Environmental Storytelling Continued
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.