Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Environmental Narrative Panel: Vid, Write Up & a Note on Subliminal Signposting

Last week's panel discussion on environmental narrative went well. We had a full house (though didn't stretch to standing room only like last year), no one shouted or cried, and I even got a word in edgewise.

I also met Joel (aka Harbour Master), who was sportsman-like enough to train it into London, say hello in the pub, and then beetle home and write the whole event up practically before I'd sobered up. I was aiming to draw my own conclusions from the evening, but frankly he's done it for me.

For my tuppence worth there are a couple of topics I'd like to pick up on.

A Writer Writes Across the Board
The talk, and Joel's write up, begin with a quote from Jim:
Which of you are writers or want to be writers?” Many hands went up, including mine.
How many of you want to be writers for games only?” Only a few hands survived.
Don't limit yourselves.”
It's a small thing, but since it was so centre stage I wanted to chime in: I don't think you need to write in different disciplines to be a good writer. 

I'm sure it can help. I'd be surprised if there were many writers who didn't want to write in different disciplines. But if you love just one medium I don't see any good reason to pursue any other. Unlike the other writers on the panel, I didn't come into games from another industry: games are what I write. Certainly I'm interested in pursuing prose fiction, but if it came down to it, interactive narrative is what really floats my boat. That's no bad thing.

The Validity of Thematics & Subliminal Story Telling
I kind of abused the topic to my own ends so that I could discuss tying narrative / artistic meaning into gameplay, but Jim and Rhianna very much went down the more solid "the environment art can tell a story" route. Question time at the end raised an important query:
"One member of the audience suggested that all of this “environmental narrative” simply washes over the player, that as it is not part of the actual gameplay, it ceases to be important. The clever subtext is all but lost."
Now this riffs on something I discussed in class a few weeks ago: the questioning of the validity behind thematics. McKee says:
"An IMAGE SYSTEM is a strategy of motifs, a category of imagery embedded in the film that repeats in sight and sound from beginning to end with persistence and great variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal communication to increase the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion."
In English this means: "Use symbolism and repetition to engage the audience on another level." This is precisely what environmental narrative often is, and it's a technique that's common to all artistic expression I can think of. But does it just pass us by?

Two examples spring to mind. The first is games' frequent use of signposting. In most titles, a load zone is indicated by a particular piece of art. It might be a door with a release valve; it might be a yellow arrow on a corridor wall. The point is, when you see that sign I don't think there's a logical process in your head which goes: "This sign means there's a load zone, therefore I won't go this way until I've done everything here." I think you just learn by habit (the same way you train an animal) and avoid that door.

The second example is one Jim gave at the talk.

In the image above - with the visible pier supports and the beached ships - the environmental narrative is telling us that the Combine - Half Life 2's big bad guys - are so powerful that they've dried up entire seas. Great. Problem is I never would have picked up on that in a million years when I was playing through. I'm sure some people would, but I'm sure plenty are like me.

If that's the case, how much of our (writers across all mediums) thematic work is actually adding to the fiction, and how much of it is just creative types wanting to feel clever? The scary word is 'subliminal'. While the load zone example above would seem to support the idea that some simple things can be understood subconsciously, 'subliminal' itself - despite the popular controversy around its use in advertising - quite literally means below the senses, ie undetectable by the human mind on any level.

Clearly Half Life, Bioshock et al are better for not being set in grey corridors. But I suppose my question is just how much of that time and effort to weave complex stories into shooters is wasted below the senses; and don't games like Hitman make greater use of these techniques by having the nature of the environment actually feedback into gameplay in more ways than just waist high cover?


  1. Keen to hear your thoughts on this, it's not a topic I've entirely put to rest.

  2. Ah yes I cut out the "dried up seas" example from the article.

    I wrote a nonlinear short story (unpublished but thrice rejected so far) which included a key phrase that was repeated multiple times throughout the text in different guises. In my writing group, I made no direct reference to its purpose and no one seemed to pick up on it. To me, it was absolutely vital and I'm sure someone, somewhere would get it. But to drop that phrase from the story wouldn't hurt the "plot" but to me... the thing would feel incomplete.

    There's little science in all this stuff. I think you have to go with the instincts and what feels right... what you get feedback from.

    And what's more - if you write some nuanced themes into your environment or plot, there are always going to be the deconstructors who see things that were not intended. They aren't "wrong", of course. Everything is interpretation. Was the "dried up seas" example deliberate or is it James' own interpretation?

    My own problem is that I often see games writing as stupid. This is bizarre thing to say on your blog, I know. I played through Dead Space and ignored any "subtext". Sometimes I think some of the stuff that falls into place is accidental and is without intent. I think games as a medium, even to me, still feels immature which means I miss out on these signals because I don't expect them to be there half the time. I read so much into indie games, but mainstream stuff - I just brush off the paper thin plot and don't look much further.

    So is it economical to beaver away at nuance that perhaps only less than 1% of your audience will pick up on?

    I think we have to reach for the skies and do better than our peers expect. If I deliver a slim experience that just does the job, I might churn out Tom Clancy bestsellers but my aspirations to be taken seriously as an artist will forever go unfulfilled.

    I don't know if this addresses your question one bit, but it certainly adds inches to your length of your comments.

  3. I've always felt the low water line of HL2 was just a little...too subtle. I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of players did not know why the water line was low...I'm sure I wasn't aware of why until I was informed by a website. I do think it added a lot of character to the levels, and I think that having such vastly applying environmental design elements is important, but to think that it is enough to explain itself is stretching it just a bit.

    The example of narrative I remember most is from I think Episode 2...and it is an example pointed out by the commentary. There's a chair at one point with a gun sitting next to it. I remember thinking the first time I played almost entirely what they intended: that someone had used it as a little lookout station to shoot zombies from. This was an event that perhaps only worked on me, but it still sticks in my mind as a positive use of environmental narrative.

  4. Absolutely, guys, I think the key is - let's do better. The little moments, though - the ones that I actually 'get' - really do add to the world. I'm glad we're in a world of Half-Lifes (Half-Lives?) where even though we may be flogging a dead horse in some respects, there are moments like the sniper's lookout that make us believe we're inhabiting a real world.

    To re-iterate, though, my ideal would be that things liek HL2's low water line actually impacted on gameplay in some way beyond giving you a fresh environment to blow up.

  5. I'm curious now as to whether they could have better incorporated the low water line into the ant lion levels in some way...though even being more *aware* of the low water line wouldn't have actually resulted in me better understanding it as the combines "fault."

  6. I had a similar issue with Silent Hill 2 in that I didn't see how the enemy designs figured into the overarching plot. It's pretty clever, but I didn't expect a deeper meaning.

    But in Silent Hill's case, most monsters tug at primal fears already, which is a plus for a horror game and a minus for stacking further meaning on top of it.

    I think Gothic II had some nice areas where you'd see a tomb with armored skeletons and swords everywhere, getting the impression that some equivalent of crusaders were buried there. Not to mention the countless corpses with a few stray arrows next to them.

  7. Same anon noting a third thing...

    I think one possible negative to this whole concept is the possibility of forgetting that there are "boring" places. As I've been attempting to piece together a certain story concept I find myself unintentionally filling up gaps with interesting things that *shouldn't* be interesting. The interesting must be side by side with the normal/generic to keep something realistic. It's very easy to make every crypt full of crusaders or Romans, but it has to be remembered that normal people die too...I'm not sure if I'm stating this properly or not, but I'm hoping that it's sensical.

  8. @anon (don't be shy!): There are a lot of random graves marked as "Unknown Soldier" that are hastily thrown together in random spots, sometimes without any significant loot around. Lord knows you never need to fight with or sell the rusty weapons you find around these places.

    Is that what you're getting at?

  9. I think above all environmental narrative should make sense within the game itself without any sort of external clarification ie. if you're wondering why the water level is low then it should say or at least imply somewhere in the game why it's like that. If it needs to be explained by a dev then, well, that's just cheating. (I'm presuming it's not referred to in the game anywhere?)

    By all means keep certain things mysterious to provoke discussion and further questioning (and to keep the experience compelling) but I believe that all the pieces should be there, somewhere, for players to find and put together. The question is how subtle do you make those pieces? What sort of people do you want to discover those pieces? The people who plunder the depths of the fiction or those content with surface detail? I'm somewhere between the two and believe that the small details breath life into these virtual worlds. Just look at Half-Life 2, I'd wager it's not remembered for its shooting (save for perhaps the gravity gun) which constitutes a substantial part of the game, it's remembered for the world you're ushered through and the stories it tells.