Level Design Primer Part 16: Environmental Storytelling

In film, there’s a concept called “Mise-en-scene.” Mise-en-scene refers to the story that is told by everything other than the spoken dialogue. Sets, costumes, sounds, props, ect… all combine to not only give a film a set of place, but also make up a major part of the narrative backbone of the movie. These components are as important to crafting the story of a film as is dialogue.

In the same way, you can convey a story through the level design.

Now I’d like to take a moment to talk about audio-logs, that increasingly common trope where there are items scattered in the level which, when activated by the player, start a recorded narration from a character conveying some sort of backstory or relevant information. Aside from a few exceptions, this is not what I’m talking about when I talk about environmental storytelling, or at least good environmental storytelling. It’s the difference between an environment telling a story, and the environment literally telling you a story. If anything, the environmental story being told by the presence of these audio-logs is confusing and nonsensical. Who is leaving these giant tape recorders everywhere? Is there some mysterious bandit stealing clips out of people’s private journals and leaving them under benches? Does everyone just constantly record their thoughts onto disposable record players and then drop them on the ground as they go? Unless it is something that makes sense as being part of the environment, then it doesn’t really work as environmental storytelling. (And, for those of you who’ve played my games, yes, I did make use of this trope in the last level of Venusian Vengeance. That’s a good example of what not to do if you’re trying to go for naturalistic environmental storytelling.)

But I digress…

We talked last time about Naturalism, the idea that you can build your levels to make sense as part of a fictional world. Environmental storytelling takes this a step further and says you can communicate information about this world and the people living in it through components of the level design.

This sort of storytelling can range from the subtle to the explicit. The key is that it is something in the environment that lets you know about the setting your in or events which have transpired. Walking into a room and seeing a large book-shelf can tell you that a character is well-read. Seeing a threatening note on his desk can tell you he has gambling debts.

One thing you’ll notice about environmental storytelling is that it usually tells a story that has already happened in the game world. You are seeing the end results, and have to piece together the events that lead there. Because of this, environmental storytelling is fundamentally non-linear. Environmental storytelling happens when the player looks at your level and thinks to themselves “what happened here?”

Gone Home is one of the purest examples of how environmental storytelling can work in a game (aside from the journal entries, see the above rant on audio-logs, although at least the journal entries don’t really pretend to be part of the environment). You are wandering through this house learning about the people who live in it. You piece together their stories and personalities through the contents of their rooms, the letter’s they’ve sent and received, the books they keep on their shelves, the music they listen to. The story itself is not interactive, since it’s already happened. You are, however, in control of how you uncover the story, and how much of it you investigate.

The main thing that separates environmental storytelling in games from mis-en-scene in movies is, of course, the interactive nature of games. As the player, you are able to freely explore your environments. You can walk right up to things to get a closer look. If the game allows it, you can pick up objects, read notes, open drawers. You are no longer limited by what the director puts in the frame, you can dig into the fiction of the world around you.

What the designer does have control of, however, is where (and when) significant objects are presented to the player. You can take advantage of techniques we’ve discussed in previous sections, such as implicit linearity, composition, gating mechanics, ect… in order to guide the player’s experience uncovering the backstory. You have a power to create narrative tension, mystery and intrigue by placing objects in such a way that the player discovers them in more or less a certain order. You can give the player enough information that they know that there’s something pertinent that they still don’t know. Going back to the example of Gone Home, one of the driving mysteries is why the house is empty. You know your family should be there, but they aren’t. You start to wonder where they could be and why they aren’t there to greet you. You don’t find out where they went until fairly late in the game. You can dole out information in whatever order you want. You can give people information of events in the order that those events happened, or put them out of order. But remember that the player knows how the story ends. They can see the state of the world as it currently is, and they’re trying to find out about past events. They know the house is empty, but they want to know why.

Environmental storytelling can also be used as a tool to guide the player or give them pertinent information about how to complete challenges and solve puzzles. You’ve probably seen this one a hundred times: there’s a combination lock. You look around, and there’s a memo on the boss’ desk saying “there were a lot of thefts of supplies recently, so I changed the combination. It’s now 2112.” This is, of course, a very on-the-nose example. The key is that finding out about past events can give you information about your current situation, and you can use this information to your advantage.

 <–Part 15: Naturalism   ——– Part 17: Tension and Release–>

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