stories could the interaction of AI creatures tell? What awesome moments of emergent narrative could they produce?

  19. Hi Andy. I’m suspicious of trusting emergent narrative to AI and this is probably best captured by Tynan Sylvester’s essay The Simulation Dream. I have seen some interesting behaviours – portions of my original STALKER experience was fascinating – but by and large, either the system produces complexity that is difficult to identify as a story or it produces something that is quickly recognised. Like how Minecraft looks wacky and exciting initially but eventually you recognise all of its procedurally-generated patterns and can longer inspire (my concern about No Man’s Sky).

    Maybe Dwarf Fortress; I have been told the narrative emerges from players making a story from what they see as opposed to something emerging naturally from the systems. I’ve not played. I wouldn’t know 🙂

  20. Sorry forgot your last point! I did catch wind of Consortium previously but I haven’t got around to it. Too many games, so little time 🙁

    Oh, apparently Consortium is already in my Steam library. Christ. I don’t remember that happening. (I have somehow also ended up with a copy of Bioshock 2. I definitely did not buy that. Was it gifted?)

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