The Philosophy, Art, and Social Influence of games
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J T
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Environmental Storytelling

by J T Sat Jul 10, 2010 12:40 pm

Video games struggle with how to tell a good story. Traditional stories are told with their own pacing and developmental arc. The way the story unfolds plays with suspense, tension, buildup, and climax.

Gamers muck all that up. It's hard to hold the story arc together when somebody dies 1500 times in the first act before any real character development has happened, or when midway through the story, just before the climax is about to reach its peek, the player suddenly stops to devote several months to raising chocobos in the middle of their quest to save the world.

Other times, story is used as a reinforcer for your gameplay skill. If you prove you are a good little lab rat by pushing controller buttons several hundred times, you will finally get your reward of further storyline, but then why bog the story down with all the obnoxious level grinding and fetch quests instead of just telling a good story?

More recently, games have begun to let the environment tell the story. Left 4 Dead has writing on the walls to let you know something about what is happening. Bioshock's "Rapture" is a decayed utopia that's undoing becomes clearer the further you explore. The backrooms of Portal show that what once appeared to be simple testing chambers appear to have become elaborate torture chambers devised by a sentient computer that found her consciousness and that consciousness is a cruel bitch. The story of these games is not told through cut scenes and exposition. Instead, the environment is rich and interesting and full of clues to something that has happened. The story is understood through exploration. As you play through, you unravel the world and the story depends on how well you pay attention to what is happening around you. The real benefit of this environmental storytelling is that it allows the story to continue happening while you are playing the game.

This seems to be one of the better innovations in gaming storytelling, but there are inherent limitations. A person has to notice key aspects of the environment or they may miss crucial story points. Older literary conventions that create tension and release are still important, but difficult to integrate into the interactive environment. It feels like our medium is still young and developing as a mode for telling stories, but it is also at risk for stagnating in old conventions of cut scenes or scripted cinematic moments. What is the best way to tell a video game story?
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by Ziggy587 Sat Jul 10, 2010 1:27 pm

I think a good ratio of environment to cut scenes is key. I've ranted a few times about how I can't play FFX because the cut scenes make up most of the game. In the end, you watch the game more than you're playing it. But that being said, no, the story can not be told purely by the environment. As you said, JT, you could miss big parts of the story that way.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by Ack Sat Jul 10, 2010 5:43 pm

I think a mix of the two work very well. A continuous plot with a beginning, middle, and end works for us because that is how we as human beings perceive stories. So a game plot needs those points.

But the difference between a video game and a film, book, or story is the interactivity of the world. Yes, sometimes it's as limited as a quick time event, where a single button press may decide the course of the plot. In Resident Evil 4, quick time events decide if you live or die. In Heavy Rain, the quick time event takes a much more drastic turn. Consider the middle ground in Mass Effect 2, where quick time events can alter the story, but they are far fewer than Heavy Rain and aren't nearly as rigid as RE4's instant death. In all three situations, your interaction affects what happens, though it's only a limited button press.

Some games go in a different direction, such as Silent Hill 2(definitely a title that deserves being mentioned in any thread about environmental storytelling). As we know, Silent Hill 2 went so far as to use the monster design to detail specific themes related to the plot. Or take environments like in Psychonauts, where level design is setup in such a way to convey characters' mental states.

Honestly, I think we see quite a bit of innovation. The biggest problem I see is that some developers get too caught up in the action to think about it. But even then, there should be a subconscious effect on both the developers making the game and the players, much like the writer of a novel who unknowingly implants certain themes and the reader who unknowingly picks them up.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by flamepanther Thu Oct 28, 2010 4:18 pm

Ack wrote:Some games go in a different direction, such as Silent Hill 2(definitely a title that deserves being mentioned in any thread about environmental storytelling). As we know, Silent Hill 2 went so far as to use the monster design to detail specific themes related to the plot. Or take environments like in Psychonauts, where level design is setup in such a way to convey characters' mental states.
Another fantastic thing Silent Hill 2 did was to allow the player to unconsciously influence the story through the gameplay itself, by gauging their playing style and tailoring the main character's personality to match. IMHO, this is a much better idea than either having a set story line and attempting to drag the player through it, or simply having a branching story line determined by a few brief choices or optional accomplishments.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by Gamerforlife Thu Oct 28, 2010 4:59 pm

Ack wrote:I think a mix of the two work very well. A continuous plot with a beginning, middle, and end works for us because that is how we as human beings perceive stories. So a game plot needs those points.

But the difference between a video game and a film, book, or story is the interactivity of the world. Yes, sometimes it's as limited as a quick time event, where a single button press may decide the course of the plot. In Resident Evil 4, quick time events decide if you live or die. In Heavy Rain, the quick time event takes a much more drastic turn. Consider the middle ground in Mass Effect 2, where quick time events can alter the story, but they are far fewer than Heavy Rain and aren't nearly as rigid as RE4's instant death. In all three situations, your interaction affects what happens, though it's only a limited button press.

Some games go in a different direction, such as Silent Hill 2(definitely a title that deserves being mentioned in any thread about environmental storytelling). As we know, Silent Hill 2 went so far as to use the monster design to detail specific themes related to the plot. Or take environments like in Psychonauts, where level design is setup in such a way to convey characters' mental states.

Honestly, I think we see quite a bit of innovation. The biggest problem I see is that some developers get too caught up in the action to think about it. But even then, there should be a subconscious effect on both the developers making the game and the players, much like the writer of a novel who unknowingly implants certain themes and the reader who unknowingly picks them up.


You mentioned Mass Effect 2. I just have to say that is the best use of quick time events I've yet seen in a game. It's simple, intuitive and the focus is not on figuring out which button on the controller you need to hit, but on you make a split second decision that effects the story. In this way, it feels like a natural extension of the game and not a cheap gimmick like practically every other game that uses them today. I've been playing ME 2 again recently, so this stood out. I also have to say, ME 2's storytelling is on a whole other level compared to some japanese rpgs out there. God, it makes Final Fantasy 13's story seem like something for toddlers.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by MrPopo Thu Oct 28, 2010 5:48 pm

Gamerforlife wrote:
Ack wrote:I think a mix of the two work very well. A continuous plot with a beginning, middle, and end works for us because that is how we as human beings perceive stories. So a game plot needs those points.

But the difference between a video game and a film, book, or story is the interactivity of the world. Yes, sometimes it's as limited as a quick time event, where a single button press may decide the course of the plot. In Resident Evil 4, quick time events decide if you live or die. In Heavy Rain, the quick time event takes a much more drastic turn. Consider the middle ground in Mass Effect 2, where quick time events can alter the story, but they are far fewer than Heavy Rain and aren't nearly as rigid as RE4's instant death. In all three situations, your interaction affects what happens, though it's only a limited button press.

Some games go in a different direction, such as Silent Hill 2(definitely a title that deserves being mentioned in any thread about environmental storytelling). As we know, Silent Hill 2 went so far as to use the monster design to detail specific themes related to the plot. Or take environments like in Psychonauts, where level design is setup in such a way to convey characters' mental states.

Honestly, I think we see quite a bit of innovation. The biggest problem I see is that some developers get too caught up in the action to think about it. But even then, there should be a subconscious effect on both the developers making the game and the players, much like the writer of a novel who unknowingly implants certain themes and the reader who unknowingly picks them up.


You mentioned Mass Effect 2. I just have to say that is the best use of quick time events I've yet seen in a game. It's simple, intuitive and the focus is not on figuring out which button on the controller you need to hit, but on you make a split second decision that effects the story. In this way, it feels like a natural extension of the game and not a cheap gimmick like practically every other game that uses them today. I've been playing ME 2 again recently, so this stood out. I also have to say, ME 2's storytelling is on a whole other level compared to some japanese rpgs out there. God, it makes Final Fantasy 13's story seem like something for toddlers.
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J T
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by J T Thu Oct 28, 2010 5:57 pm

flamepanther wrote:Another fantastic thing Silent Hill 2 did was to allow the player to unconsciously influence the story through the gameplay itself, by gauging their playing style and tailoring the main character's personality to match. IMHO, this is a much better idea than either having a set story line and attempting to drag the player through it, or simply having a branching story line determined by a few brief choices or optional accomplishments.


It does? I never knew that. That's a very cool idea. How does it do it?
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by flamepanther Thu Oct 28, 2010 8:21 pm

J T wrote:It does? I never knew that. That's a very cool idea. How does it do it?
It watches how far or close you tend to keep from the NPCs, what type of places or objects you choose to investigate, and how obsessively you watch your health. I had heard at one point that your character confronts his problems more directly if you tend to attack enemies rather than running from them. However, doing some quick research on it just now, I'm not sure whether this is true. It would be pretty cool if it is.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by Flake Thu Oct 28, 2010 10:26 pm

See: Metroid Prime

You want story? Scan shit and you'll get an awesome (and kinda creepy) tale.

Don't care? Then just shoot everything that moves until the credits roll.
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Re: Environmental Storytelling

by alienjesus Thu Oct 28, 2010 10:41 pm

flamepanther wrote:
J T wrote:It does? I never knew that. That's a very cool idea. How does it do it?
It watches how far or close you tend to keep from the NPCs, what type of places or objects you choose to investigate, and how obsessively you watch your health. I had heard at one point that your character confronts his problems more directly if you tend to attack enemies rather than running from them. However, doing some quick research on it just now, I'm not sure whether this is true. It would be pretty cool if it is.


I've heard of this feature in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, but not SH2. Maybe you have them confused. Shattered Memories also alters the appearance of other characters to correspond to how you act.

I've not played either, so maybe SH2 does do it too.
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