Hey there, Gamers and Game Makers!
This week, I want to talk a little about something that a lot of game developers still overlook when creating game worlds. The world as a character. So, what do I mean when I say the world is a character? Well, pretty much just that. The world your game is set in is as much a character in the game as the player or any other character.
Just like any character paramount to the games story, the game world should feel like it's a real living place and not just some place holder to facilitate the players actions and story. The world needs to feel like it has a past, a future and that your actions affect it and the people in it. Making the world feel real and how it portrays narrative elements effectively is down to good level design.
A great example of narrative design and level design working together is in "The Last of Us" Naughty Dog are masters at creating stories and building worlds that feel real. In The Last of Us" there's so many little moments in a scene where the games world is telling you elements of a story without the use of an NPC or a cutscene. This is called environmental storytelling.
Environmental storytelling is a key tool in creating a world that feels like it's been lived in and gives you the impression that it's affected by more than just your actions. Environmental storytelling is also a great tool for teaching the player basic gameplay without the need of a cutscene or needless or out of place dialogue. Let's take a look at "Dead Space" When you arrive in the nightmare that has fallen upon the space station, you have no idea what you're up against or how to defeat it. However, people have already been there and know what these monsters are and how to kill them. The game makes use of environmental storytelling by literally telling the player how to kill the monsters. In the image below we see a very grim message wrote on the wall in blood.
Now while this is a very simple piece of environmental storytelling, it is very effective on two fronts. First, it makes the player tell a story in their head as to what might have happened here. We could think something along the lines of a survivor found out through a fatal encounter with one of the monsters how to kill them and wrote it on the wall in blood as to help anyone that should follow. It also on a gameplay level teaches the player how to approach combat. Rather than going for body shots, we now know that the best way to defeat them is to cut off their limbs. We learn all this simply through good environmental storytelling and level design and the game never breaks the sense of fear and immersion while doing so.
When designing a level, it's important to keep in mind what information you want to convey to the player and what the best method of doing that is. If it's to teach the player a key gameplay component like in the example above, then it's important to relay that information to the player sooner rather than later and in a very clear way that doesn't confuse them but still feels natural to the levels design.
If you're trying to tell small stories through set pieces in a scene, then think of the story you want to tell the player and focus on how you can best tell that story through environmental storytelling. The key is to use clear symbolism and as few words as possible. The best environmental storytelling will be clear enough that it makes sense but also alows the player the freedom to form that story in their head in their own way.
Some games that are great for this are the "Bioshock" games and "Portal". Each one conveys the story it's trying to tell through it's level design but allows the player to put the pieces together in their head,
A studio who I feel doesn't get enough credit for how well they handle environmental storytelling is Bethesda. Just look at the likes of Skyrim and Fallout. To craft good environmental storytelling in a linear game is one thing but, to take an open world game and add detailed storytelling through set pieces is very hard. Next time you're playing Fallout 4 just stop for a moment a take a look at the scene and I bet you'll see some very interesting environmental storytelling going on.
Ok, folks, that about does it for this week's blog post. When you're thinking of how you want to tell stories in your games, think about all the ways you can tell it through good level design and environmental storytelling. I only touched on the basics with this post and I'll probably write a more detailed post in future covering the process of level design and narrative storytelling in games.
In the meantime, if anyone has any questions or suggestions, feel free to get in touch. Until next time, folks!