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.
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.