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Interactive Storytelling - Narrative Techniques and Methods in Video Games

Mike Shepard, Author
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Environmental Storytelling

Portal, Dead Space, Fallout 3, Bioshock, Metroid Prime

If video games shared their entire narrative in dialogue and cutscenes, the medium would be little more than a film with interactive portions.  Games can do a lot of storytelling in their interactive portions, especially through the environment.  “Environmental storytelling creates the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience in at least one of four ways: spatial stories can evoke pre-existing narrative associations; they can provide a staging ground where narrative events are enacted; they may embed narrative information within their mise-en-scene, or they provide resources for emergent narratives.” (Jenkins, 2004) Many games rely heavily on the embedding of narrative information within mise-en-scene, a term used to describe design aspects in production.  It examines set design, lighting, costuming, and so on in how they contribute to the narrative.

For example, look to Portal (2007).  For a some time, players explore the Aperature Science facility: it’s white, pristine, clean, and very deliberately organized, with GLaDOS watching every move.  But a number of test rooms into the facility, players can stumble across and enter a busted hole in one of the otherwise perfect walls, prompting GLaDOS to wonder where you went.  Inside, amid the boilerwork of Aperture’s inner-workings, players can discover the maddening scrawls of someone called ‘the Ratman’ who writes on about cakes and lies and how she is watching.  Environmental storytelling.  What players have been exposed to, the white, perfect rooms of Aperture, gives way to deeper, troubling factors: the cake you are promised is a lie, whatever that means, something is far more sinister than sarcastic with GLaDOS, there is an entire area of Aperture behind the walls that you may never see, and you may not be alone in the facility.  All of this can be assumed through the environment, and it all adds to the narrative experience.  As the player progresses, they can encounter more of these rooms, reinforcing what they may have inferred in an earlier hidden room.  Entrance and exploration of the rooms is not required to complete Portal, but it tells a story unto itself, just by using the environment around it.

Dead Space (2008) tells the greater part of its story through its environment: exploring the USG Ishimura, players can see the destruction that an outbreak has left in its wake.  Bodies and carnage everywhere, yes, but the panicked, bloody messages on the walls, the strange symbols and objects drawn and carved into the ship’s halls, all lend to the setting and the story.  After seeing and understanding how Necromorphs move around the ship (through the ventilation, if the image is unclear), players begin to view every vent on the ship with trepidation, influencing the story in that way, through the player’s reactions.  Further, the textual, audio, and video logs left by crew members magnifies the experience, adding to the story in a way that just following the main plot doesn't, at least not to the most effective degree.

Fallout 3 (2008) relies heavily on the visual, from the well-kept, sickeningly clean interior of Vault 101 to the ravaged overworld of the Capital Wasteland, both in the open and in the remains of Washington D.C.  Looking closer at some areas may give way to ‘between the lines’ stories: toys and playground remains in a small grouping of houses, alcohol in a cubicle’s file cabinets, a pair of scorched skeletons in a destroyed house, and a failed motorcycle ramp-trick, all tell a story about the world the player is exploring.  However, they are stories that, unlike the quests and main narrative, the player can have no narrative impact on; they are only observers to an event long past.  Even in a moment that they could have no hand in, good or bad, it helps to suck players into the world, telling stories through objects and places instead of dialogue. 

Bioshock (2007) does more enforcing than it does telling: when players enter Rapture, they see it’s not the glistening, underwater metropolis they thought they saw, but a genetics-fueled nightmare straight out of hell’s darkest recesses.  They can see that through the grisly trophy-bodies, the dead overdosers, the bloody graffiti, but what sells the entire point is in the combat: the enemies, as Weise discusses.  “A world full of madness and death is one in which all people behave as expected: violently or not at all.” (Weise, 2008)

The crazed residents of Raptures, Splicers, have mentally devolved from their overuse of Plasmids and other genetic enhancements, and it shows through the very existence: their movements, wild and flailing; their voice, panicked and paranoid; their appearance, deformed and grotesque from Plasmid overuse.  Everything about them enforces the ideas of Rapture introduced to the player: it’s terrifying, terrible, and has transformed even the greatest minds into animals.  Conversely, one can look at the Big Daddies to understand another side of the story.  Big Daddies will bang on portholes throughout Rapture, summoning Little Sisters to gather genetic material from Rapture’s dead, and will protect Little Sisters unto their death.  At points after a Little Sister has been removed from the field by harvesting or freeing them, Big Daddies will still knock on portholes, but after seeing no Little Sisters coming out, will turn and leave in a sullen defeat.  Both their unwavering defense of the Little Sisters and apparent sadness at their absence tells a story within itself, same as every aspect of a Splicer adds to what players learn about Rapture and its collapse.

For an older and novel example, there was Metroid Prime (2002) on the Nintendo Gamecube.  Exploring numerous areas that the player was totally unfamiliar with, it was almost a necessity to learn about Tallon IV, the setting-planet, through the environment.  Prime does a great job conveying story through the environment: players can strongly assume that Tallon IV was the home to a great civilization, the Chozo, before something drove them out.  Likewise, players can infer about the strange experiments and resource harvesting from Space Pirate establishments and facilities.  Prime takes it to a different level by encouraging players to use a Scan Visor, a vision mode that allows the main character, Samus, to scan the area around her for important information.  The Chozo left detailed lore about their world’s fall, and the Pirates recorded their scientific and militaristic exploits, all of which can be scanned for more information, weight to what’s going on around the player.
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