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!