By request: Environment as storytelling

Requested by Paul le Fou

I think this would be the Dark Souls topic request, if only there were time in my miserable life to play Dark Souls. Instead, I’m gonna go through familiar topics, so feel free to bug off if you’re already read this crap.


The idea of telling a story through the background visuals of a video game has been around for a very long time. Maybe since Zork? That game didn’t depict its world with visuals, but rather with descriptive prose — but that prose did a great job of slowly filling in the concept of an abandoned post-industrial world long since gone to seed with age and the encroachment of magic. That was one of Zork‘s biggest leaps over its inspiration, Colossal Cave Adventure: The revelation that you weren’t simply exploring caves and hunting for treasures, but rather than you were picking your way through the crumbling detritus of a lost civilization.

For the most part, though, early video games simply used setting for the sake of presenting an interesting-looking arena. Joust here doesn’t really tell you anything with its backgrounds — it’s a series of free-floating platforms over lava. The characters themselves are far more evocative, really. Knights riding ostriches and buzzards, avoiding a pterodactyl and the grasping hand of an unseen lava monster!? That’s amazing. Rocks over lava, not so much.


But, over time, games began to put a little more consideration into their environments. That was no small feat for a game like Super Mario Bros. where every tile had to be placed for maximum economy. But it conveyed a sense of progression into the heart of enemy territory, as the backgrounds shifted from brilliant daytime skies to night and back again. Something as simple as a choice of color palette made all the difference: Fortresses and castles use the same tile set for their pools of liquid, but you know you’re inside a fortress when the pools contain red magma rather than the refreshing blue of outdoor water. It’s not much, true, but SMB still represented a more conscious attempt to convey a tale than countless other platformers that had preceded it. Pitfall II and Jet Set Willy and Montezuma’s Revenge demonstrated some consideration of their settings (caverns, a vast mansion, and a pyramid, respectively), but their environmental design within the larger structure could best be described as “haphazard.”


Anyway, then there was this.


Dragon Quest got in on the action with the town of Haukness, which appeared from the world map to be a normal settlement. In close, however, the tiles looked decayed and no civilians appeared. Meanwhile, monsters could attack you in standard random encounters, rendering this town effectively into a dungeon. It was a small detail, but a startling and unsettling one, and it helped convey the urgency of the hero’s quest: Surely this was to be the fate of all villages if the Dragonlord were allowed to continue his predations unchecked.


Are you surprised to learn that many of my favorite games ever use level design, changing background graphics, and other small details to lend depth to their narratives? It’s such a great storytelling technique, and while it’s not exclusive or unique to games, it certainly works uniquely in games. Super Metroid‘s opening moments evoke the building tension before the inevitable xenomorph reveal in the Alien films, but because of the interactive nature of the game medium they work differently. They pull you in and invite you to notice details, to experience the “ah ha!” of realizing you’re in the ruins of Mother Brain’s computer chamber. Film can’t do that; it’s a more guided experience, where the director and cinematographer and actors and editors make conscious choices to draw your attention to details. Games allow you to soak them up at your own pace.

Even silly little things like the Servbot sentries hidden high on the rooftops in the abandoned area of town in Mega Man Legends to hint at the fact that the Bonne family isn’t out for the count and that the mysterious sounds people keep hearing from the warehouses probably has something to do with them do wonders for storytelling. You have to work to notice these details, and they mean something different on a second playthrough.


Sonic CD played with the idea of manipulating backgrounds and presenting multiple versions of a single stage to convey the idea of alternate realities — a time travel favorite. Chrono Trigger, too. Obviously.


Environmental storytelling works especially well in the horror genre. Games like Silent Hill use methodical pacing and extended periods of time in which very little happens to allow you to soak up the details around you, wonder about the nature of the setting, and shift uncomfortably in the tension of never knowing when the next threat will burst onto the scene, and from where.


Open-world games have a harder time with this, because they’re huge. Scale are freedom sit at odds with the deliberate presentation that makes the best environmental narratives work. When you can go anywhere at any time in a game, it’s harder to convey a linear story within the sandbox. Which isn’t to say you don’t sometimes find some great vignettes and Easter eggs — Skyrim is full of them, and so are the GTAs. Maybe stumbling across a mine whose owner clearly died in a rockslide resulting from his excitement over the discovery of the gold vein that would finally make his stake profitable isn’t precisely world-shaking in the grand scheme of a game at that scale, but I love knowing that such details are out there for those who care to look.

2 thoughts on “By request: Environment as storytelling

  1. What a great topic! I love your point about how in open world games (though the whole game revolves around the environment in some respects) it’s actually harder to use the environment to tell a story than in more guided experiences.

    I first saw Super Mario Bros. when I was seven or eight. When I think back on those environments now, they still seem real to me. It’s hard to put the feeling into words, but I’m sure plenty of other people reading your article had the same experience. The world felt real, and exciting, and mysterious.

    When I look at the simple black backgrounds of Metroid’s caverns, there’s still some part of me that feels like they go on forever. Or at least, that there’s a whole other world that exists in the third dimension which I can’t access, but which my character can see. When games first started going 3D in the ’90s, I hoped that finally I’d get to be part of that, and suddenly I’D be in the world along with my character. In hindsight, there’s really something to be said for leaving it up to the imagination–it’s a uniquely powerful world-building tool.

    Maybe that’s part of what makes storytelling through the environment so effective. Rather than telling you the story, pieces of it are shown to you, and your imagination fills in the rest. Nothing makes a story feel more immediate or more real than when your own brain is doing the narration.

  2. An old favorite technique is taking a familiar area — in an RPG it tends to be the town you start out in — and bringing you back later to show you it’s been changed in some sinister way. The return to Gregminster at the end of Suikoden, when it’s a sepia-toned ghost town (and then again in Suikoden 2 when it’s thriving again). The scene in Final Fantasy 7 when Sector 7 gets obliterated and you see the damage on the playground.

    A related version of the trope is the “dark world” version, seeing the same locations depicted with noticeable differences, either because you’re switching between alternate realities (A Link to the Past, Metroid Prime 2) or because some plot event has altered the face of the world (Final Fantasy 5 to an extent, Final Fantasy 6 to a much greater extent).

    And then sometimes you get a sequel where you revisit a place from a previous game — Super Metroid might be the most striking example, though Castlevania’s all about iterating on the same locations over and over again. There’s also that bit in Zelda 2 where you find the first game’s world map (though later Zelda games don’t really worry about continuity in where any given location goes on the map). Dragon Quest 2 has you returning to Alefgard generations after the events of the first game, while DQ3 has you going there for the first time generations before the first game.

    I always like the show-don’t-tell stuff. And I think there’s a visceral reaction that games can produce when you encounter a place you’ve been before that doesn’t work quite the same in other media. (The closest analogue I can immediately think of is disaster movies — there’s a reason they tend to be set in New York City or Washington, DC, because they rely on showing familiar landmarks in unfamiliar contexts.)

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