Don’t underestimate environmental storytelling

I’ve always loved video games, but I’m not that great at playing them. I either find them too hard, or I choose to use my free time in other ways, or no matter how much I enjoy a game I end up never finishing it. But my love for them remains strong.

Luckily, I’m engaged to an avid gamer, so now video games have become like interactive movies. I can enjoy them without experiencing any of the frustrations of playing them! Over time, graphics have improved by leaps and bounds, and with that improvement, game developers are able to better utilize environmental storytelling in a way that is somewhat exclusive to that medium.

Books have settings and environments, but they must rely solely on the writer’s description and readers’ imaginations. Movies have visual environments, of course, but the advantage that video games have over other visual mediums is interaction. We passively view a movie or television show and have no influence on the characters, settings, or events unfolding. With video games, we are the main character, and thus we can interact with the surroundings (sometimes to an almost unlimited extent). Some games, like the Witcher series, are so involved that they are like choose-your-own-ending books (remember those?), where every little decision you make will alter the path of the story and its conclusion.

Nowadays, advanced graphics allow more effective visual storytelling and interaction with an environment. Instead of looking at a block of green pixels and being told it’s a bush, now each leaf of the bush can be rendered in great detail, complete with breeze disturbance and bugs. So the specifics of a game’s environment can help tell the story as clearly as conversation between characters.

Courtesy of

Rapture, the setting in BioShock. Click through for a bigger version. Screencap from

In 2012, I attended PAX East with my gamer fiancé, and one of the two panels we sat in on (the lines truly are crazy at that convention) was about visual and environmental storytelling. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about that aspect as I watch all kinds of different video games. One of the games discussed at the panel was BioShock, and I think it’s one that uses environmental storytelling most effectively.

The underwater city of Rapture is as much a character in BioShock as the actual people you run into. Of course, that’s true in many video games and books. But Rapture stands out. From the start, with just visuals as your guide, you know something went terribly wrong—but for a large portion of the game, you have no idea exactly what. Because you also spend most of the gameplay in a first-person perspective, your visual cues come from your environment (with no aid from, say, the style or condition of the clothes your character is wearing), and every area of Rapture that you explore slowly reveals more of the story.

Click through for a bigger version. Courtesy of

Rapture, the setting in BioShock. Click through for a bigger version. Screencap from

There is a difference between a beautifully stylized game, like Okami (which is one of my favorites), and a game that uses stunning visuals to tell parts of the story that are never verbalized. That is the main reason BioShock stands out for me. Rapture is creepy from the minute you open the first door and see piles and piles of discarded luggage but no bodies anywhere. Everything is falling apart, including the few crazed people you eventually encounter. But there was much more going on in Rapture, and a large portion of those stories are only ever conveyed to you by one room or a decrepit store that you stumble upon.

In most games you can rifle through drawers, hack computers, or eavesdrop on conversations to learn additional information about characters, plots, or your character’s backstory. But not many have an interaction as personal as BioShock: you start to inject yourself with genetic modifications. Given the environment up to that point, you as the player can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen to your character, if the genetic modifications are what brought Rapture down in the first place. But your character is compelled in various ways and for various reasons to continue administering the injections, so for most of the game you must do so and await the consequences.

I find that most games that utilize visual storytelling best are games that aim for suspense or horror. The Silent Hill and Resident Evil games come immediately to mind in that regard, but any game in which you spend a lot of time wandering around alone has great potential for environmental storytelling. What can you convey in an abandoned room or city through the architecture, the objects present or missing, the state and type of decay? Who, if anyone, got left behind? Are there signs of a struggle, of violence, or is the area just vacant, as if everyone vanished? In BioShock, Rapture is clearly a ’50s version of a promising future. It just never fulfilled that promise.

Click through for a bigger version. Courtesy of

Rapture, the setting in BioShockClick through for a bigger version. Screencap from

This is one reason why I can’t consider video games a waste of time. Many games have great plots, but some of those stories are enhanced by detailed visuals. If you’re a writer, or any creative type of person, and you’re paying attention (which can be hard when you’re the one playing, I admit), you can learn a lot about storytelling in how a video game’s environment is constructed, in what they choose to show or tell, and how or why. Some of that doesn’t translate directly to writing, but it can still provide ideas for what information to withhold and for how long, or how to describe a scene or setting to convey parts of the story or certain emotions that you’d rather not state outright.

A piece of writing advice I see often is to read a lot, and while I agree with that, I don’t think it has to be so narrow. I think to improve your writing you should look at many different kinds of storytelling, and in mediums other than print, because you’d be surprised at how many techniques can carry over from one format to another. Environmental storytelling isn’t new by a long shot, but the way it’s utilized by video games can help a writer find better ways to use the setting to their advantage in their own stories.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Art, Random, Random thoughts, Video games and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Don’t underestimate environmental storytelling

  1. Dave says:

    Loved this post, Nicole. I’m a big video game fan from way back in the early days (think Atari here). Speaking of environmental storytelling, check out the opening sequence of Batman: Arkham Asylum. The game is a few years old but I just got around to trying it recently. While I suck at the game (and have pretty much every game since Super Mario), the environment, the characters and the game play are quite amazing.

    And I agree … I think we can gain much as writers from all creative art forms, video games included. Just as you showed above. Thanks for another great post!

    • Batman: Arkham Asylum is one of my favorite games! The year it came out I had a Halloween party themed after it (I dressed as The Scarecrow). I agree with you that it’s another good example of utilizing the environment to help tell the story, although in my opinion it doesn’t go quite as far into that as BioShock does (which, if you haven’t played BioShock, I recommend trying it!). But Arkham Asylum does use some great environmental storytelling when it comes to side characters and side quests in particular (I’m thinking of some of the villains’ cells that you stumble into as you creep around the asylum).

      As always, thank YOU for reading and commenting. 🙂

      • Dave says:

        Awesome. I’m still early in the game, so it sounds like there’s a lot to look forward too. I bet the Halloween party was fun, especially if everyone participated. I’ve heard of BioShock but haven’t yet tried it. I’ll give it a go once I finish Batman 🙂

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