As a narrative designer with a background in architecture and production design I'm often asked "What does narrative design have to do with environmental storytelling?” So much! Every piece of the built environment is presenting the design team’s story. An architect wants a user in their designed space to have a specific emotional reaction, and they want that reaction to motivate the user into specific actions.
Two quick IRL examples: The bright colors and hard surfaces of a McDonald’s motivates a customer to quickly order, eat, and leave. Alternatively, a luxurious restaurant with soft banquettes and dim lighting invites their customers to linger and order another expensive bottle of wine.
It's the same for games. The game development team wants the player to see the environment, read the spatial, textural, and iconographic clues, have a specific emotional response, and be motivated to take specific actions.
The designed environment is a character in the game. It tells the player the story of this the world, and... it tells the player how they should feel about their place in that world.
I’ve paired four real-life architectural examples with game architecture to talk about environmental storytelling in games.
Let’s start with Architectural History 101, Gothic Cathedrals. These monumental sacred spaces were designed convey a story to an often-illiterate congregation. Through built form, the Catholic Church was telling its members how to relate to God.
In the cathedral, humans are small and living in darkness. God is high above, out of reach, shining light down from the clerestory. In front of the Cathedral through a locked gate, God’s light shines only on those who have been anointed as God’s representative.
These colossal cathedrals are simultaneously inspiring and humbling. There is something exquisite just beyond my human grasp. I am a tiny human experiencing wonder at something mystical and unattainable.
That duality is captured beautifully in thatgamecompany’s Journey. Without a single word in the game, the story is told through the environment. The architecture is truly colossal. The player is but a tiny traveler battling the monumental natural and architectural puzzles.
In the scene shown above, after completing a dimly lit level, the diminutive player is drawn toward the shafts of light that pierce the darkness. When I reached this point, I felt small and yet in awe, compelled to persist toward my goal of enlightenment.
Gateways! I love a beautiful gateway. They’ve been used at sacred sites for millennia. They function as way-finding—here’s the entrance. Signage – what am I getting into? And most importantly for me, as a portal. Once I step through that gateway, I am in another realm.
When I enter a sacred temple, I am on holy ground. Perhaps I will be quieter, more reverent, more appreciative of the world inside? As a sensitive person, I can feel the energy change. Once through the gateway I am in a space, or sequence of spaces that has been curated and manicured to uplift, and with many religions, to inspire a bit of piety.
That story and emotional reaction comes from my trained “reading” the symbolism of the arch. It also comes from my feeling when passing through it. The arch defines a tangential boundary between two abutting spaces, and an opening between those two spaces, a transition point.
Does anyone else feel the energy change at transition spaces, or is it just the architect in my head?
In Double Fine’s Psychonauts2 the gateway to the Questionable Area makes the same transition. Like at the temple, walking through this gateway clearly delineates that we have left the ordinariness of the parking lot and are now entering a place where the fun happens. This archway tells us where we are in space and how we should feel about ourselves in this space. You have transitioned into a new realm, and things are about to get... “Questionable."
Let’s talk about fear. And let’s talk about balancing claustrophobia with curiosity and persistence. One of my favorite places in the real world is Venice. I love wandering away from the crowds and hunting for hidden gems of architecture. Without any welcoming signage, lighting, or colorful clue at the end of the tunnel, these narrow dark alleys tell me I shouldn’t keep going. But if every bit of Venice was easily accessible, it wouldn’t feel like a treasure hunt. If I didn’t ignore the story of potential danger that the built environment is conveying, I wouldn’t get satisfaction. For great architecture, I will risk walking down dark alleys, getting lost in a maze of mini-piazzas, or even trespassing on a private event. With that kind of risk comes the reward of discovering a hidden masterpiece.
Now let’s take that persistence and curiosity and add the risks of being underwater, in the dark, and in a maze-like cave. I’ve never felt such claustrophobia as in the Jellyshroom Caves of Unknown Worlds Entertainment's Subnautica. I go there in search of the rare gems that I need to build my Seamoth.
The same visual clues are there, telling me the same story – Are you sure you want to come in here?
Those caves are perfectly designed. They have just the right amount of treasure and lore to push me through darkness, confusion, disorientation, lack of air, and lack of energy. I scooted out of those caves so many times, petrified that I would get lost and get stuck. The environment tells the story that you are engaging in risky behavior. Planet 4546B is truly a character in the game.
And Banality. Let’s talk about the fear of the banal. The thing that scares me the most about Remedy Game’s Control, is how much (except for the bodies floating by the ceiling) it looks like my real life. I’m that old. My first work environments were in 70’s Brutalist style office buildings with typewriters, steno notebooks, and carbon paper on every desk.
That’s one of the best kinds of creepy… something horrible has happened in someplace that otherwise seems perfectly normal. However, looking objectively at the photo of the real-life office building it’s pretty scary too. I know that those secretarial stations were 99% occupied by women, and almost 0% by POC. Everything is controlled, aligned, and tidy. What a nightmare! What’s the story in that secretarial pool? With modern materials and enough open space we can design an office so efficient that it runs like a machine. Have you heard the architectural design phrase “Machine for Living?" That was supposed to be a positive idea. Do humans even work there? I know that we did. I was there. I even designed some of this kind of office. But yikes!
Photos like that are going give future cultural anthropologists lots to talk about. They’re gonna come up with some good stories about what the built form is saying about humanity in that era.
I could happily talk on and on about the stories that built environments are telling. As a narrative designer I recognize that the environment can tell a whole lot of the game story without needing dialogue or words on the screen. It’s a powerful tool to orient, inspire, and compel the player. If you have any thoughts, let me know what you think about how narrative design works with environmental storytelling.