Previous portions of this article were published in Geek Girl Authority: https://www.geekgirlauthority.com/environmental-storytelling-how-i-learned-to-write-through-playing-video-games/
Growing up an only child in the middle of the woods, some of my fondest memories are of swinging, rolling in grass, playing with worms and sand and making things out of grass and flowers. I remember making up stories through my objects and my play: suspending myself on a swing to be a captive princess. Racing worms down a slide. Building a fort in the woods with my cousin to begin our invented utopian society. I remember my childhood stories because they were sensory, invented through play and my environment.
This is the unspoken power that video games also have for telling a powerful story. In video games, we have sounds, rumble pacs, mechanics and visuals that let us experience a story tangibly, in a way that the written word can’t accomplish quite as concretely. I have so many memories associated with games, and so many gaming moments that haunt me because they delivered a powerful sensory experience.
Even though video games are unique storytellers, there are principles from games that can be applied to other forms of storytelling. As a writer, I’ve been fascinated by how games can tell a story through objects that the player encounters, and environments they inhabit. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Gone Home are great examples of this: as you explore these environments, you encounter objects that give the player information about the space you are in. For example, you learn about the world that Portal takes place in and the tests through graffiti on the walls and GlaDOS’ witty dialogue. In Life is Strange, posters on the wall foreshadow future events and important plot points, and details like the pregnancy test in Dana’s trash can allow us to get to know Max’s classmates without disrupting the main storyline. In Detroit: Become Human, interactions with objects can open up additional choices in future scenarios, providing significant changes to the gameplay experience.
In a previous article, I mentioned the writing truism “show don’t tell” and how games like Gone Home embody this principle through active participation. Like readers, gamers don’t want to be told why they want to go on an adventure or what to feel–they want to experience the thrill of adventure, or the sorrow of a dark story themselves. And while books might be limited in just how tangible of an experience they can give their readers, a game can truly embed you in a story as the protagonist, allowing for great opportunities to create a compelling experience.
What’s great about environmental storytelling is that it can do narrative work much more efficiently and effectively than exposition. Environmental storytelling requires us to make jumps and fill in gaps, making us participants in the story. For my writing students, I do an exercise where I play the first ten minutes of the game Gone Home and make them list the objects the player encounters and what narrative information each object gives the player–or us as viewers. By the end of the ten minutes, we each have our own list, and it’s interesting to go around the room and share our lists; my students always point out some new detail that I never noticed before. It’s pretty incredible how much of a story is created in those first ten minutes without a single word of exposition, and how much my students pick up in that short span of time.
Environmental storytelling reminds us the truism that less is more. In trying to synopsize the plot of Amazon Trail II, youtuber Brutalmoose concludes, “Ah I remember the days when a game was like, Hey! This is the Oregon Trail. Now go on the Oregon trail. Those were the days.” While this functions as a joke towards Amazon Trail II’s unnecessarily convoluted plot, it also makes a powerful statement about game design. Good games don’t need to persuade you with a complicated plot. The goal of a game can be relatively straightforward: go on the Oregon Trail. Rescue Princess Toadstool. Explore the Finch home. Make it across the room as a piece of toast. Yet there can be a fear that we need to tell our players why they should be playing our game.
Tom Bissell in his book Extra Lives makes the point that “The overly caloric narrative content of so many games has caused [some gamers] to feel undernourished by [a] different narrative experience.” My expectation now when starting a new game is the initial 30+ minutes of “gameplay” to be comprised of cutscenes, exposition, and demos that tell me how to use my controller instead of throwing me into an environment where I can naturally discover these things on my own (Or, if you’re playing Kingdom Hearts III, perhaps longer). I’m not saying every game is the same, and that no game should have demos or exposition or cutscenes, but that these devices are used far more frequently than necessary, and often as a crutch. With a compelling environment, good design, and interesting objects, a game does more than enough to entice a player to play.
When a player is allowed to play, they connect more directly with the characters and ideas in the game. There is less barrier between the player and the narrative. Through playing as a character, we have to take on their identity, their role, and make decisions accounting for their scenario. It demands that we empathize, and that we take an active role over a passive consumer role.
A great example of a game that does this effectively is Papers Please. One of the discussion questions I ask my students is: How would Papers Please be different as a memoir? Or a podcast? And the conclusion we come to each time is that Papers Please is most compelling as a game because we aren’t just being told about a harsh life in a communist country; we as the players feel the harshness. We have to hear stories of desperate people, begging us to let them across the border, and we have to make decisions based on this information: will we risk our job and our family to let them past? Or will we put aside pathos to deny them entry? The repetitive monotonous tasks of checking cards, scanning travellers, and putting the right stamp into passports sets us into the experience. It makes it more authentic, something we can get a taste of on the experiential level instead of just being told what it’s like.
Likewise, Cart Life allows you to enter an experience of a different kind of life, and really feel the consequences of not achieving your goal. When I played as Andrus, unable to make my rent on time and having my cat discovered by my landlord, I cried at the loss of my cat. I understood how the cat functioned as Andrus’ only companion in this strange and foreign city, and felt sudden sense of loneliness with the cat’s absence.
Undertale is well-known for its compelling characters, and how difficult it is for players to achieve a genocide run of the game--not just because it is mechanically challenging, but because of the emotional difficulty of killing off characters that one has a strong emotional attachment to. Developer Toby Fox wants you to feel that pain, that moral dilemma in your actions. He also allows you to really see and feel the consequence of your actions, visually reflecting the absence created through dead characters. Once all the monsters in an area are killed, encounters still occur, but no monsters appear. Instead, the text reads, “But nobody came,” highlighting the sense of vacancy and loss. Fire Emblem Fates utilizes a similar tool. Whichever order you play the games in, the second game you play demands that you first kill off the “family” you established in the previous game. The emotional connection built with a team in a Fire Emblem game is compelling, particularly in a game where many members are referred to as “family”--making this simple narrative tool particularly devastating.
Many players actively dislike Navi from The Legend of Zelda series. Why is this? Because Navi disrupts the player’s actions, explaining what we already intuitively know as players, and interrupting our tangible experience of the story. Navi is antithetical to environmental storytelling–and is largely unnecessary. That’s why so many gamers love Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game: because there’s no interruption or explicit direction on where the player should go or do. The player is thrown into an open world and allowed to do the very thing they want to most: play.
That’s the critical importance of environmental storytelling: it doesn’t interrupt the gameplay. It doesn’t remove us from the “dream” that a game creates. As a writer, I’m also trying to create a “dream”–my story should pull the reader in in such a way that they fall into that world, and no exposition should interrupt that or make them less engaged. When I play video games, I study the environmental storytelling, wondering how I as a writer can also give my reader visible, concrete experiences. When I think back to the most powerful writing I’ve read, I always think of sensory experiences, places and objects that moved me--and the same goes for games: exploring the abandoned Food Donkey in Night in the Woods, reading Gaster’s journals in Alphys’ lab in Undertale, crawling through an android grave as Marcus in Detroit: Become Human, and perhaps the one that haunts me the most: walking through Lavender Town’s Pokemon Tower, reading the gravestones of dead Pokemon in Pokemon Red. As I write, these are the kinds of experiences and memories I'm trying to create for my readers.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She has five poetry chapbooks, and her novel "Post-High School Reality Quest" is about a girl whose life is narrated as a text adventure game. Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.