Environmental Storytelling and Why I Love It

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.

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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.

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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:

Neptune's_Bounty_Smuggler_Hanging

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.

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(Play that too)

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