At GDC in 2010, Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith gave a presentation titled “What Happened Here”, which was all about environmental storytelling. They used this image:
To demonstrate their example. Before I continue, here’s a link to the presentation transcript, which I absolutely recommend if you have even a passing interest in environmental storytelling: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1012647/What-Happened-Here-Environmental
In the above example, the speakers had the crowd guess at what had happened to these goldfish – why are they stuck to a window? Why are they in a house, but not in a bowl? Because this is a blog post and not a live demonstration it’s going to be hard to gauge your answers – try yelling them into your monitor or phone, and we’ll see how you do.
Before revealing an answer, the image was pulled back to reveal more information, though I can’t actually find a stealable picture to use, so you’ll have to use my artist interpretation:
As you can see, it’s the original photo from a wider shot – though I dare say mine’s a bit more aesthetically pleasing.
From here, the view is reversed – we see a lounge room covered in mold and water damage, with the lounge sitting on top of the coffee table. The view continues to move further and further away, eventually showing a completely destroyed city – the remnants of hurricane Katrina.
The point here is that the story slowly reveals itself as you discover the environment, without a scrap of text or dialogue. The other points is that seriously, don’t leave your fish like that. As far as environmental storytelling goes, I actually find this to be a bit overt – the fish are a great clue, but I think the rest of the city is too obvious.
A major component of environmental stories are that they’re open to interpretation. Seeing two fish stuck to a window opens up thousands of (horrible) possibilities, with a hurricane only being one. This can be good or bad, depending on how important it is that the player understands the narrative, but I personally think at least a bit of room for interpretation is always a good thing.
Take one of my favourite examples – Shadow of the Colossus. Shadow of the Colossus focuses on probable climate-change denier and definite animal-extinction specialist, Wander. You spend several hours as this asshole and his horse murdering every living creature without provocation, and that’s kind of the point.
The game begins with Wander riding into an eerie temple, carrying the body of a woman. He places her on an altar, and one of the very few moments of dialogue ensue – he’s told (by a spooky disembodied voice) that if he slays all the Colossi, he can bring the dead back to life. And so, off he goes.
SotC is nothing but boss fights with the Colossi. You ride your horse – Agro – between the battles and take in the landscape, which I’d like to mention was absolutely mind-blowing back when the game was released. When you arrive, you typically find the Colossus chilling out. They’re either sleeping or just wondering around, doing their own thing. Then you murder them.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I didn’t think much of this when I first played. These were big, intimidating monsters and I just felt like a badass for taking them down. It’s not until you kill a few that you start to wonder if maybe you’re not doing the right thing – none of these things are actively hurting anybody. They’re all just living their lives.
Now, this is actually a part of the story and not just something I’ve interpreted. A big clue comes in the form of Wander himself, who begins to change as the Colossi are killed. At first, he starts out looking pretty chill, if a little effeminate;
But, as you kill Colossi, he starts to change; eventually, he turns into this guy:
This is the biggest clue that killing the Colossi maybe isn’t the healthiest hobby. There’re some big story beats I won’t spoil, but what really got me when I played this game was the minimalist landscape. It’s just barren, and sad. The only life you find are the Colossi themselves, and then you kill them.
Good job, Wander.
I’d also like to mention Dark Souls, because it’s a key game when talking about environmental storytelling, in my opinion. Having said that, I’m not sure Dark Souls entirely succeeds at telling a direct narrative through it’s environment – though I’m also sure it isn’t trying to (because From Software is apparently infallible).
Many of Dark Souls’ stories are told through dialogue and flavour text, but I think the environment is unique. Play through most action RPGs – say, The WItcher 2 – and you won’t really notice the area around you. Sure, you might make a note of how pretty it is, but that’s as far as it goes (disclaimer: I love the Witcher 2, and I’m sorry I have to compare it to Dark Souls).
Dark Souls is different, because you not only have to pay an extreme amount of attention to the environment just so you won’t die, but because you repeat areas so often. It’s not uncommon to play through the same Dark Souls area several times, and you achieve a kind of mastery over it that’s typically reserved only for games people replay many, many times. Anyone who’s so much as finished Dark Souls could probably walk through Sen’s Fortress blindfolded, but the first time through is an absolute nightmare.
Forcing the player to pay so much attention to the environment is a crucial part of using it to tell a story. Shadow of the Colossus forces the player to watch the world go by atop Agro, whereas Dark Souls has you repeat areas many, many times (many, many, many more, if you play as well as me).
In Dark Souls, it’s immediately obvious that you’re in an old, ruined civilisation. People are ghosts of their former selves – sometimes literally – and everyone speaks in a haunting, melancholic tone. It’s just, sad. It’s like the epic villain has come along and there was no hero to stop them – you’re already too late.
That isn’t quite the story, but it sure feels that way. Everything feels hopeless, and you dread – but can’t wait for – each step into a new area.
I’ve come to the end of my ramble, and don’t feel like I really touched on environmental storytelling at all, but I hope I’ve given some food for thought – or at least made you want to play Dark Souls. If you have any questions or comments, drop them in the comments section.
Thanks for reading!
PS. For further reading, I really recommend this article by Chris Dahlen from Kotaku: http://kotaku.com/5874599/what-dark-souls-is-really-all-about
I think it hits on some important points about what makes Dark Souls so good, so if you’re a fan – and especially if you’re not – it’s worth a read.
So like everybody that matters, I’ve spent the last few days playing From Software‘s Bloodborne, and love/hate it. I love it because it’s genuinely one of the deepest and most interesting games ever made, and I hate it because I’m bad at it. Bloodborne is great for a lot of reasons, and when people are talking about it (or the Souls series) they tend to mention the difficulty above all else, which annoys me.
This game has never been about difficulty – it’s about exploration, learning and achievement. It’s also about scary-as-fuck werewolves, and long load times. But what I love most about the game is the story. At first glance, Bloodborne has a complete lack of a story, but Souls veterans know otherwise – there’s a deep, rich tapestry of lore and history built into this game, but like everything else, the player has to work for it.
Pictured above: “Work”
Most games vomit dialogue at you until your ears bleed, but Souls and Bloodborne are both much happier to withhold their narrative. It’s not uncommon to finish one of the games and have no idea what happened, or why you had to murder Fire-Zeus. However, all the information is there for you to find – it’s just that, yes, you have to actually find it.
Clues are hidden in location names, item flavour text and the small snippets of dialogue that the game mercifully gives you. The other huge clue is the environment itself. I’ve only played a few hours of Bloodborne, but Yarnham (the main city) is already one of my all-time favourite video game locations. It’s a huge intertwining nightmarish gothic city, and I could write a whole other post on how incredibly well designed the levels are (I won’t).
What I really love about Yarnham is the story it tells. It’s a dilapidated, desperate and ruined city that looks amazing, but the story is a bit harder to find. It’s clear that things have gone wrong – large chunks of the city have been destroyed, corpses are hanging and burning in the streets and the only people alive taunt you from the relative safety of their homes.
But it’s the more subtle things I love. As I said, I’m only a few hours in, so I haven’t actually discovered anything – but let me give you a more overt (and slightly spoilery) example. Early in the game, I spoke to a little girl who was hiding in her house. She asked me to find her mother, who carried a red brooch, and gave me a music box that they used when their father “didn’t remember their faces any more”.
Looking at the music box, I found two names – one of them being the name of a boss I’d recently been brutally murdered by. As a genius, I managed to put two and two together and the next time we fought, I played the music box. Sure enough, he reacted and I got a few free hits in. I (eventually) managed to beat him, before finding a dead woman carrying a red brooch.
This is a story that’s totally superfluous and well hidden, but it adds a huge amount of depth and lore. It also isn’t really environmental story telling, but I’m on a Bloodborne high and really want to work it into everything I do. That little girl also disappeared after I told her that her father murdered her mother, then I murdered her father.
This is probably what the queen looks like when playing Bloodborne.
Moving away from my Bloodborne rant, environmental storytelling trips a few people up because of what they expect from a “story”. Most people expect a protagonist, antagonist, a journey and a conclusion, which isn’t necessarily the case. Games are uniquely capable when it comes to telling the story of worlds, because players are given the freedom to explore them. “Story” in environmental storytelling refers to a large, broad stroke, rather than personal stories (at least, usually).
It can do both, though. Bioshock has a couple of good examples, here being an overt one:
To the slightly more subtle, which I can’t find an image of. There’s a point where you’re exploring a house, and find two bodies (holding hands) in bed. On the table beside them is a pile of pills, and one of them is holding a picture of a young girl. This is a bit open to interpretation, but it’s pretty easy to see what happened. It’s also been years since I’ve actually played, so the exact circumstances may be a bit different, or I may have made it up entirely (I don’t think I did, though).
I’ll do another post about environmental storytelling tomorrow, because I barely touched on it at all today, but I did manage a rough ramble about Bloodborne (which is awesome). It’s a technique I feel is unique to video games, and I wish more developers would invest in it.
Oh! Shadow of the Colossus is an amazing example. I’ll talk about that one tomorrow.
(Play that too)
Recently I read an article on someone from Ubisoft expressing in interest in playtesting narratives for future games, which piqued my interest. For those not in the know – play testing is when people play a game to give feedback. They’ll let the developer know what’s broken, what’s working, what’s great, what’s awful and more. It’s a totally essential part of developing a game, and as the person in this article pointed it, is missing from the narrative.
To my knowledge, no game has even had the narrative ‘play tested’. They haven’t had people sit in a room and give feedback on what works in the story and what doesn’t – as usual, the narrative has taken a backseat to mechanics. I think there’re a few reasons for this, and I’ll outline those in this post.
Firstly, I think it’s because writers don’t want a bunch of assholes jumping in and telling them how to write. They probably don’t want non-assholes doing it either, but that’s neither here nor there.
I think there’s merit to this, though. Everyone has different tastes, and nobody’s ever going to write a story that everybody loves. As such, you’ll always receive negative criticism from somewhere. The other point here is that writing takes a huge amount of time and effort, both during and after the planning stage. If a group of 20 people all tell you the Talking Pie is a stupid idea, it’s not a small job to change that, especially in Games Development where assets and mechanics have already been created.
Sorry, talking pie.
I suspect this is a major reason that stories aren’t tested in the same capacity as mechanics. It’s simply a massive job to change anything significant, which is something most teams can’t afford to do, unless Gina Rineheart finally starts a game development company (in which case, we should expect more pies).
“If I like pies so much, then how come yoobah koh ra doh ka mallo wampa mah yass ka chung kawah wookiee?” – Gina Rineheart, probably.
Another major point is that most game developers simply couldn’t give less of a shit about the narrative. There’s a reason for this, too. As mentioned, narrative is a huge amount of work, and it just isn’t a major selling point. Since you’re on this blog it’s safe to assume you’re interested in video games (as well as being attractive and lovable), so your favourite game/s probably have a decent narrative in there somewhere. But to use the famous Call of Duty example, pumping out the same bullshit year-after-year is the safest way to make a lot of money, and people are going to do just that. This means cutting back on narrative, as you’d know if you’ve played any Call of Duty ever.
Now, some people really DO give a shit about narrative. Take my all-time favourite developer, Hideo Kojima (who is probably leaving Konami, which is a topic for another time, when I can safely cry alone in my bathtub without judgement). The problem here, I think, is passion. If you write a story you absolutely love, you’re probably not going to accept criticism from people who are literally being paid to play games (hey, I am one, I can criticise my own people). There’s a point where you have to put your foot down and stick to an idea – the problem is that it’s impossible to know where this point is, which leads to awful stubbornness in creators.
Those are basically the problems I see. It’s expensive, the writer’s not going to want to go along with it, the testers can flat-out be wrong and I don’t like Gina Rineheart.
So, there’s a been a bit of a kerfuffle recently regarding Unity and Unreal – two major competing game design engines, that are (as of now) both free – to a point. What this means is that, more than ever, indie developers have a means of creating games on the cheap. There is a cost to both of them, but only if your game achieves a certain level of success.
I have a lot more experience with Unity than I do with Unreal 4, but I’ll write my thoughts on both here. I’ve recently made the switch to Unreal 4 for my latest project, but that’s because I think it’s a much more natural fit than Unity for what we’re trying to create, rather than because I find Unreal to be objectively better.
First up, some of the aspects of Unity. I’ve done most of the my student work with Unity, but haven’t moved beyond either educational projects or hobby projects, and have no professional experience in it. As a matter of fact, I have no professional experience with Unreal 4 either, so take what I’m going to say with a grain of salt.
It’s worth mentioning that Unity has been used to create a few influential titles, such as Hearthstone, Thomas Was Alone, Wasteland 2 and Cities: Skyline (and more). There’s no taking this engine lightly, though I personally find it has a higher wall of entry than Unreal 4, by which I mean it requires a bit more time to get used to. This isn’t really a fact, but at face value Unity certainly seems more intimidating.
One reason for this is that – at least without certain addons – Unity doesn’t have a visual scripting system, requiring the user to learn at least a bit of programming (probably Java or C#). I can tell you from experience that this is incredibly intimidating, and that a lot of people feel as if they require a formal education to learn how to code. Having learned some scripting myself (in C#), I can tell you now that I don’t believe that at all. I think it’s more than possible to teach yourself scripting as long as you have access to the internet. If you’re reading this and considering learning how to use Unity, don’t be afraid! It’s a little intimidating, but when it clicks, it’s all worth while.
One of the major drawbacks – and the reason we’re avoiding Unity on our latest project – is that it just doesn’t look great. This isn’t a problem if you have an art team, but if you’re a small or solo developer, it’s going to look like ass without a serious time investment. Unity 5 has real-time lighting for the free edition, and while I haven’t had much of a chance to play around with it, but it’s a huge step in the right direction as far as graphics go. Conversely Unreal 4 looks amazing with no effort, though I’ll talk more about that later.
Once you’re used to it. you’ll find Unity to be a very flexible engine. It’s easy to create whatever kind of game you want, from sprawling first-person RPG to small puzzle game. However, I think it requires a fair amount of experience to get anywhere significant with it. I don’t want to dissuade anyone, though – if you’re thinking about giving it a go, I’d totally encourage you to do so. It’s a powerful and flexible engine, and if nothing else it can certainly be used to prototype a concept quickly and easily.
This ludicrously high-resolution image is indicative of one of the reasons Unreal is so great – the graphics. Anyone without any design experience at all can switch on Unreal and make something look like a AAA title. It also points out how amazing the particle system is. If your game needs particles, don’t look past Unreal.
One of the weaknesses of Unreal was only evident to me because I came from Unity, and that’s that there isn’t a whole lot of online support for Unreal yet. Well, there is, but not nearly as much as Unity, which is a pro I forgot to mention above.
Unity has an incredible amount of online support for everything, and a huge store full of incredible assets, both paid and free. If you have a problem during development, I can almost guarantee you’ll be able to find someone who’s fixed that exact some problem within minutes. At the time of writing, this isn’t the case with Unreal 4. I suspect this won’t last long as Unreal rises in popularity, but until then it’s worth noting.
To make up for this, Unreal has a much lower barrier of entry. When you start a new project you’re prompted to choose what time of game you’re making, from first-person shooter to turn-based strategy and everything between. Unreal will do half the work for you at this point, creating a basic game of that genre that you’re free to customise. For example, choosing the first person shooter template creates a small level with a first-person character and some (physics enabled) boxes to shoot at. It’s incredibly easy to get started, and in minutes you can create a fantastic looking and functional game.
The other thing is that Unreal has a visual scripting system. This is much more intuitive, in my opinion, and allows non-programmers to customise the game to their liking. For those not in the know, here’s what the Unreal 4 visual scripter looks like:
Alright, yeah, it still looks kind of awful. But compare to this;
And it’s easy to see why the visual scripter is so appealing. You take a node – say, press E – and plug it into another node, such as Jump. Voila! Your jump key is now ‘E’, and you’ll be forever shunned for not using the spacebar like a normal human being. It’s worth noting that you can also create your own nodes in C++.
It’s worth noting that these are only very lightly touching on each engine, and as mentioned I have limited experience with both (though especially Unreal 4). I think they’re both powerful engines, though Unreal edges out for me slightly. Between looking great and the visual editor, I find it too convenient. I think both engines have their place and I haven’t really used Unity since the 5.0 update, so it’s hard to say what’s changed. However, if I could only pick one to use from hereon, it would be Unreal 4 for ease of use.
So which do you prefer? Why? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve said? Let me know in the comments!