How Level Design Can Tell a Story | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Published by Jan Heaney on

How Level Design Can Tell a Story | Game Maker’s Toolkit


Imagine a version of Bioshock without cutscenes. Without Andrew Ryan’s bathysphere Powerpoint. Without Atlas yapping in your ear. And without those juicy audio diaries. Do you think players would still understand
what the game was all about? Well, I think they’d actually have a pretty
good idea. Because all you have to do is look at your
surroundings. The game is set in a massive city at the very
bottom of the ocean. One clearly made for those in high society,
considering the fancy bars, apartment complexes, and theatre districts. And it’s a place built on lofty philosophical
ideals. But it’s also a place of ruin and despair. There was obviously a moment of downfall. Some people split into violent factions, and
others just lost their minds. And this all went down on New Year’s Day,
1959. Bioshock is a wonderful example of how a game’s
environment can be an effective method of storytelling. And how embedding narrative elements into
the very spaces and places that we visit throughout the game, can speak just as loudly as more
traditional forms of storytelling. And that is exactly what this episode of Game
Maker’s Toolkit is all about. In this video I’m going to focus on three
ways that the environment can be used for storytelling – and talk about how level design
can drive our understanding, feeling, and identity. Starting, with understanding. So the signs, stiffs, and scribbles in Bioshock
are examples of “environmental storytelling” – the use of set dressing to create small,
optional, and self-contained vignettes. Like warnings written in blood, or the many,
many skeletons in the Fallout games, who have been deliberately posed by the game’s designers
to suggest humorous or melancholy ways that people have died. The term was first coined, as far as I can
tell, by former Disneyland designer Don Carson, who wrote an influential article in 2000 about
what game developers can learn from theme parks. The term was then made even more popular in
a GDC talk by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch, where they described the technique as “staging
player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole,
furthering the narrative of the game”. As an example, take the location in Fallout
3 called Evergreen Mills. It’s a raider’s den and deep underground
we find a brothel – identified by red lights, stripper poles, and a raider carrying “madame’s
key”. However, we also find something out of place:
toys. There are teddy bears and alphabet blocks
near the stripper poles. And trikes and toy cars in the brothel itself. We’re left wondering, with a slight knot
in our stomach: were these raiders kidnapping, and then abusing children? Through moments like this, we can see how
environmental storytelling requires a certain level of deductive reasoning as we connect
up details to create an overall story. We use investigative and archaeological skills
to determine relationships, cause and effect, and history. This makes us an active participant in the
storytelling process, and not just a passive viewer. It also allows us to find our own interpretations
of what went on – and fill in the blanks in a way that is more interesting and involved
than anything that Bethesda could show in a cutscene. Not to mention, get away with in a commercial
video game. Plus, if you just want to focus on the shooty
stuff you can do that without the story getting in your way. For the most part, environmental storytelling
is about static objects – but it can also stretch to things like overheard conversations,
animations happening in the level, and of course… text, in things like books, item
descriptions, scans, notes, and emails. And while it is generally used to describe
what happened before you even got to a space, it can also be used as a way of highlighting
how your actions have impacted the environment in the time since you visited. So if you kill a shop keeper in Deus Ex: Mankind
Divided, later in the game the shop will be a police crime scene, and then permanently
closed to the public. It’s also worth noting that environmental
storytelling isn’t just for narrative, but can have gameplay uses too. A saw blade stuck in a sliced-up zombie suggests
using these saws with your Gravity Gun to defeat enemies. An enemy fried on a fence warns us about the
dangers of touching it. Maps and signage can help us navigate complex
spaces. And props can suggest puzzle hints in a non-intrusive
way. *Landing on metal walkway* But here’s the thing. “Environmental storytelling” – if we’re
using the term specifically to mean those micro-narrative vignettes – is just the tip
of the iceberg in a much larger structure of using the environment to suggest narrative. It’s the low level stuff. Below that, then, is the individual places
in a game. You know, a farmer’s market, a bar, a medical
pavilion, and a theatre district. And beyond that, the individual rooms in those
zones. That’s the medium level, which might be
most accurately called, well, level design. And this can also be used for narrative because
things like architecture, layout, materials, and scale can tell us a lot about the people
who use those spaces. For example, in Dishonored 2’s Dust District,
the level designers at Arkane use verticality to show how the working class are literally
underneath the people in power. And the sheer opulence of Talos-1 in Prey
tells us a very different story about its use, compared to the more utilitarian Sevastopol
in Alien Isolation. And this also provide gameplay hints, too:
like in Lord Bafford’s Mansion in Thief, where all the gold is naturally found in the
lord’s chambers – but there’s little of value in the servant’s quarters. By making the place a believable location,
the player can use real-world knowledge to help orient themselves in the space. Of course, one big challenge of making spaces
where people can actually live or work, is crafting locations that can actually logically
exist with all the bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and so on to support hundreds of people. I asked the IO Interactive designers
about this when I did my Hitman 2 video and they said they focus on levels that are “credible”,
which means the level meets your basic expectations for how a space works – but it doesn’t have
to make perfect sense. To finish off our pyramid, we need the high
level – which is the overall setting of the world. This is world building, and is where the developers
and narrative designers set things like the factions, the major plot points for the world’s
history, and the main players in the story. All three parts of this structure should work
in concert, and – ideally – ideas should echo up and down the stack. Here’s an example of that working in practice. In Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the high level
setting is a futuristic Prague where augmented humans face oppression from those without
modifications. This is represented in the mid level by places
like train stations with different cars for naturals and augs, and a slum-like city where
augs are kept in dire conditions. And then the smaller narrative moments on
the low level also talk about oppression and racism, though anti-aug graffiti, and emails
about being kicked out of the capital. Every level is talking about the same theme
– from a grand, systemic overview on the high level to more intimate and specific stories
on the low level. Of course, easter eggs and moments of humour
are fine too – but storytelling like this is at its best when all aspects are marching
towards the same thematic goal. This can be quite challenging in practice
because, on many large games, each level is looked after by a completely different person. So it’s vitally important for teams to come
together to make sure the vision is being shared across the game as a whole. So designers can use world building, level
design, and environmental storytelling to convey literal and specific information about
the world and its inhabitants. But, the design of a world can also be used
in a more evocative and emotional sense. Game designers can use things like scale,
shape, and colour to evoke certain feelings in the player. Here’s Naughty Dog level designer Emilia
Schatz talking about how she did this in Uncharted 4: EMILIA: “If I want to have the player feel
triumphant at the end and scared towards the beginning, I might make the environment create
a lot of pressure on the player. I might make the ceiling very low, might make
the walls come in, so you feel tight and strained. And eventually as we get to the end of the
level, bring you out way into the open and give you this giant vista”. The shape of the cave doesn’t give us any
further understanding of the backstory in Uncharted. It’s just a cave, after all. Instead, it creates emotion – which helps
the player better understand how the character is feeling. Here’s a good example of just that in the
most recent God of War. The story beat is that Kratos starts to panic
because Atreus has run off and may be in danger. Here’s how the designers manipulate the
environment to ensure that you, as the player, also feel this sense of tension. So, the space constricts to narrow pathways. There are dead ends, forcing you to turnaround
and backtrack. Your visibility is reduced thanks to a thick
grey fog. And the final squeeze through a rock completely
slows Kratos down. It’s only when you get through that the
world opens up, the fog lifts, and colour returns, letting you know that Atreus is safe
and that this mysterious person is probably not here to hurt you or your boy. Or take the original Portal. The first half of the game takes place in
a test lab, and the second half has you escaping from an evil AI and darting through a maintenance
area. This dramatic shift in the game’s story
is emphasised through all sorts of environmental choices. The lab is white, sterile, and lacking in
detail. The maintenance area is bathed in warmer orange
tones, and looks lived in and used. In a talk in 2017, former Crystal Dynamics
art designer Brian Horton talks about this part in the Tomb Raider reboot. At the start, Lara is low down, with the environment
bearing down from above her. Everything is plunged in an ominous dark green
colour. As you become level with the environment,
the colours begin to lighten up. And then as you climb, you’re actually high
above the level, and Lara is bathed in a warm, orange sunlight. Her journey of survival – from a point of
despair to a point of hope – is emphasised through the level design. As a practical method of achieving this, I
want to point to a GDC talk by former BioWare level designer Dave Feltham who talks about
two tools they used when making the levels for Mass Effect 3: Emotion Charts and Intensity
Charts. So the level in question is set on the planet
Tuchanka, and involves providing a cure for the Genophage – a biological weapon deployed
against the Krogan. The level sees you landing at the hollows,
driving towards the Shroud tower, having your convoy get blown up, sneak through some catacombs,
pop up in the city, take down your first reaper, and – well – I won’t spoil the mission anymore
than that. So the designers broke the level down into
a bunch of sections. They then decided what theme needed to be
represented in each part. And then decided what emotion the player should
feel at that time. Finally, they used environment design to evoke
those emotions. For example, in the pre-crash you should feel
a sense of hope and confidence about defeating the reaper. So there’s a huge convoy of vehicles at
your back to make you feel strong, and the Krogan are happily lazing about to suggest
nonchalance. After the crash, you should feel a sense of
chaos. So there’s flames, explosions, and your
convoy is destroyed. In the catacombs, you should feel a sense
of mystery – which is driven by the statues and murals of ancient Krogan life, And then
the triumphant reveal of the city is supposed to make you feel awe at what the Krogan empire
grew to become before the Genophage. And make you feel guilty if you were planning
to betray them. The contrast from the dark catacombs to the
open city emphasises the reveal. Finding the right environmental tricks to
convey the necessary emotion can be tough, but here’s how a few other games have done
it. Half Life 2 creates a feeling of oppression
through claustrophobic corridors, tall buildings, cages, and security cameras. PT creates fear by asking you to repeatedly
turn the same corner, but you’re never sure what will be on the other side. It’s important to note that these environmental
choices have to gel with the game’s mechanics, though. For example, in a horror game, darkness is
obviously intended to evoke feelings of fear. But in a stealth game, darkness might actually
provide feelings of power and safety. After picking the environmental details, BioWare
uses intensity charts. Basically, the designers have a desired intensity
level – hoping for low moments for story beats, and high moments for combat. But this has to be checked against play-testers
who describe how intense each area feels. If the chart is off, changes must be made. For example, the catacombs initially had enemies
– but fighting monsters by torchlight was found to be extremely intense, and pulled
away from the intended feeling, so the monsters were scrapped to bring the level in line. Also, a cutscene of friendly bombers was added
on the road towards the reaper, just to give the player slightly more hope that they might
win. The ultimate goal for BioWare was to create
a mission that matches a sort of typical three act structure. With rising action, a low moment of despair,
and a final climb to victory. This three act structure is used wonderfully
by 2D platformer Celeste, where the actual topology of your climb mirrors the graph. Level after level you climb higher up the
mountain, hitting small set-backs and climb-downs but ultimately heading forever upwards. That is until the stage Reflections which
sends you plummeting back down to the base. The story’s lowest point is also the environment’s
lowest point. However, beating that stage gives you the
surge of energy (not to mention a new mechanic) to race back up the mountain. You’ll breeze past small sections of previous
zones until you get to the summit in a moment of absolute triumph. If there’s one game that truly uses the
environment to tell a story, though, it’s Journey. It uses moments when you’re climbing to
evoke feelings of strength and progression, and moments where you’re plummeting down
to create a sense of loss and hopelessness. And notice how the team at thatgamecompany
uses colour to express different sensations – orange for the calm mystery of the desert,
dark green for the spooky underground graveyard, white for the biting cold, and bright blue
for the moment of rebirth. This game doesn’t need any words to tell
you what to feel, because the environment says it all. The final thing I want to touch on, is the
way environments influence our identity. Video games typically put us into the shoes
of a character, and ask us to perform as they would. As players, we’re constantly looking for
clues as to what sort of person we are inhabiting, and what sort of actions will be expected,
permitted, and punished. Of course, the heavy lifting is done by the
available mechanics, the way systems react to our choices, and our preconceived notions
from the marketing and genre norms. But the environment can also play a large
part in this. For example, in the original Bioshock I found
it easy to murder people and steal from cash registers and safes. Whereas in Bioshock Infinite, i found these
actions a lot less comfortable. A large part of this comes from the fact that
Bioshock’s Rapture is in ruins, and the only people around are insane, bloodthirsty
splicers. Bashing their skulls in and looting everything
I can fit in my pockets just makes sense. Infinite’s Columbia, on the other hand,
is still a semi-functioning society when you get there, with working shops and innocent
civilians. So violence and robbery just makes less sense
in that environment. Back down on Earth, the Hitman developers
use this technique to subtly explain how the world will react to your presence. It’s often pretty obvious which areas you
can casually stroll into, because of our understanding of real-world social behaviours and rules. This comes from a GDC talk by IO developer
Mette Andersen who says “when we design these spaces, we’re designing
rules of behaviour and we’re designing something that’s going to tap into your knowledge
of ‘how should I be in this space?’”. Mette splits the world into public spaces,
which are available from the get go and explorable in any costume. And private spaces, which require some ingenuity
to enter, and a costume to stay hidden. She then splits those further into sub categories,
where social rules go from vague to strict. The best levels in Hitman, says Mette, incorporate
a rich mix of these area types. So video game environments can be a staggeringly
effective medium for storytelling. Whether they’re telling stories about events
that happened before your arrival, giving clues about the people who live there, evoking
emotions through architecture, or providing context for player identity, these spaces
can speak volumes. Let me know your favourite examples of storytelling
through the environment, in the comments down below. Hi! Thanks for watching. So in the last episode I asked you which Shovel
Knight hero is the most fun to control – steady ol’ Shovel Knight, bombastic Plague Knight,
super slick Specter Knight, or the decadent King Knight. The poll received over 10,000 responses and
the ultimate winner was… Specter Knight! It looks like Yacht Club’s plan to make
it easy to feel cool totally paid off. Click the thumbnail on screen to watch that
video if you missed it. See ya!

Categories: ArticlesBlog

100 Comments

Peter Broomfield · March 1, 2020 at 3:51 am

INSIDE – PlayDead

bud389 · March 1, 2020 at 3:53 am

All of this used to be common knowledge in game design before games became boring cinematic movies.

JarJar Binks · March 1, 2020 at 3:54 am

darksouls

seriomarkj · March 1, 2020 at 4:56 am

All of the ruins in breath of the wild … never much to find, or much to tell you what was once there, forever lost and forgotten to time and the destruction ganon can cause if you are to lose

xayer98 · March 1, 2020 at 4:57 am

Just casually spoils RDR2's serial killer. Love your videos so so much…but seriously?

Ariana Ahmed · March 1, 2020 at 5:17 am

I loved this video!!! I never considered the way video games made me think certain things and perform actions just by the placement of things or by passive story-telling, I just thought I was doing that on my own. I especially liked the tiered explanation of the levels through which that process is executed. Really good video, I always like your videos but you really hit it out of the park with this one!

manamaster6 · March 1, 2020 at 5:26 am

Something that broke the immersion for me in many games was how impractical some places were. I couldn't believe some buildings in games where there wasn't any logic behind the design of the house and the location if each room. I felt as if I were in a mouse trap, rather than in a game.

musAKulture · March 1, 2020 at 5:46 am

wow. i'm about to sign with a game company to do storylines and this channel has so much stuff i can learn.

Ju-87 Stuka · March 1, 2020 at 5:48 am

Something about Gears of War, regardless of game, gives a great sense of despair and violence as the character goes deeper into understanding what happened that lead to conflict. Great game, great video, thank you.

Deuce Moncura · March 1, 2020 at 5:59 am

This is great, because I don't think enough people think about how video games can use the distinctive qualities of their medium to tell their own story. Brilliant topic, brilliant thoughts, and brilliant you.

Deuce Moncura · March 1, 2020 at 6:09 am

One of my favorite moment of storytelling through the environment is the music of the big four areas in Majora's Mask. Each area has essentially the same composition: a subdued version of Majora's theme. But for each area, the composition is changed in one way or another through different instruments, environmental sound, and additions and subtractions to the melodic lines. They all match their respective environments, but what connects them all together is the theme of Majora because he's the one who ruined all these different environments.

I know, it's not technically telling the story through the environment, visually speaking, but it's something subtle that's related to specific environments that I think is worth mentioning.

TheKillzone32 · March 1, 2020 at 6:15 am

The well on Kakariko village in Ocarina Of Time is a good exaple of this.

TheSeaBast · March 1, 2020 at 6:48 am

"were these raiders kidnapping and abusing children?"

Music: ~Good Vibes~

Graham Walker · March 1, 2020 at 7:19 am

Two words: Anor Londo

Daniel Gerendas · March 1, 2020 at 7:50 am

I really like this in Horizon Zero Dawn. Although much of the world is revealed through audio files, the areas you search are full of little details. Like when you go to the bunker and find the dead soldiers trying to contain the machines.

Also, the whole wirld, how the ruins make the world seam real… Like downtown area overgrown with vegetation. It feels like real ruin…

I think that is what encouraged me to listen to all the files i found, and ohhh boy, great worldbuilding done through those files

Asma Hasmalaria · March 1, 2020 at 8:12 am

My favorite example of a level telling a story comes from COD 4, the level where the nuclear bomb goes off. At first you feel powerful when the American army is attacking and you sit in a helicopter with a machine gun, killing everything with ease. The lighting is good and bright and you don't have to do much to win, because killing from a helicopter is easy. Then everything goes haywire, the level gets more claustrophobic, the fights become harder and the lighting gets darker and more red. You have to rescue this helicopter pilot, so you can't use your weapons and feel like you escape by the skin of your teeth. Then you are done, you feel relieved, you have defeated the enemy, victory music is playing and you see the city slowly becoming smaller in the background. Then the nuclear bomb goes off and everyone dies. You are the only survivor,get up, everything is empty and dark, wind from the blast wave, the screen is blurry because you experience radiation sickness, everything is quiet except for your characters struggling breathing, you see the mushroom cloud on the horizon, and you know "I need to get out of here quick so I don't die" because you are a main character, who shouldn't die, but you move so slowly. Then your character can't go any longer, a deep bass sound is playing when the character loses his footing and falls to the ground and everything fades to black.
COD 4 used basically the same mechanics as every COD after but the level designers put way more effort into making these mechanics tell a story. That's why it's the last (and probably only) good COD.

Dan Webb · March 1, 2020 at 8:18 am

My best memory of environmental storytelling is from Deus Ex. Through simply exploring the environment with mindfulness, the player can save someone's life and dramatically affect the game's conclusion by disabling a bomb. And this was completely unique from the quest system.

baptiste lasbats · March 1, 2020 at 8:41 am

I would say the From Software games, and NieR:Automata, where character design, music, world-building and shiftings in gameplay (and game genre) are all used in order to convey a specific theme

Rizky Gusna · March 1, 2020 at 9:12 am

18 minutes well spent. I think fallout new vegas is really good example about this

Templaric Legion · March 1, 2020 at 9:23 am

The problem with Mass Effect 3 is that it suffers from the same thing the first 2 games did: You never see the AI actually help you. Seeing the Krogan relaxed doesn't help when you know you're going to be pushed into an area alone, like every other stage before it. The bombers don't give an air of potential triumph because you know they are only for the story beats. Everything plays out the same way it did throughout the rest of the story.

Now, I vaguely remember feeling these emotions on my first play through (it was so long ago) so maybe I'm just cynical to it because I've played through so many times. But, never seeing friendly AI in combat, only hearing them, is something you'll pick up on pretty quick.

Especially because the only time you see friendly AI (beside your squad) is when they're in cover or you need to protect them.

Michel Ottens · March 1, 2020 at 9:53 am

I did a thesis on this! I literally applied architecture terms to both audiovisual simulations of space in games, and to the actionable sensations of spatiality. There's two things i can think of adding to your video, then, hopefully of interest: Imagine going beyond how spaces in games are dressed up, beyond signage, function, and ornament, and onto the even more basic expressions of architecture:

1 – You get at this in your video, but games can express stuff like urgency, freedom, constraint, confusion, etc. with just the mere shape of surfaces, rooms, paths. That Uncharted bit in the cave would feel freeing and awe inspiring just from first constraining players in a tight cave, then letting them move into a huge open hall, even if it wasn't literally a cave we were crawling through on some grand adventure. Some architecture language that helps get at this: constraint vs. space, focal points, linear or interwoven pathing, bordered and layered planes, extensive volumes, space beyond direct reach… Steffen Walz got closest to this kind of language in games studies discourse.

2 – This kind of abstract architectural expression interacts with what a player thinks they can do in a game. Navigating a huge open plane like in Shadow of the Colossus or Breath of the Wild can intentionally feel eery, lonely, or deluded and aimless, if there's only rarely something for a player to do in those wastes; if the player is made to feel small and useless because they can do little to meaningfully interact with their surrounds. On the other hand, the huge spaces in those Mordor games, or in older Asscreed games, those spaces intentionally feel frustratingly busy and limiting, because there's this constant pressure to act and adapt.

Hope that's thought provoking. Have a nice day!

Dave Goodfellow · March 1, 2020 at 10:37 am

Was surprised that Overwatch wasn’t included in this video, Mark. As far as the density between environmental storytelling, level design and world building, I think it has some of the most dense environmental storytelling and the least world building I’ve ever seen within a game. Kind of flips the pyramid, compared to some of the examples you looked at but still executed exceptionally well. Worth noting too that later in the game’s lifecycle to world building did increase through animated shorts and other media, though I’d say the net of those were still less than additional environmental narratives

MinorCirrus · March 1, 2020 at 11:02 am

And then you have The Last Of Us, where ladders can be found all over the place and every kitchen drawer you open has either bullets or fuel.

Jay P · March 1, 2020 at 11:08 am

The Last Guardian did a similar thing to Celeste, where you would go higher as you progressed, but it periodically plunged you back down, which always made for a very intense feeling of being set back (even though, of course, you're still actually progressing in the story)

MinorCirrus · March 1, 2020 at 11:17 am

I really like Borderlands's environmental storytelling. As the games themselves, it doesn't take itself seriously but its still consistent and thoughtfully done. Good attention to detail.

I am Rich · March 1, 2020 at 11:20 am

Funny, finished Bioshock half an hour ago

Westeford // GamerLink5 · March 1, 2020 at 12:21 pm

14:10 Eh…The added bombers didn't really give me more hope. It made me think, "Oh great, more lives wasted."
Actually, most of the time in Mass Effect 3 I was more focused on getting things done fast and taking down the reapers to put an end to all the death. lol

Sia Gholami · March 1, 2020 at 12:30 pm

The Bioware intensity chart for Marauder Shields must've been over 9000.

Julia Beutling · March 1, 2020 at 12:36 pm

Hi Mark,
One thing I found really uncomfortable in this video is you showing a lot of highly graphic violence without that being really necessary to bring your point across. Especially after I clicked on a thumbnail with a friendly-looking orange scene from Journey. Yes, I know you're talking a lot about ego shooters here, but in this case I think a number of quite gruesome images could have bee left out.
I feel that if you want to keep this kind of content in, you might do well to have a short content warning in the beginning of a video for more sensitive viewers. This is, after all, an accessible series about the theory of game design and using a number of graphic imagery of mutilated bpdies or head-shots will put some people off, as happened to myself right now. I had the same feeling with your anatomy of a sidequest video, where I really did not expect that amount of graphic imagery in a short video on the theory of game design. I'm not saying I don't enjoy the content you're talking about, but the presentation irks me in some places.
Apart from that, I really like your videos and am looking forward to see more!

PENB · March 1, 2020 at 12:39 pm

Hello im from Russian and i like your video. I just want to say that on Russian YouTube there are almost no such interesting channels for game design.

小雨雨 · March 1, 2020 at 1:33 pm

哇 看见风之旅人必点进来

Cewkaurai Zok'Aerrus · March 1, 2020 at 2:11 pm

With journey if you play online, other players can also act as a story element as well.

One day my sister was playing and had a “friend” she had managed to keep through the entire game up until the cold section. They had to get past the creatures that take away your scarf, and des’s friend pinged, and somehow we knew that her fried was trying to say “I’ll distract it, and when I do, make a run for it”. My sister pinged frantically, communicating her distress at the idea but her friend did it anyway. I still remember that, and you could view it as two souls going on the journey, with one sacrificing themselves to ensure the other could make it all the way through to the end xD

thundermorphine · March 1, 2020 at 3:02 pm

This is the most interesting game channel on youtube if you ask me.

Sebastian Solidwork · March 1, 2020 at 3:16 pm

Would you kindly make a video about how interactivity could tell stories? This is the (a part of) the future to me. Think of Edith.
https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/FabianFischer/20170511/297796/Narrative_Gameplay_How_games_should_not_tell_stories.php
And please differ between mechanic heavy and (interactive) story heavy. And games not caring for that, sadly most.
https://medium.com/@fischerdesign/games-as-experiential-narrative-17be10caf77f

John Smith · March 1, 2020 at 3:36 pm

I like your initial question: Could you figure out the story in a game without it being handed to you by dialogue and overt clues. That's probably a good test for immersiveness. Could each element be removed individually and still have the same narrative. The same can be done with incongruities: Could one "fact" be removed and have other "facts" support the fact in question? Like how in Fallout 3, it's 200 years after nuclear war, there are survivors, and no one's bothered to clean up yet. Upon removing the 200 year claim, nothing seems to support that situation as true.

Jake Cotton · March 1, 2020 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for talking about journey, it's one of my favourite games and I adore how the atmosphere and music are used to tell the story in it

Buggle Magnum · March 1, 2020 at 3:44 pm

No one told me to save after killing the first little sister abd i have to kill the DOCTOR again

Batata gan · March 1, 2020 at 4:33 pm

My favorite example of environmental storytelling is Hollow Knight, which basically tells all of its rich story/lore/worldbuilding through its environment. Not only do you get an understanding of each area's civilization and philosophy before the arrival of the Pale King, but you also get a sense of awe from how "glorious" Hallownest used to be before the infection, and shock/horror when you see what they did to try to stop it. I could go on for pages about how that extends to feeling and identity too, but you should probably go and play it.

EfrainMan · March 1, 2020 at 4:53 pm

So I had somewhat opposite feelings to murderin' in Bioshock and Infinite as you mentioned in the video. In the original, despite knowing they kinda got themselves into the mess, I still felt sorry for them all as I pretty much killed in self defense. Infinite though? Oh boy, time to kill me some racists!

Andres Gutierrez · March 1, 2020 at 4:54 pm

Favorite example of storytelling through environment? Bloodborne.

Tyler Jordan MacDonald · March 1, 2020 at 5:09 pm

I bought the book "101 Things I Learned in Architecture School" as a helpful tool for level design, and this video touched on a few of those subjects!

giascle · March 1, 2020 at 5:40 pm

One of my favorite instances of environmental storytelling is the lead-up to seeing The Flood for the first time in Halo.

It's raining outside. You sneak into a Covenant base, gunning through a pretty standard assortment of enemies, going deeper and deeper inside. But the deeper you go, their numbers start to thin. It's silent except for the dull hum of machinery. You walk through a doorway and your finger jumps for the trigger, but it's only a Jackal, already lying there in a pool of its own blood. Even deeper. You pass by whole rooms of Covenant weaponry, abandoned. You go through a doorway to find a fellow marine cowering with his back to the wall, piles of alien bodies around him. He immediately starts shooting at you, screaming that he's not gonna be turned into one of those things. He can barely scratch you, but you put him out of his misery. Deeper. Fire, lights flickering. You seem to go through the same doorway for the dozenth time. As a single, ambient note starts to play, you walk over health packs and ammo scattered about, like you'll need them. You come to another doorway. The screen goes black. It loads the cutscene.

Cameron Gallagher · March 1, 2020 at 5:58 pm

I’m surprised there’s no mention of Anor Londo in dark souls. When you first arrive, the bright sun illuminates everything and gives you a huge sense of hope, that this is where you need to be to complete your journey, and then they slowly strip that feeling away from you, making you walk tight ropes with arrows flying at you in all directions, filling you with a severe sense of tension and that every step gained is a victory, which is pretty much the goal of the whole game, it’s just compacted into this one journey defining section.

And then the transition from DS1 to DS3 Anor Londo. A place that was once a pinnacle of your journey turned to an open snowy city scape. You’re meant to feel that this was a holy place gone to ruin, like the rest of the world, and now what was once a major turning point in your adventure is but a measly step towards an even more perilous goal

Burundanga · March 1, 2020 at 6:34 pm

Just come here to say…Inside

cK5 rEm · March 1, 2020 at 6:46 pm

Farcry 2. The Devs nailed the African open world.

Sanket Varia · March 1, 2020 at 6:55 pm

What makes a game mechanic fun to play?

David Kramer · March 1, 2020 at 7:09 pm

ICO and Shadow of the Colossus also did a really good job with environmental storytelling.

lonelyPorterCH · March 1, 2020 at 7:22 pm

okay, o tldr: dark and narrow to bright and open ;P

DJ Tehe · March 1, 2020 at 7:43 pm

I really wish that social anthropology talk on Hitman was available without a GDC Vault sub. Just gonna have to settle for the PowerPoint.

Fantastic video like always! Every time I see a GMTK upload I immediately watch it.

U1TR4F0RCE · March 1, 2020 at 8:16 pm

Outer Wilds has some great use of the environment helping to tell the story. To the point that I must say I think that a person could enjoy and figure out most aspects of the game without actually reading or dialogue options and instead just looking at the environment.

Bruno Fettucini · March 1, 2020 at 8:48 pm

This was a really good one.

Deex _ · March 1, 2020 at 8:52 pm

Desing icons? Please?

Unpetraccable · March 1, 2020 at 9:19 pm

In Thief 2: the metal Age, in the First level you can find a hidden, small shrine where someone seemed to worship a cog. Only later, you find out about the Mechanist cult.
I Always loved that so much

Nautiliam · March 1, 2020 at 9:38 pm

Your part on Mass Effect reminded me of the moment in Sekiro where you arrive at the Fountain Palace (I think that's the name). I can't remember exactly the path but I know I let a "Wow" out when I saw it in the distance.

Plaid PVCPipe · March 1, 2020 at 9:45 pm

Boneworks is actually an excellent example for this.
edit: Almost all of the world development and storytelling comes from the environment.

Anna Baldur · March 1, 2020 at 10:04 pm

Besides the entirety of Dishonored 2, I really liked the level where you meet Elizabeth in Bioshock: Infinite – Even well before you even see her for the first time, there is a breadth of information about what you might expect.

؟؟؟؟؟ expert · March 1, 2020 at 10:30 pm

maybe using a cake example instead of a pyramid would help sending the idea clearer,the world building is the layers,level design can be the the second layer and the environmental storytelling is the cherry at top

Muhammad Revano Chandika · March 1, 2020 at 10:40 pm

One of my favorite immersive experience on level design is in Metro 2033 franchise
It really maintain the level triangle. Every level has its on moment to relive throughout the game. Not just standard FPS anyway-i-started-blasting game.

To live the experience to its full extent, you must be aware of your surroundings. What or whatnot to kill. What happened to a station and its people. The story may be a bit linear but the way of approach may varies

MemphiStig · March 1, 2020 at 11:03 pm

12:09 i know what you're saying here, but every time i see this in one of these games, it makes me nervous, not confident. and i feel bad for all those poor allies of mine, having no idea that something's about to hit em. maybe i'm just jaded…

TKRayder · March 1, 2020 at 11:51 pm

Nice video!
Journey did a fantastic job with the environmental story telling for sure. Loved every second of that game.

I'm amazed though that this is an 18 min + video about "how level design can tell a story" without mentioning a single From Software game. I've seen a few comments mention Dark Souls 1, and I agree: it's fantastic on all levels. My personal favourite, however, is Bloodborne. Either way, FromSoft have proven many times how great they are at telling stories through little more than item descriptions and level design.

cocacraesh · March 2, 2020 at 12:09 am

Just from the top of my head, it's when entering the City of Tears in Hollow Knight: Everyone knows that the game takes place (mostly) underground, yet when you enter the UNDERGROUND city and it is ACTUALLY RAINING it does not feel out of place. It conveys the tragedy that the city has been subject to and makes it even sadder.

Dan Stuart · March 2, 2020 at 12:14 am

First Metroid Prime game, hands down. It's the game that made me fall in love with games in general, and I've rarely been more immersed in a game world.

Takezo Kimura · March 2, 2020 at 1:23 am

And this is why I like the Dark Soul series. They place every item, equipment and enemy into specific areas to tell a story, although it often lacks on the "credible" side (rooms without purpose and the like).
In the start of DS1 you begin at an asylum and you are soon faced with a gigantic demon that falls from the roof. The demon has a lot of HP, but you soon see an open door at the side highlighted by two torches. This not only is the first sign that "fire is the way" (a strong theme of the game) but also a method of showing you that you need to get stronger to survive, to succeed (another strong theme of the game). You get your starting gear and travels across the asylum. You eventually return to the demon room but now you are standing on a platform above it, a subtle sign that you are now stronger than your foe, and as you expect the battle is pretty easy.

Then we have another scenario. After going through the poisonous hell that is Blighttown, the murder house that is Sen's Fortress and beating the Iron Golem you reach Anor Londo. This area is not only one of the most beautiful in the series, but it is mostly in pristine condition, it is like paradise on Earth, except…it is mostly empty. And you begin asking questions why the people left, and why something feels…off about it.

Faiz Ahmed · March 2, 2020 at 1:57 am

hollow knight has an amazing environmental story telling

Padishah · March 2, 2020 at 2:41 am

Forgot system shock 2 tsk tsk

Diego Medeiros · March 2, 2020 at 3:08 am

I really like when games dosent just hold your hand and tell everything, i like to discover the history on details! (but i do like when they tell me where to go, i hate been lost on open world games haha, with rare exceptions)

Alfonso V · March 2, 2020 at 3:43 am

Hyper Light Drifter has to be my favourite example of environmental storytelling. And, just as in Journey, no words are needed.

Rodger Lucas · March 2, 2020 at 3:55 am

Please do a video about What remains of Edith Finch.

PurpleFreezer · March 2, 2020 at 5:43 am

You probably should’ve done a bit less categorizing in this video. I think it’s good enough to just say what’s good and what’s bad, and not trying to make many categories of good.

Bionic Turtle · March 2, 2020 at 5:55 am

I want to believe that in that brothel the strippers just had kids and they lived with them in the brothel

thefran901 · March 2, 2020 at 6:33 am

Another great example of the fall section as the middle of a three acts structure happens during Portal 2, in the chapter literally titled "The Fall". Where after thinking you are escaping the facility and you are indeed going up, a certain plot twist happens and then you fall to the deepest bottom and dephs of the entire facility, but eventually you rise again to the standard location of the facilities with a "new" companion and the experience of new game mechanics learned.

Brendan Kelety · March 2, 2020 at 6:34 am

Even though Bethesda games are buggy, and have had some issues recently, I've always loved their story telling, and have spent tons of my time in Skyrim walking from place to place and just absorbing the atmosphere of the game. Seeing some bandit plan frozen in time, and revealed through a journal, a hidden key, or a skeleton in a beartrap make the world feel so alive, and reward the player for going "aha, so that's what happened!"

Jenn V. L. · March 2, 2020 at 6:56 am

hey! how come you choose not to spoil mass effect but spoil Celeste? one being super old but the other one I just bought? :'(

Kirby Dizon · March 2, 2020 at 9:58 am

Man I love watching these kinds of vids when I'm high as hell, makes me think more about every little things in the game.

Holger Larsson · March 2, 2020 at 10:31 am

Hollow knights ruined kingdom has fantastic environmental storytelling!

Little Narwhal · March 2, 2020 at 10:53 am

I feel it's a shame that none of the soulsborne games + sekiro were mentioned

Adrian Thomas · March 2, 2020 at 11:07 am

A fantastic game that illustrates your points is GRIS.

Really, really beautiful game.

Joost van den Heuvel · March 2, 2020 at 11:21 am

Wait, is that the Dirt Rally 2.0 music in the background?

Maxime Teppe · March 2, 2020 at 11:24 am

I think it's interesting to note that Arkane typically hands the levels to a duo of developers, in a way that mirrors the intensity and emotion graph from Bioware.
One is the level designer, in charge of providing interesting problems for players to solve, and one is the level architect, in charge of making the space believable, but also in charge of using shape, color and light to evoke the right mood, and to guide the player.

ZoidbergForPresident · March 2, 2020 at 1:48 pm

3:00 Funny, I haven't played the game but hearing you explain the scene I did not conclude they abused children, but that the hookers got pregnant and kept the kids who then lived there. 😛

Stup ID · March 2, 2020 at 1:54 pm

I only have 2 things to say.

Firstly, even though I do think environmental storytelling is really important for making game worlds feel believable and creating a nice atmosphere, for me personally games rarely ever accomplish, that I would actually want to give much though to what I see. (At least on my first Playthrough.)

Second of all, now more than ever, VR is a thing and I'm seriously ready for it!

Leandro Viana · March 2, 2020 at 2:02 pm

I found weird the low on top and the high on botton. I would rather use Deep and Surface.

Manuel Quiñones · March 2, 2020 at 2:46 pm

This is a great explanation with some nice references, Mark! I believe every part of a narrative game should be functional to the story, not just the environment but also NPC actions, soundtrack, etc. It suits much more naturally to this media than cut-scenes.

Homeless · March 2, 2020 at 4:09 pm

I'm not a videogame designer, but I design and play roleplaying tabletop games, and your videos are incredibly helpfull to write and design those too. Thank you for the amazing work you do.

Roman Guro · March 2, 2020 at 5:02 pm

Silent Hill 2 one of the best example of environmental storytelling.

Bisounours Bleu · March 2, 2020 at 5:21 pm

Hyrule castle in BotW, what an emotional peak the first time i got there …… secrets, books, the town, banners and chambers, awesome work

Clevermore Puzzles · March 2, 2020 at 6:47 pm

Can't we just flip the nomenclature so that "high" is at the high-end of the pyramid and "low" is at the low-end? Regardless, brilliant video as always.

Clevermore Puzzles · March 2, 2020 at 7:32 pm

Still to this day one of my favorite examples of environmental storytelling used to show the impact the player has had on the world is in the original Mega Man X.

After the intro level, you can choose the order in which you play through the next 8 levels, and beating certain levels will cause permanent changes in others — both to their aesthetics and gameplay mechanics. E.g., defeating Storm Eagle will cause his airship to crash into the power plant level, so if you visit the power plant afterward you'll be able to see pieces of the wreckage in the background, plus you'll experience intermittent power outages.

I can't recall any other games I played at the time that did anything like that.

SpiraResident · March 2, 2020 at 7:49 pm

No mentioning of Shadow of the Colossus? The very first time I realised what environmental storytelling is without knowing the term.

thekidfromcanada · March 2, 2020 at 9:44 pm

Super Metroid

Alex Paul · March 2, 2020 at 11:50 pm

Is this Brad ?

Tallcat · March 3, 2020 at 12:09 am

Good video, but that controller aiming in the bioshock gameplay was hard to watch.

SirMik003 · March 3, 2020 at 1:22 am

Thoughts on Fumito Ueda's level design, especially in Ico and Last Guardian? There's this certain feeling you get when you look down at the environment below you and think "oh wait, I was THERE earlier."

Felipe Tartas · March 3, 2020 at 2:09 am

Super Metroid, Half-Life and Dark Souls are in my opinion the best examples for this.

Volt Siano · March 3, 2020 at 3:41 am

The Sanctuary portal in Metroid Prime: Echoes strikes me as a neat bit of storytelling. It's in this massive, central area, suggesting it was the Luminoth's main portal for assaulting Dark Aether. But by the time you reach it during the game, it's old and unstable, to the point where you can't even use it. I don't remember all the information from the game exactly, but perhaps the Luminoth themselves destroyed it before taking shelter in their temple, so as to avoid leaving a gateway for the Ing to use that would put them so close to their last stronghold.
On the opposite side of the portal, in Dark Aether, the area is full of dead Luminoth warriors, signaling that they may have made a final stand there before – perhaps while the portal was being destroyed, if my previous assumption is correct.
At the end of the game, after defeating Dark Samus while (SPOILERS) on an unstable and dying Dark Aether, you get a cut scene of Samus activating the portal jumping through it, knowing full-well that the portal is unstable, signifying that there is no time to find the portal you entered from – it's get out now or die trying. Due to knowing about the instability, it then comes as no surprise, no feeling of deus ex machina, when you see a few Ing making futile attempts at trying to claw their way through the portal before it finally collapses with the death of Dark Aether. There's just so many subtle narratives surrounding this portal and the two rooms on either side of it.
(Or, another possibility is that the portal's instability on Aether was due to a massive vein of phazon in its corresponding location on Dark Aether. This phazon vein is present all the way up till the game's end when Dark Samus absorbs it all before she fights you.)

DudeSwedish · March 3, 2020 at 4:41 am

I am really looking forward to see how this will be implemented in upcoming HL: Alyx.

SatansBestBuddy · March 3, 2020 at 7:49 am

Batman: Arkham Asylum was really, really good at showing how the various supervillains were gaining power through how they reshaped the environment. Poison Ivy breaking out results in out-of-control plant growth consuming parts of the island. Joker likes to release laughing gas in buildings he wants to shut down. It gets to the point that the endgame environments are, while still having the same landmarks and shortcuts to navigate by, are visually very different from how the night started, along with Batman himself getting gradually worn down, with his suit taking damage and growing stubble on his chin as the night wears on.

Strawberry Boy · March 3, 2020 at 9:03 am

I'm surprised you didn't say anything about hollow knight:(

yaBoroda · March 3, 2020 at 10:04 am

About children abuse in F3. I prefer think, that whores just has kids that lived there in brothel. Condoms are rare in wasteland and doctors capable do abortion too. And raiders still humans enough to keep born babies alive.

Simon Liu · March 3, 2020 at 10:06 am

Dirt rally 2.0 soundtrack?

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