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Level Four: Narrativity
Beat 3. Ambience
Memos & Memories
Although it falls squarely into the Narrativity territory, “environmental storytelling” hasn’t been mentioned so far for two reasons. First, the topic has been saved for this level’s finale because it’s the most important and most challenging task in this territory. In other words, it’s the level boss! Then, the term as such is a bit misleading and not as productive as one might wish. So we’re not going to use it.
Let’s start with the term. As it is generally defined in the literature and by papers and presentations, “environmental storytelling” fits our definition of “narrativity”—as discussed in this level’s Opening—in all relevant aspects. It’s about elements within a game world that are not stories as such, but constitute “embedded” narrative information that went through artistic abstraction. Which then “evoke” narrative associations in the mind of the player to deliver not story, but insights into and about the game world, particularly meaning. All that we can, and do, wholly agree with. But this very definition suggests that “storytelling” isn’t the best term because it isn’t about storytelling at all! “Environmental” is a bit better. It can cover all four perceptual domains including location/environment, setting, backstory, and lore. But it excludes the player who should develop their own story within that world, which can then become part of the location/environment, and eventually its backstory and lore, by leaving traces and being remembered. (Several examples of that will be discussed later in this beat.)
Thus, the Ludotronics paradigm adopts a different term: world narrative. This term was coined and developed by Tynan Sylvester in Designing Games, and it is much better suited and covers all important aspects.
Certainly, “narrative” isn’t the same as “narrativity,” but these terms are much closer to each other than either is to “story,” or “storytelling.” In brief:
Following from these premises, the world narrative has two key functions:
Let’s start with the first function, making the game world accessible to the player. This is related to, but by no means identical with, “exposition.” Exposition, in brief, consists of carefully selected information from your world narrative repository that you have decided to reveal to the player early in the game. It is part of your game’s dramatic structure and accordingly not discussed here but in Level Five: Architectonics.
Here, it’s about making the player familiar with the game world in general. For that, the four perceptual domains display a different hierarchy than in the previous two beats. It’s the mythological domain with its four compartments setting, location/environment, backstory, and lore that is on the forefront of weaving the world narrative, and it is supported by the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic domains.
Let’s look at each compartment in more detail and introduce some tools to jump-start your imagination.
This holds true for more general settings like science fiction, fantasy, final frontier, or contemporary; for more specific settings like Victorian steampunk or World War II; and for a brand-new, very peculiar setting that you’ve just made up as well. It’s about personal interests, one way or another. Even people with more eclectic leisure-time pursuits make buying decisions, and these buying decisions are based on their preferences. For potential buyers of action RPGs, for example, the setting will be crucial for deciding between Dragon Age: Inquisition or Mass Effect 3.
What are the major tools to deliver setting in a timely, natural, and elegant manner?
To get the most obvious option out of the way, you can obtain a license for a well-known intellectual property. (The pros and cons of licensing IPs is outside the scope of this treatise, but it’s mostly about weighing up licensing fees against marketing costs; working on something cool and cherished; and struggling to establish creative leeway.) If your game is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away or in the mines of Moria, or the player character has a double-0 in their name or excels at a team sport that’s played on flying broomsticks, your prospective player has a solid buying incentive and, as an additional benefit, can make meaningful decisions in that world right away from the start. But licensing an IP certainly has its drawbacks.
That out of the way, the first line of communication to get your setting across is your desire-driven goal, discussed at length in the Procedure phase’s Level Three: Tracing the Goal. This can be as elaborate as the examples we sketched for Unreal, Unreal Tournament 2003/2004’s Bombing Run mode, our game concept set against the French Revolution, and the game of Go. Or, it can be a compelling minimalist extract from your design-driven goal, like this example from Ernest W. Adams’s Fundamentals of Game Design: “The game at its grittiest. No pads, no helmets, no refs, no field. It’s just you and the guys, a ball, and a lot of asphalt. Choose up sides and go for it, two on two.” It compactifies a whole lot of setting elements into vivid mythical tropes that are easily understood.
Other lines of communication to disclose setting elements consist of everything from cover art to passage design. (Level Three: Plurimediality discusses both style and space and the design decisions involved.) By the time your player has digested your desire-driven goal, the cover art, the game description, the preference interface, and the introductory level, they should know your setting in accordance with your desired level of familiarity.
What about demos and trailers? Downloading, installing, and playing a demo level or two isn’t that far away in terms of effort and time from buying and downloading a game. Thus, by then, you should have communicated your setting quite well already. Trailers, on the other hand, can communicate your setting comprehensively, including style, space, mood, and so on, even plot. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing because it’s a completely different medium. The most important element in your game world is the player-controlled avatar. Without it, it’s just a movie clip. This will probably raise some eyebrows, but there are good reasons to advocate that cinematic game trailers should focus on creating atmosphere and stimulating curiosity, while all other tasks like communicating setting, characters, or gameplay should be left to dedicated in-game trailers.
To begin with, communicating location/environment with artistic abstraction techniques from your toolbox—archetypes, memes, chunks, associative relations, compression, simplification, exaggeration, metonymy/metaphor, symbolism, and so on, all channeled into artistic expressions—can define a level or a locale. With these tools, you can convey conditions like lawlessness, suburban affluence, repressed collective memories, economic upswing, simmering tension, grit and courage in difficult times, growing authoritarianism, rampant racism, and so on.
But these tools can also provide support for individual gameplay moments. For a specific beat, for example, your location/environment can convey a wrong turn, unnatural calm, spiritual potential, lingering malice, a decisive encounter, a momentous decision, impending loss, or comic relief. Remember, though, that we’re in the Narrativity territory, and such gameplay moments are not plot points but elements of your world narrative. As such, they communicate aspects and perspectives of your game world by evoking specific emotions in the player through narrative qualities or properties. They can augment and enrich a plot point, but the plot point must stand on its own. (And, not to forget, these gameplay moments should always relate to your theme or an associated motif.)
Let’s demonstrate the difference between a plot point, a world narrative that defines a level or locale, and a world narrative that defines a individual gameplay moment with the help of an example. In the Procedure phase’s Level Two: A Travel Guide to Motifs, we sketched a first-person single-player adventure game with a cinematological core. As a refresher, its theme is “identity,” and the main character discovers, explores, and struggles to preserve—and defend—their “otherness” against assimilation by an all-encompassing mainstream culture. Also, they can discover relevant cultural artifacts, including artifacts that other players have created and left behind, that might reveal hitherto unknown aspects of their culture.
For our beat, the player character has been led to a hitherto unexplored urban district to find such an artifact. How would that scene play out if it were a plot point, a world narrative element that defines a level or a locale, or a world narrative element that supports a individual gameplay moment?
Each of these three options, in turn, will allow or restrict subsequent game design decisions. The plot point option will probably be well-suited to progress the main quest; the locale option to offer a collection of side quests; and the gameplay moment option might be part of a sequence of beats to let the player character grow emotionally.
As an aside, if you already tinker with the idea of combining all three options into one: this is a video game, not a nineteenth century German novella. Don’t cram everything into one beat, even if it looks both possible and attractive.
To some extent, this prejudice against backstory is a residuum from the early age of video games. With the technology available at the time, any backstory printed on the back of a cartridge box or inside a manual was way beyond what could be accomplished in code, and therefore not at all likely to correspond to actual gameplay in any recognizable way. The same was true, during this early period, for concept art versus game graphics, which can serve as a reference point. There is an astounding unlikeness between the original cover art and in-game footage from Atari 2600 games like Space Invaders or Star Ship, and the contrast between backstory and gameplay in both cases is in the same ballpark. (As Chris Crawford put it, this time in On Interactive Storytelling, “You’d read grandiose tales in the manual and then confront orange and purple squares buzzing about on the screen.”) Yet, such backstories were not perfectly gratuitous; they served a marketing purpose, and that counts for something. Over time, though, all that has changed with advances in technology. Video games are now able to accommodate anything that concept art or backstory can throw at them. Backstory, just like concept art, has become translatable into code and into the game itself, forming a substantial part of the world narrative in the sense introduced above.
As part of this world narrative, backstory serves the same basic dramatic functions that we discussed in this level’s Beat 2. Allocation. Its narrative qualities or properties can portray a character, communicate an insight into the game world, highlight an aspect related to the theme or its motifs, elicit an emotional response, advance player proficiency, or push the player toward the goal.
Unreal, as a venerable example, accomplishes all this with one of the most basic, but also most versatile tools you can find in this compartment: short log files or diary entries to read or listen to that the player character comes across. Some of these little pieces of information advance the plot. Some portray the character who has left the note behind. Many communicate insights about the world, its inhabitants, how things used to be, and what has changed during the alien invaders’ occupation. Many elicit an emotional response as miniature stories about hope, struggle, suffering, and defeat. And almost all of them advance player proficiency in terms of knowledge and understanding and push the player toward the goal, one way or another.
When the diary/log file element had been repurposed from creating puzzles to introducing world narratives, it was often hailed as the knight in shining armor who had come to redeem the long-standing problem of communicating backstory. Which it didn’t, of course. In-game, not all log files or diary entries are particularly plausible as to how, when, and why they are created and how they wind up in the player character’s path. Also, many games took to clobbering the player with an endless assault of diaries, log files, voice recordings, and assorted news briefs. It doesn’t mean that this tool is bad practice, far from it. It’s a question of measure and restraint. There is a huge difference between a short, succinct log entry that delivers emotionally charged glimpses into an unfamiliar world, as described above, and an interminable holographic illumination reminiscent of a poorly delivered thesis defense. (Yes, Horizon Zero Dawn is an immensely enjoyable game. But still.)
There’s one crucial backstory issue, however, that can rarely be solved with log files: the backstory of the player character. Unreal, our core example, evades it entirely—the player will never know more about the player character than that she, or he, is Prisoner 849. Many other famous games also didn’t bother with it in-game, like the marine from Doom or Gordon Freeman in the original Half-Life, relegating it to guides or manuals. Then again, the background of the player character is first and foremost a problem of exposition that has to be solved through dramatic techniques, stretching from player character amnesia (The Witcher) to purposefully hidden (Red Dead Redemption). But again, exposition belongs into the Architectonics territory, discussed more in-depth in Level Five: Architectonics.
Backstory, like lore, is text-heavy by nature, as written text or speech. Up to now, we’ve only examined the diary/log entry tool with its common variants like letters, tapes, voice recordings, loquacious holograms, and so on, as a tool type that covers individual and often private communication.
A related world narrative tool type for backstory is the collective and often public message: signposts, blackboards, information terminals, banners, protest signs, graffiti, PSAs, news headlines, news articles, television or radio broadcasts, commercials, and so on. Peculiarities from this type are codex entries, often endowed with special functions and rarely fully integrated into the gameplay, and item descriptions that reveal background information about the world but are often even less integrated than codex entries.
Yet another tool type are non-player characters who either communicate with each other, so that the player character can overhear them, or directly with the player. Most often, these speech events are used to communicate dramatically relevant content, which is almost always a terrible practice. What they should do instead is reveal world narrative through form: displays of emotion, attitude, language, word choice, and similar.
In the historical disciplines, it is often the case that the lore from a certain period cannot be reconstructed with sufficient certainty because nobody bothered to write it down, or even so much as entertained the idea. As remarked earlier, both backstory and lore are text-heavy. But while backstory tools are largely based on written text and recorded speech, with the occasional dialogue thrown in, lore tools are largely based on non-recorded private or public speech. And, surprise, no speech at all—for all the things that “go without saying” until the player character bumps right into them, often unpleasantly.
Here’s an example. If your player character picks up information on that stronghold in the mountains from the colony’s library, that’s backstory. If an official mentions to you that some people who went there mysteriously vanished, that’s still backstory. But when a non-player character is shocked that you want to go there to check it out, and tries to dissuade you because “everybody knows” that the stronghold is cursed with bad luck and possibly infested with demons, that’s lore. And that fanciful playground song you overheard, about the girl who went to the stronghold to learn what fear was? That’s lore too.
Now, imagine you travel to a city that you never visited before. Then you go to the farmer’s market and start pestering people with questions. What “secrets” should one know about this city? Have there been “strange rumors” lately? Are there things about which “y’all only dare to whisper?” This would not end well. Neither would it in any other time period or setting in real life.
Communicating lore by having the player milk a dialogue wheel to its last breath is not a recommended tool for this compartment.
What you should do instead is give the player the opportunity to watch and observe and then ask specific questions about what appears odd or inexplicable. For example, when non-player characters get uneasy over certain topics or have a habit of decorating their drapes with oodles of garlic. Alternatively, you can let the player just go about their business until non-player characters are startled or begin to look at the player character askance. Then the player can try and find out about what lore and what “goes without saying” bits they’ve missed.
The tools in this compartment, again, are artistic tools of abstraction—as discussed in this level’s Opening—to create pieces of art and myth with well-defined narrative qualities or properties.
Your player character can learn about local lore by listening to songs, chants, prayers, poetry, stories, tall tales, fairy tales, jokes and bantering, insults, proverbs and sayings, oaths, wild conspiracy theories, and all the “frozen metaphors” people use on a daily basis in their speech; by looking at paintings and photographs, sculpture, embroidery, quilts, rugs and tapestry, architecture and architectural peculiarities, and handicraft on the whole; by watching or attending festivities and festivals, rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, performances, children’s games, and drinking customs; and by taking part in day-to-day activities in general. Many if not all of these manifestations of lore can tell a miniature story, but the story is not the point. The narrative qualities and properties attached to these manifestations are the point.
All four compartments just discussed, setting, location/environment, backstory, and lore, should mutually reinforce each other. In some cases, the sum of these design decisions can become so integral to the game and to the gameplay that the world narrative is elevated to a character in its own right.
BioShock’s world narrative, for example, integrates all four compartments in such unique ways as to elevate itself to a dynamic, living manifestation of its theme. (As a reminder from the Procedure phase, developing a theme isn’t necessary to tell a good story, but to facilitate non-random, interconnected design decisions.) Reverse-engineering any theme is hard, but BioShock’s theme seems to be “greed”—from which all other problems follow, up to and including societal decay. In their 2010 GDC presentation “What Happened Here: Environmental Storytelling,” Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith pick one notable example from BioShock and demonstrate how the world narrative operates in this game. (Incidentally, Worch and Smith think it’s the other way around, with societal decay as the game’s theme and greed as a major motif, which is plausible as well.) In this particular beat, the player character comes across a dead resident of Rapture, crushed to death by the vending machine he had attempted to loot. This scene represents, in classic nutshell-manner, greed and its consequences (or, alternatively, societal decay and its consequences), and it subtly entraps or seduces the player to “adopt” the very same behavior that the world narrative exemplifies. (Picking up the money from the vending machine in this beat doesn’t look like a particularly terrible act, but decisions of the same kind will have to be made later on, which then operate on a much larger and more meaningful scale with substantial consequences.) Also, the world narrative carries over into the Architectonics territory by fulfilling dramatic functions (it employs the nutshell technique just mentioned, which is a technique that compresses the entire story of a book, movie, or game into one single allegorical scene or beat as a type of foreshadowing), and into the Interactivity territory as well by teaching the player where to find resources (and therewith adopt the questionable behavior all this is about). BioShock, after all, truly counts among the best-designed games ever released.
To wrap it up, your creative output using all these world narrative tools will most likely be visual, auditory, and kinesthetic for setting and location/environment, and most likely mythological in the form of text or speech for backstory and lore. If you’re not an artist and not a writer yourself, you can at least sketch everything your world narrative has to convey. With that, your team of artists and writers can then set to work, choose their tools, and begin to create.
Let’s move on to the second, less voluminous key function of the world narrative: making player actions accessible to the game world in ways that the game world gains an understanding of the player and changes in meaningful ways accordingly.
Here, “player” should always be read as a shorthand for “the actions and decisions made by the player and performed in the game world by their avatar, the player character,” which is technically more correct but unwieldy. As the player does not exist there, the game world cannot differentiate between player and player character anyway, so it won’t mind.
How the game world reacts to player actions should always be determined by two different parameters that go hand in hand: what the player accomplishes in the game world or not, and how the player accomplishes this or not.
Let’s say the player decides to fight a formidable demon instead of bribing it or taking a different route altogether and manages to subdue it. That’s the what. It’s a brutal fight that lasts for hours until the exhausted demon gives up. That’s the how. In what manner should the world react? People might hear about it through eyewitnesses or rumors, scribes might write about it in annals or chronicles, bards might sing about it, and demon lore pundits might analyze it on medieval talk radio, if there is such a thing. The important point is to scale the reaction correctly. The world should react to the event in principle (the what), and it should react to it in a manner appropriate to how the event played out (the how). Don’t have every non-player character in the game world automatically recognize the player character, awestruck, because that player character once won a fistfight against the bartender over an underfilled beer mug in Torgor’s Inn.
How strong and how famous was the adversary? How difficult was it to overcome that adversary? How well did it go? Who has heard about it from whom, and how might the story have been embellished (or lampooned) along the way? Would those who hear about it believe it, and would they be able to recognize the player character, and how? And so on.
Whether all this comes down to heroic recognition, comedic confusion, dramatic misunderstandings, or outright slapstick depends on the nature of your game and its theme. Moreover, all this doesn’t have to be realistic, or even plausible. Frequently in medieval poems and tales, early Arthurian legends prominently among them, everybody in the story world knows, precisely and instantaneously, what’s happening to any of the main characters at any time, when and how they succeed and when and how they screw up, and even their intentions. Always make your own rules that fit your game world best.
As a benchmark, there’s Hitman: Blood Money’s “notoriety system.” It tracks Agent 47’s actions both in terms of “what” and “how” in the most sophisticated ways—newspaper clips, witness accounts, the quality of sketch drawings based on witnesses, all this with a staggering love for detail and tangible consequences for further missions. This is an excellent example that has raised the bar considerably.
What’s more, there’s a detail that connects our two perspectives from this beat, making the game world accessible to the player and player actions accessible to the game world. In Designing Games, Tynan Sylvester points out how the just mentioned Hitman: Blood Money allows the player to keep track of their own narrative through press clippings that are generated after each mission. Other games have other ways to enable the player to track and archive their own narratives, but rarely as elegantly and as meaningfully embedded into the game world as in Hitman: Blood Money. To mention a few options, the player character can keep everything from a basic diary to a journal that records story beats, plot points, characters, and experiences in their inventory. Which, alas, many games lack—especially very long and very complex games like RPGs, as Allegra Frank rightfully laments in “RPGs Need In-Game Recaps to Help Us Out.” Another option, popular with racing games, is to record and later replay player actions. Then there are photo albums, as a final example—a technique that has evolved from fairly generic automatic screenshots to player characters making photos in-game with their smart phone, as in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.
However sophisticated, though, there’s still a lot of potential left for creative world narrative techniques. Again, use your imagination!
All this should be part of your world narrative design. Provide the means to make the world narrative accessible to the player, the means to make the player narrative accessible to the world, and the means to let both the world and the player remember what has transpired. That way, player actions will not just have consequences in the game world, but meaning.
The processes of artistic abstraction, the tools and techniques to attach narrative qualities or properties to visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and mythological content for meaningful gameplay moments and a memorable playing experience—all these will need top-notch professional input and execution from artists and writers. Among whom, of course, could be you.
Also, importantly, you need to sketch an intensity map, however rough, that corresponds to your level plan, your learning curves from the Interactivity territory, and your development arcs from the Architectonics territory.
After developing a handful of ideas, a few conceptual sketches to fill them with life, and a provisional intensity map, you need to ask yourself the usual questions. Will these ideas and sketches vibe with your target audience? Are they compatible with your value set and your USP? Do they always draw from your theme and motifs? Do they support the player motivation model and connect the player to the game world in terms of relatedness/community and infuse, through the power of emotional involvement, a sense of purpose and a worthwhile goal?
Should the answers to all these questions be yes, congratulations! You have beaten this level.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One and Level Six.
Level Two through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.