Setting a scene in a story, no matter the medium, benefits from attention to detail. The best video games have taken this art to new levels. It has to, if the player is allowed to poke around in every corner of the scene. In fact, the setting often forms the core of the story. Building an environment around a culture or set of characters gets lumped in to “world-building” among writers, but it’s something all writers do, when they select the objects a character owns or the kind of house they live in.
Environment design is a nebulous discipline in game design and animation, ranging from laying out virtual buildings to lighting scenes and placing clutter. Creating a game environment with a strong story is the secret to “immersion.”
Myst was a pioneer of the type of game that let you stumble into a story and solve a mystery, namely, “What happened to all these people?” It’s the spiritual ancestor to games like Bioshock and Portal, both praised for their storytelling and immersion, even though there are few characters to interact with. These games have the same appeal as opening up a time capsule. When you walk through an abandoned building, every object is a record of the people who left it behind.
In the real world, archeologists piece together a lost people’s story by examining their material culture. My favorite museum displays arrange those objects, or rather replicas, in context – so you can walk around a 19th century blacksmith’s shop and imagine how horseshoes were made. The recreated hammers can seem more real than the rusted ones displayed safely under glass. The fake hammer has been set up to tell a story, something we’re wired to respond to.
Game environment designers do the same thing, imagining how every object in the room was used, who used them, and why. It’s better when the designer knows enough about those objects to place them naturally, but the best go a step further: they imagine characters with unique personalities leaving those objects behind. The latter is something you won’t find in the best museum displays, because they’re trying to project the general character of peoples past.
When you’re telling a story though, general character is not enough. You want every object to represent not just a people, but a person. Say you’re designing a house interior for a time capsule game, meaning a setting where the inhabitants abandoned the place. You get to decide who lived in the house, so you get to make up the characters. Do they own books or write letters? Too easy. Let’s make them illiterate. Now you only get to tell their story with stuff.
How old is the wreckage? If your characters even had a kitchen, you have to decide who used it and whether they were tidy or not. What did they eat? Did they keep pets or plants? Did they take their work home with them? Are the empty beds singles or doubles, made or unmade? Did the people die inside or leave in a hurry? Has someone since squatted or defaced the abandoned property?
That’s the basics. To give the place real personality, you need to think about what the occupants did when they felt safe at home – or if they felt safe at all. Everyone has secrets and quirks. An example I’ve read recently comes from This Blessed House, Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story about a couple who moved into a house with absurd Christian tchotchkes hidden all over the place. The story was about the newlywed couple’s reactions to these frequent and hilarious surprises, and how it formed a wedge between them, but Lahiri had to imagine the people who left the items behind as well.
That’s off-the-page work, such as what Harlan Ellison described in his essay The Whore With a Heart of Iron Pyrite: or, Where Does a Writer Go to Find Maggie? He talked about how he knew exactly what Maggie’s apartment looked like. Even though we never see that apartment in the story, it defined her character in subtle ways that did make it onto the page. Environment informs the character.
When you’re characterizing an environment alone, the person who leaves objects behind becomes a ghost. The odder the objects, the more the ghosts haunt. To use Morrowind for an example, the mad wall scrawls of the dreamers were pretty boilerplate for horror ambiance, but the upturned chairs and tables stacked precariously one on top of another were far more unbalancing to the player. You’d see them and ask, “Why?” It was a bit of nonsense designed to make you ask those questions, and not give you the answer – and that’s what made it creepy as hell.
These considerations aren’t just useful for horror though. You also flesh out living characters with a well defined environment (yes, I’m counting the dreamers as dead because they were designed as combat fodder). Players love to snoop around, even if they aren’t kleptomaniacs.
Environment design is interactive storytelling. Like a written story, you can’t fill a virtual house with as much clutter as you find in real life, or you’ll be setting people’s PCs on fire. Instead, you paint in broader brushstrokes, selecting representative items. Clutter is fine, but if each object is carefully selected, you turn them into puzzle pieces. Either that, or you select a handful of items that stand out. This is how game designers reduce the tedium of examining every object for signs of usefulness, and how the writer keeps the reader’s eyes from grating over the page. Some items are story and others backstory, but every one needs a reason to be there.by