Environmental storytelling is a term I never quite grasped before I played The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion, although it was there in other games (And even in the amazing The Eder Scrolls III : Morrowind) I only started to understand his meaning, and actually only learned that this way of storytelling a story has a name when I began my Game Design studies, which is to say in the year 2 A.O (After Oblivion).
For those unaware with the term or the storytelling device, Environmental Storytelling is the art of telling you a story without ever really telling you, just by using the environment. It can be as simple as a message left on a wall or something a lot more complex like a weirdly arranged crime scene with corpses all around a room with plates in their hands. If you look around you understand that someone poisoned everybody, just because you find out that a corpse, killed by a huge beast, has a large amount of poison when you loot him. These are scenes, things that will never really get any explanation except the one you decide to give them. (Or if you actually meet the designer who thought that and ask him what it means)
The wonderful thing about this is how incredibly powerful these kind of mini stories are. I believe these stories talk directly to your imagination, fueling it and forcing you to connect the dot. It’s the old adage “Show, don’t tell” times a thousand. It is incredible because it’s making you feel smart, although they will be mostly understood the same way by everybody (It done properly, of course) Most of the time they also feel completely avoidable and you are rewarded by this feeling of accomplishment when you stumble on one of these. Because a small part of you believe you found a secret, when it’s mostly nothing special. Environmental storytelling is awesome because it’s quiet, because it’s not trying to creep on you and say to you ‘I’m mister Meeseeks, look at me!’
Environmental Storytelling has another great quality to it, it doesn’t have to be about an exceptional story. And is a great device to show bittersweet stories. I like the tales of Fallout 3, or 4 where you sometime see dead families with skeletons in the cupboard or whatever, where you have this feel that this family tried to leave, or here a man and his dog died in a complete indifference. Here, people played poker before having to leave in a hurry. There, someone died because of a car accident. But since your imagination will always be more powerful than anything someone can tell you, these small stories will always linger in your memory, making them more memorable and in a way more real. Trying to interpret something means that you will use your own knowledge, experiences or bias and it makes the game deeply more personal.
Games that use these devices are telling you something interesting, because you may miss these stories, you may make a mistake and never even know that this might be here, leaving the work of some poor designer unseen. These games are telling you that the designers are believing in you, to some extent of course, since they are okay with you missing on those.
Of course, not all environmental storytelling has to be incredibly complicated and can even be used to give you information about your surrounding, but when it’s well done it takes you in its web, fleshing out the world, giving the game a soul, and making you interact with the game a lot more, even if only intellectually.
So, now! Let’s talk about what differs in a good environmental storytelling as opposed to a bad one.
Of course, the first difference is the story. As I said before it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, (The bloody tags on the walls in Dead Space where someone, who died right next to the message, tells you to dismember the monsters is a good and effective way to make you feel that there were people living on that station which wanted to escape from this nightmare but when they understood that they’ll die on this barren spaceship then they did the brave thing and tried to help by leaving information) but it’s very important that it stays coherent in-universe. This is not just an issue about environmental storytelling but just with storytelling in general, your story has to adhere to certain rules which you define, of course, but it has to be coherent withing this universe.
The second point is still related to coherence, but something that is more related to space localisation (So it’s not just related to games but can also be in some movies). Just imagine for an instant. You find a place, where you see that someone got blown apart by an explosive device, except that instead of finding the body ten meters away like you should, you find it two kilometers away, something that is way too much, that is not believable in the least. These are especially damning because instead of making you feel more in sync with the game world they can completely put you out of it. And even if you did good storytelling a hundred time, a poor one will be all you need to mess up the immersion of a player.
Then comes the fluidity of your story. How easy it is for the player to understand what happened if they have all the clues. They also have to be able to find all the clues on site (Unless it’s about someone really important in the story but they should never have to try to understand that your story has something to do with an obscure part of your story) Nothing is worse for a player than to feel stupid. And since it’s not a quest nor even a important part of the game, if the player has to look up obscure codec entries to grasp what happened you can be sure 99.9% of us will never do that, ever. These are supposed to be little set-pieces, making you escape or making you feel better about yourself because you listened to two people talking about something that might be of use later or just made you laugh.
There is something incredible and powerful about those stories, but it only works if you leave your player some leeway about what happened in this space. If you just mindlessly give him all the clues to know exactly what went wrong or great here, then you don’t respect your player and they won’t respect the time you’ve put in crafting that set-piece (Of course if your scene is there to give an important message, you have the right to make it painfully obvious)
I love environmental storytelling, games that don’t take you by the hand and let you uncover exactly what happened by yourself. While some people are more than happy to only have set-pieces in a game, I’d love to see more games that rely fully on this, a bit like The Witness, that never really tell you the story, that leave you in a space with an objective and let you uncover the truth, or what you believe may be the truth, in an interactive way.
Or, as long as people include more of those but don’t try to chew the food for you and just leave you with a story that doesn’t require any brain power from your end then I’ll be happy.