environmental-storytelling-its-important-for-you

author: @aestranger

Reading time: 7 minutes

What is Environmental Storytelling & why it’s important for you

Some time ago I wrote a piece on minimalist storytelling within From Software’s Souls series, which also includes their PS4 title Bloodborne, and will most likely also include their recently announced next title Sekiro. A few other games and experiences use the technique of minimalist storytelling to get their narratives across to the players and participants, though it’s a more accurate statement to say that they utilize environmental storytelling, which is inherently minimalistic in its overall execution of conveying a narrative.

What has interested me in environmental storytelling, is its uses when gamifying group experiences to aid in improving the group narrative learning experience. I feel that the concepts in this type of storytelling and the natural interactions that occur within group narratives (the stories and experiences we create and remember when interacting within a group of people), can help augment and create more subtle and meaningful learning experiences for these groups.

Subtlety is the keyword here, environmental storytelling is extremely subtle, and requires the player to be aware and work for their own understanding. Examples of environmental storytelling can be found in as I’ve already mentioned the Dark Souls games, as well as in French cinema, point and click games like Myst and The Witness, and Japanese cinema, where the exposition scenes start from a close up and the expand, shot by shot, the overall landscape shot. Each has a literal expansion of the story, location, and environment.

What we understand an environment to be

To fully understand what this type of storytelling can provide us, we need to place our thoughts and practices within a particular mindset, one where we look at an environment in a specific manner. We need to understand what an environment is.

An environment is a conceptual place, in this case, a make-believe area, perhaps something akin to Huizinga’s Magic Circle. An imagined space that the player voluntarily enters. Even though it is a conceptual place, it is one that creates boundaries and limitations for the player, and through that guides them as well.

As the player(s) populates the space, it inevitably provides context for the narrative, as the narrative elements within the mise-en-scene are placed there with a purpose. Much like the mise-en-scene in films, each prop, background, foreground, character placement, have meaning and history.

Through such meaningful placement, the context is implied and hopefully implicitly understood, and this, in turn, affords a more organic buy-in for the participants player identity within the narrative. What I mean by this, is that the player identity is shaped by the surroundings they find themselves in. They are not told that they are a superhero, a barbarian queen, or shogun general, they enter as themselves, and mold their own character into and with the limited information that the environment presents them with.

Limitations, boundaries, and context

The benefit of creating boundaries and limitations is that such aspects will naturally guide your players in the desired direction, without feeling too forced, at least if it does well. The specific placement of certain story elements in an environment or scene will push them to make certain decisions, based on their experience, understanding and the context of the element within the environment.

And because the placement was made with intention, the decision making becomes a meaningful process for the player, as it is your intention as a designer/creator to guide towards a specific understanding and realization.

The elements that you place within the mise-en-scene must, of course, be within the realm of the players understanding and experience. Context and contextual representation communicate information, if the player is unfamiliar with the context, then the information is lost. As a creator/designer, you must know your audience and know the semiotic experience and understanding that they have.

An example is a sign with a hammer and anvil on it, most people who have watched medieval films or shows or played fantasy RPG’s will know that this means a blacksmiths shop. This is a clear semiotic domain of those that enjoy medieval fantasy. If your audience isn’t familiar with this, then you would need to create steps and helping hands leading to the understanding of the symbolism of this sign. In other words, teach your player. In the blacksmith’s example, showing a blacksmith with a hammer and anvil, doing their work, and then aligning that with the sign. A simplistic example, but hopefully one that’s easily understood and conveys the overall concept of invisibly guiding, pushing a player to make their own connections and immerse themselves within the world presented to them.

Identity buy-in

Immersion is another keyword, as without immersion, then the environmental narrative is essentially lost on the player. The environment can and must push the player to buy-in to and assume an identity appropriate for the environment. Like the blacksmith example, if the player finds themselves in this world, the environment should hopefully push them to assume the identity of a knight, or a rogue, or a wizard. If they assume the identity of a Cyberpunk Marine, then something has gone horribly wrong with conveying the information the medieval semiotic domain.

But let’s assume the player does understand it correctly and chooses the persona of a knight, this identity then relates back into the environment, thereby creating a feedback loop with the player and the environmental narrative. Each time they interact with that persona in the environment, their buy-in into the overall narrative strengthened. And if others join in, the connection is enhanced even further.

The purpose of the feedback loop is that it creates certain understandings and concepts of what is possible, impossible and what can be done by the player in the environment. In other words, the norms and practices that are allowed and disallowed in this environment. If the medieval blacksmith world is populated with knights and wizards, then the Cyberpunk Marine will instantly stand out, this player will most likely realize their fantasy/sci-fi faux-pas very quickly and alter their persona to the knight without delay.

History and buy-in

It is the subtle history, the inhabitants, the purpose of the items and elements, and the mood or atmosphere of the environment that immerse the player. All of these aspects are essentially visual, audial, intellectual or emotional. What I mean by this is that they are simply there, the blacksmith is simply there, because he expected to be there in that setting. The clanking of the hammer hitting the anvil is there, as it should be. He is a grizzled, blackened old man, as we would expect him to be. All of these aspects of the history inherent to the concept of a blacksmith are as we would expect them. The narrative has already weaved itself inside our mind.

The image and environment I just created is part of manipulating what players expect, it is using the prior knowledge and experience of your players. Taking the level of familiarity that they have with the semiotic domain you are trying to get across and enhancing it with narrative elements from popular culture. As everything has a history, everything has baggage, and luckily for you, in today’s information world, you have a very good chance that most genres will be understood, regardless of cultural upbringing.

Active engagement and coherence

All of the elements mentioned previously all come together in environmental storytelling to push the player into a state of constant active engagement. Using the environment, the experiences they have, their expectations, the various clues and subtleties of their surroundings in the experience, they are forced to “problem solve”. The player in this situation has to make their own decisions on how the various pieces that are presented to them fit together, to find the deeper meaning in the narrative presented to them. As Smith and Worch have said in their presentation on “environmental storytelling, “fundamentally integrates player perception and active problem solving, which builds investment.”

The beauty of this environmental storytelling is that it requires the player to be creative and use their own imagination and experiences to discover, connect, understand and learn about the narrative — the extra-narrative developed by the imagination increases it beyond what you as a creator could have thought up. And if this technique is used in a group setting, then the extra-narrative created through the interactions between the various members in a group expands it even further and pushes into a space where the learning and memory become far longer lasting than if the player were alone, or if the narrative was simply given on a plate.

The immersion thus increases in the players, interacting with each other and the environment, and it also empowers them, as each discovery within your narrative grants them a sense of fulfillment, and a mutual feeling of being smart enough to have solved it. As everyone feels important and smart if they “stumbled” across a “secret” and managed to figure it out. In a way, they feel as though they are beating you, the creator of the narrative then.

But all of this is only possible is all the narrative elements make sense within the theme of the environment. They need to have coherence, and they must be easily understood, the player does not wish to be confused and feel stupid within your environment. As with the blacksmith example, start small and slowly build up, adding a new element each time the players have grasped the previous one. Guide the player, don’t pull them through the experience.

Conclusion

For environmental storytelling to work well and effectively, your players must have the freedom to choose, move and decide as they see fit within your world. The effectiveness of the learning and the motivation to continue arises from the curiosity, the mystery and the surprise of uncovering and being rewarded for understanding the various aspects of the narrative you have let them enter. And only through this will the learning that you wish to impart upon them be internalized. Pulling them along and forcing the story down their throats only leads to resistance.

Offering a group of players, the opportunity to interact with each other and discover together in near complete freedom cements the experience and the knowledge far more effectively than a spoon-fed one.

I hope that this piece has given you some food for thought and helped improve your own methods or at least offered a different viewpoint to consider.

Please do check out the other posts on æStranger.com, and please do leave a comment or contact us if you have some ideas of your own that you wish to discuss or if you would like to see other topics discussed.

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