Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain
Using environmental storytelling in a game is a bit like raising a pet tiger. It takes a lot of work to pull off, but if you manage, the result is beautiful and will capture the imagination of anyone who lays eyes on it. But if something goes wrong, that project will destroy everything you love and probably rip out your throat. Well, maybe not that last part, but that still gives you a pretty good idea what havoc bad environmental storytelling can cause. Doing it well can improve a game immensely, but doing it poorly can undermine everything you tried to build. Not deadly, but not pleasant.
The reason environmental storytelling can have such a big impact is that it's meant to build up the world by embedding visual stories into the setting. When it's done right, the environment feels as alive and complex as our own world, which pushes us to explore it more. But done badly, it makes the setting feel flat and fake, ruining our immersion and loudly saying this isn't real, nothing to marvel at here. To show what I mean, I've gathered some of the best and worst examples of environmental storytelling in all of gaming, where relying on the environment helps or hurts the game world as a whole. Let's see how nasty a metaphorical tiger bite can be.
Recovered notes and recordings
The idea of high-society types lugging around giant tape-recorders might seem odd (sorry, eccentric), but BioShock's audio diaries serve such a useful function that you can forgive them for looking clunky. Specifically, they give you small peeks into the world of Rapture to help you unravel the mystery of why everyone's either dead or trying to murder you while their flesh melts off.
The diary-and-note mechanic (building the world up through first-hand accounts from people who live there) can be difficult to manage without giving too much away, since many games get too obvious and use them as big red X's to mark the plot twist. Thankfully, BioShock sidesteps that problem by using most logs to flesh out the world of Rapture, from a parent whose daughter has been turned into a Little Sister or a police chief who watches Andrew Ryan's transformation into a vicious tyrant. There are clues about the plot buried in there too, but since those decorative diaries seem just as important as their story-focused cousins, you won't realize what you've heard until you're curled up in a ball wondering how you could have missed it.
Recovered notes and recordings
The hidden diaries in Murdered: Soul Suspect give collectaholics something to do, and do a good job of not blowing the plot, but in the end they swing too far the other way and end up being irrelevant. Most hone in on the lives of various characters, like Ronan's wife Julia and his nemesis Baxter, which sounds like it should enhance the game's noir vibe. But it quickly becomes obvious that those characters have little connection to the world around you and don't affect the plot much, so any examination of their lives is largely a waste of time.
Granted, some of Murder's notes do contain fun tidbits, like the fact that Ronan named his gun after his mother for reasons he should probably work out with a professional. But the moment you put that note down it disappears from your mind, because it doesn't have any real impact. We're given no real reason to care about these characters, since they barely affect the plot and aren't particularly interesting, so their observations about the world don't end up meaning much. As a result, the level of attention they get from these notes feels wasted. The magazine in the basement of the apartment building looks like a better read, and you can't even pick it up.
If you don't think a child's Crayola masterpiece could leave you misty-eyed, find one the next time you're playing The Last of Us. This game gives you plenty of space to poke around the remnants of the old world, and it's not just generic piles of trash or overgrown cars either. These are detailed environments that demand your attention and a little somber thought.
Maybe it's a busted-up library, or an office full of simple trinkets, or a kid's room with posters, books, and toys still in place. The fact that each location is unique and familiar in a way that's inconsistent with the hellhole Joel and Ellie are swimming through highlights how important this stuff is, since it's all that remains of the lives that unfolded here. That in and of itself is a story, of the things we take for granted and the people who left it all behind. You can't help but wonder what happened to them, and that's how the world grows inside your mind.
You know how in driving scenes in old movie (or bad modern ones), you can tell that the world out the back window is just a picture on a green screen and there isn't really anything there? The world of The Order: 1886 feels like that, where decorations meant to flesh out fantasy-London are flimsy and paper thin, and if you're not careful you might punch through them and ruin the whole shot.
As opposed to The Last of Us, where every picture on an old desk has meaning, set-pieces in The Order are all fluff and no substance. Sure, that poster of a man on an oversized bicycle is cool, but all it does is shout "SO VICTORIAN" without actually telling you about the bizarre, werewolf-y place you're supposed to be in. Even actionable items have this problem, because when the game encourages you to inspect a random smoking pipe with no clue why you're doing it, you're going to be a lot more confused than enlightened. Is it special somehow? Who does it belong to? Is there a clue inside about where the werewolves are? What's the answer??
Jet Set Radio may be grinding toward its fifteenth birthday (which is like 107 in video game years), but it still has plenty to teach contemporary games about the art of tagging. Jet Set uses graffiti not just as a gameplay mechanic, but to tell you something about the world of Tokyo-to and the West Side Story back-up dancers - I mean gang members - who occupy it.
Each gang you encounter has their own unique style, and while that's apparent in their elaborate fashion choices (it takes confidence to wear a mummy costume out in public everyday), each group's graffiti helps strengthen their sense of identity and gives the world more flavor. You can also add your own art to the game's original version, letting you inform the style of the game in a way that's specific to you. And yeah, you spend a lot of time painting over as much of your rival gang's street art as possible, but that doesn't take away from the impression you get from their style and where their work pops up. A mummified cube painted at the pinnacle of a skyscraper? What an artistic/completely badass soul.
Oh my God, we get it already. Almost any game where society has collapsed due to some sort of apocalyptic happening has so much graffiti scattered around the world that it ultimately stops being meaningful. Sure, it's cool the first time you see a compelling message like "No One Leaves" or "You'll Die Before We Starve", but after finding it written three or four times in the exact same configuration, it starts to lose its oomph.
While making the most of resources is fine (it's unlikely any player is going to see every place where "Rats are eating our babies" is scrawled across the wall), many games get too comfortable with the idea, so if you're paying attention to the environment at all you're going to be sick of it halfway through. Now suddenly an attempt to make the world feel more organic and alive has backfired, and we see that texture asset for exactly what it is.
Silent Hill is creepy 100% of the time, but sometimes it's a bit less subtle about it than others. While the foggy, largely-deserted landscape of the 'normal' Silent Hill is unnerving, the 'nightmare' Silent Hill is a hellscape of blood-splattered torture machines and that removes any uncertainty about whether or not you're in a safe place (you're welcome). Plus, the whole town likes to shift from one to the other at random, taking you out of an already uncomfortable situation and spinning you around so you're lost and confused and terrified. It's like the world's worst game of pin the tail on the donkey, except the donkey's a mutilated corpse.
This spontaneous world-shifting is used to great effect in the first game in the series, establishing the town's sinister nature without giving away what's causing it or what murderous healthcare professional is going to fall on your head next. Even without being explicit, the changing environments communicate that something is very amiss, ensuring that you're appropriately scared without having to rely on anything cheap.
As ambitious as Final Fantasy VIII tries to be with its story and its many, many, many different plotlines, some of those choices don't exactly pan out. One of the most obvious is the concept of Time Compression, which is confusing from the get-go and not explained very well. Instead, the game tries to convey what Time Compression is while it's happening, through a series of rapid environmental shifts as our heroes catapult toward the future. And it does not work at all.
While the changes in setting might have been all right if there was context to show you where you'd landed, the game moves so fast that it never really gets around to it. All you see are psychedelic and/or featureless landscapes that give you no idea where you are, so you completely miss out on everything that's happening in your confusion. Apparently there's a lot going on too, because at that moment you're hurtling along the timestream and fighting every sorceress that ever lived, so that when Ultimecia dies she has no other body to jump into. Did you get that? Yeah, me neither.
One of the keys to making a game world feel alive is to create the sense that you aren't the center of the universe. You may be a world-renowned hero or a dreaded assassin who gets a lot of lips flapping, but real people are going to talk about things that are in no way related to your latest exploits. Dishonored makes a point of inserting those conversations into every location you visit, and even if people share a word about the bloodthirsty killer who's roaming the street, they spend a lot more time talking about whiskey and cigars.
While Dishonored does have its fair share of repeated dialogue (I wonder if that one guy ever got his own squad), most of its NPC exchanges are unique, focusing on some aspect of Dunwall that gives the world character and meaning. You learn how the working class is treated by listening to maids complain about their bosses, and see how deep corruption runs by hearing guards bully a woman out of her rations. And yes, some of those conversations are mission-relevant, but you have to know what you're looking for to figure it out. Oh, a brand that marks anyone stamped with it for instant banishment? Do go on.
Hearing NPCs spout the same bit of dialogue over and over again isn't ideal, but it won't necessarily bring your disbelief crashing down in a hail of arrow-to-the-knee memes. That is, until you've heard every bit of NPC dialogue a hundred times over, the way you do in Assassin's Creed. That flattens the world faster than if it took a Leap of Faith off the tallest building in Jerusalem and completely missed the haystack.
While each entry in the series is guilty of this to a degree (with Unity doubling down, though that might've been a glitch), the platonic ideal of this problem is the very first AC. You'll often hear NPCs giving sermons and talking amongst themselves, which is meant to show there's a whole world outside of your existence and you're just a silent knife in the crowd. But those digital folks are limited to a few set remarks, so you'll probably hear most of what they have to say before you're done with the first mission. Eventually you can tell what someone's going to say after a single word, and it reminds you that as big and pretty as this city is, its inhabitants don't have much going on under the hood.
The hills are possibly alive
As video game stories grow in complexity and the worlds that contain them get more elaborate, we can probably expect these touchstones of environmental storytelling to survive into the near future. But every new release that passes through our consoles makes us that much better at detecting what works and what doesn't, and the evolution of these techniques will be interesting to watch. Which of these examples do you think worked the best? Which annoy the heck out of you? Did I miss your favorite aspect of environmental storytelling in my fixation on copy-paste graffiti, because it's seriously everywhere? Tell us in the comments below!