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GDC 2010: What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling
Bar Harbor
What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling
Speaker/s: Matthias Worch (Visceral Games) and Harvey Smith (Arkane Studios)
Day / Time / Location: Thursday 3:00- 4:00 Room 125, North Hall
Track / Format: Game Design / Lecture
Description: This lecture examines the game environment as a narrative device, with a focus on further involving the player in interpreting (or pulling) information, in opposition to traditional fictional exposition. We provide an analysis of how and why some games in particular create higher levels of immersion and consistency, and we propose ways in which dynamic game systems can be used to expand upon these techniques. The lecture presents the techniques for environmental storytelling, the key to the creation of game spaces with an inherent sense of history; game spaces that invite the player's mind to piece together implied events and to infer additional layers of depth and meaning. In addition to commonly-used environmental storytelling tools (such as props, scripted events, texturing, lighting and scene composition), we present ideas for using game systems to convey narrative through environmental reaction. Environmental storytelling engages the player as an active participant in narrative; game systems that reflect the player's agency can do the same. The lecture will analyze existing cases and provide a framework for dynamic environmental storytelling in games.

Slides and notes can be downloaded from here.

Game environments have 4 functions:
1. constrains and guides player movement through physics and ecology
2. uses familiar references to communicate affordances and boundaries
3. reinforce player identity
4. provide narrative context

player puts together clues, fills gaps
closure builds player's investment in story

multiple Interpretation of images - ambiguity is good!

environment can telegraph gameplay
trail of blood stains -> monster around corner
shocked corpse twitching on a fence -> fence is electrified and dangerous

place objects so as to create a discernable chain of events

tie your larger premise/theme to environmental events
BioShock example:
dead splicer under toppled Vending machine; water on floor; money pickup nearby
BioShock themes in miniature:
greed leads to societal collapse; death
water everywhere
player looks at splicer, thinks 'his greed got him killed'; feels morally superior.
player then goes to grab money pickup -- may reflect on his OWN greed

Avoid disconnects between player verbs and the scenes
don't create situations which make the player want to do things that he can't!
Example: corpse that was crushed by closing door -- but actual closing doors don't do damage in the game.

Dynamic history making - player decisions affect environment
Environmental storytelling isn't all about designer-placed objects -- game systems can allow players to inscribe their own stories upon the world
decals/breakables are the simplest version -- record of firefights
corpses of monsters the player killed
cleaning up old decals/corpses can be necessary -- but remember that it is a design decision also, impacting payer experience
Hard to reflect this in linear games with no revisitation of space
can get some of this by looking back via cameras
AIs referring to player behavior
When the Big Daddy is sad because he cannot find a Little Sister any more, this reflects the player's actions, can remind him of his effect on the world.
calm guards texting on their cell phone vs. tense twitchy guards --- goons in Batman: Arkham Asylum start calm, get more paranoid as Batman takes them out

Alexx: I got some personal egoboo when one of their slides was of my work, the dead splicer who has been pinned to the wall of the Little Sister training area by a dozen or so syringes. An anecdote, for those of you who weren't around at the time: When I came up with that idea, I spent several hours implementing it, and tweaking the syringes to be 'just right'. Immediately afterwards, I second-guessed myself -- with the limited time we had left, was it really worth spending that much time on one corner of one tiny room, with no actual gameplay implications? But in the next level review, Ken went absolutely wild over it, and showed it off to the rest of the design team as the sort of thing we should be doing. And it's shown up in enough screenshots since then that it was clearly one of the more successful images in the game, probably the most successful one that I implemented. Takeaway: If you've got a cool idea, try it out; don't let the rational / pessimistic side of your brain hold you back.

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That last part is awesome.

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