by Shahrez Aziz
The tug of war between narratives and interactive gameplay elements and how to balance the two is a heavily contested issue when it comes to the conversation about video games and their narratives, with many narratologists arguing that video games can inherently not be narrative experiences due to their interactive nature. However, as Henry Jenkins brings up in ‘Game Design as Narrative Architecture’, statements that pit interactivity against narrative by labeling them as opposites may be ignoring some nuances in favor of more rigid definitions of storytelling being very heavily controlled by an author rather than have any level of input by the player/audience. In presenting some middle ground between the two camps, Jenkins presents the notion of environmental or spatial storytelling, whereby he describes game designers as not simply telling stories, but as designing worlds and sculpting spaces. He categorizes them into four major types, which we will explore using The Fullbright Company’s game, Gone Home.
Types of Environmental Storytelling
The first are evocative spaces, which can evoke pre existing narrative and genre associations, can be used to enrich or expand pre existing experiences, and add to said original experiences by using and manipulating similar environments and tropes, rather than retelling the stories as they were. Some examples of such games could be those associated with pre established IPs, such as Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order set in the Star Wars universe, and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor being set in the Lord of the Rings universe.
The second sort are enacting stories, whereby the narrative and plot are usually secondary to the exploration of various environments, and whereby the stories are usually designed around the various spaces players visit. This can lead to a more episodic feel, where levels may have broadly defined goals, but the focus and highlight of the levels are their unique environments, and the narratives may serve as an excuse to visit them in some cases. Examples could include Call of Duty Zombies, where maps were originally designed with no narrative in mind, and they continue to be made to maximise gameplay options and enjoyment within unique environments, and only later was a story constructed around these formerly independent maps/levels. In games like the Uncharted series where the narrative is also given almost as much weight as the environments and set pieces around which it is designed, the issue of balancing a compelling narrative and freedom of the player within each level can become more pronounced and can also potentially lead to complaints of ludonarrative dissonance, where the interactivity and narrative do not gel as well as they might otherwise. Jenkins also describes these narratives as having ‘attractions’ that serve as the narrative hooks that provide the emotional impact the game requires.
Emergent narratives probably have the highest amount of interactivity in that, while the spaces obviously have some sort of limit or control exerted by the developers, players have a lot more say in how narratives play out and the experience is not as pre structured or controlled as it may be in one of the other three types mentioned by Jenkins. Examples include games like Minecraft or The Sims.
Finally, there are embedded narratives. These are experiences where most of the narrative storytelling workload is done not by exposition via cutscenes and dialogue, but by the very carefully curated environments the game has to offer. Players get to explore game spaces and interact with the environment at their own pace to figure out more secrets and the underlying story in the game’s world. BioShock is a prime example of a game where you explore a completely alien world called Rapture to uncover its history and secrets, and since this backstory and history is left to the player to figure out for themselves, it is very possible to miss such embedded storytelling, or at the very least, some aspects of it. Embedded storytelling does not have to be the primary way a game tells its story, and can employ it as a tool to add more to an already rich narrative experience. In a game like The Last of Us, though its narrative is primarily very cinematic with plenty of cutscenes and dialogue, the environments and interactable items hidden within them help flesh out the lore and history of that game’s world to add to the experience.
Environmental Storytelling in Gone Home
To analyze how many of these elements of environmental storytelling are employed, it may help to consider a simple game where they are the forefront of the storytelling tools without much interference from other devices. As such, Gone Home, published by The Fullbright Company, provides us with the perfect avenue to see all these tools in play.
Gone Home serves primarily as an embedded narrative. You do not have clear, set objectives, and are instead encouraged to explore the mansion that serves as the game’s setting. There is dialogue to further the story, but these audio journals are only uncovered by searching the environment and piecing together what happened while the playable character, Katie, was away from her family. There is a ton of stuff that players can overlook or miss in terms of finding out more about some members of Katie’s family, as only sections that pertain to her sister, Sam, are actually required to complete the game in its entirety. It is this mysterious mansion and the setting it provides that serve as the primary narrative tool in Gone Home. Only by taking initiative to explore the environments in the game yourself can you complete the game, and uncover more secrets that it has to offer. There are pieces of information about Katie’s parents, as well as the history of their family and the mansion, that are embedded in the environments and which players can completely miss if they do not pay attention to each little detail and explore the mansion themselves.
The mansion in question happens to serve as such an effective setting for the game in part because it utilizes evocative spaces. This is not a case of a game adding more context or lore to an established franchise as in the examples above, but instead utilizes audiences’ knowledge of various genres and settings to create the atmosphere of the game. The gothic genre obviously has a big influence on the design and style of the mansion, but the game also utilizes horror tropes and associations with that particular genre to subvert the audience’s expectations of what the game is about. The dim, flickering lights, and the creaks of doors and floorboards inside the house, paired with a loud storm raging on outside set an initial mood for the player that conveys a sense of horror, which makes the player approach each new setting and room with caution. It further plays into such tropes with imagery typically associated with the horror genre, before subverting expectations in a way. We see red stains in a bathtub, an image quite familiar to horror fans, usually signifying blood. But here, it’s just hair dye. There are notes around the house about Katie’s sister, Sam, and her friend, trying to find evidence of ghosts in the house, yet it turns out to only be a fun game that they played while exploring the mansion themselves.
In terms of enacting narratives, much like the aforementioned level-based experiences, the environments in Gone Home are designed to inform the story. The interactable items you find in a library are not something you would find in the kitchen. Going to optional rooms like Katie’s father’s office reveals more about him and his situation, and the layout of the house helps inform these narrative plot points and vice versa. The audio logs Sam has left behind for Katie serve as the ‘attractions’ in each local environment, which provide the game’s narrative with its emotional core.
Interestingly, even though Gone Home is a very linear game, it has elements of emergent narratives present as well. Katie only has one line in the game, which is the opening to the game, and beyond that, she is not a fleshed out character that we are informed about. How Katie traverses the house and interacts with objects is up to the player entirely. Whether one thinks Katie would read a note and respond to it by throwing it on the floor in dismay or gently putting it back where it was is a micro decision that is left up to the player.
Ludonarrative Dissonance in Gone Home
At the same time though, with the prompt to pick something up sometimes describing Katie’s inner thoughts about the object (“Gosh, Sam”, or “Ugh”), there is an argument to be made that even Katie’s actions are somewhat controlled by the narrative, and that if the player responds in a way that is inconsistent with what Katie’s inner dialogue seems to communicate, it could lead to some ludonarrative dissonance, which is to be expected in a game that is pre structured to a greater degree than most games that are credited as emergent narratives are. The camp that argues that narratives are at odds with interactivity may also highlight the fact that some information that the player gets through interacting with the environment is information that Katie should already know, which again breaks down the sense of an emergent narrative whereby the player and character they control have the same amount of information.
Even so, Gone Home is a game that uses various aspects of each of these tools that spatial storytelling has to offer to create a narrative that is interactable and very much depends on the player to figure out for themselves, while still flowing as the creators intended it to and retaining an emotional core throughout.