Saturday 31 August 2019

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019: Environmental Storytelling: A Digital Frontier for Narrative Geography

Below is the written component of the paper I presented in the Geographies of Interactive Digital Narratives session – which I also co-convened – at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference on 29th August 2019. The superscript numbers in the text indicate the number of the corresponding slide you should view in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can access the slides separately as a PDF here).
I’d like to thank Scott Palmer for his efforts in convening this session with me, particularly when deciding how to frame the session, what papers to include, and what kind of format the session would take. I’m also grateful to the Digital Geographies Research Group for sponsoring Geographies of Interactive Digital Narratives, alongside an impressive number of other sessions on digital themes throughout the conference. Lastly, I want to thank my fellow presenters in this session, Duncan Speakman, Jonathan Barbara and Lissa Holloway-Attaway. As the session chair, I was delighted with the quality of the papers and how well they spoke to each other throughout the session, despite covering diverse digital narrative forms. A post giving an account of the overall session will be posted on this blog soon.        

Today1 I’m going to talk about the ways that stories can be told using a person’s environment with interactive digital media. I’ll be drawing on the example2 of exploration-based video games, explaining how a set of design techniques known as ‘environmental storytelling’ works to produce narrative experiences for players in their fictional worlds. This is based on autoethnographic research on 12 ‘walking simulator’ games and interviews with their designers.

In particular, I want to outline why I think environmental storytelling can provide a useful concept beyond just video games3, for thinking about the ways that navigational practices are meaningfully evoked in a range of digital narrative forms. I’ll ultimately be suggesting that this concept could be a starting point for new and fruitful directions of research at the intersection of geography, narrative studies and the digital humanities, especially given the heightened importance attributed to the ‘immersive’ sector of the creative industries today.

But first, why the focus on digital ‘environments’? It’s evident4 that the ways in which we interact with digital technology are characteristically navigational; whether it’s in our use of links to move between sites on the internet, the ways mobile and locative tech guides our movements in physical space, or the rendering of 2D and 3D worlds that we traverse in video games. Consequently, one5 of the qualities that makes digital storytelling unique is how these kinds of navigational interaction with virtual space are shaped into the dramatic enactment of plots.

This process is perhaps demonstrated most clearly by the game design practices known as ‘environmental storytelling’6. In game development, this term typically refers to methods developers use to embed narrative information in the worlds they design. As this information is discovered by players7 when they move through the spaces represented onscreen, they’ll come to perceive a sequence of events that has taken place in the world – a narrative. To quote Henry Jenkins8, who first popularised the ‘environmental storytelling’ term, video games displaying these techniques are not designed as pre-authored narratives, but “spaces ripe with narrative possibility”.

Accordingly, what I’m going to focus on in this presentation9 is, firstly, how narrative information is embedded or ‘emplaced’ in video game environments; and then how players navigate these storyworlds through the information they encounter. I’ll then use these observations to discuss why I think this concept of environmental storytelling is helpful for interactive media scholarship beyond video games.

So10, as a method of narrative communication that requires navigation, we can say that environmental storytelling entails the distribution of narrative information across the realm of play. Michael Nitsche calls these pieces of information ‘evocative narrative elements’ – details11 that don’t necessarily represent recognisable narratives in themselves, but require movement and interpretive work from the player to be understood as part of a wider story. These evocative elements can take a variety of forms, from detailed written artefacts like letters, diaries or newspaper clippings to objects, signs, and music.

But what qualities do these evocative narrative elements possess that enable players to construct meaningful stories from them?

Firstly12, the diversity and distribution of these elements enables a multi-vocality of information transmission, whereby each object can have its own voice and perspective, rather than being filtered by a narrator. This means that the narratives emerging from discovered artefacts always reflect the value judgements of those doing the interpreting – in this case, the player.

In the game Gone Home13, the player-character returns from holiday to an apparently empty house, and can explore the rooms and belongings of her family members to make sense of events that unfolded since she has been away. By giving players deep access to the thoughts, motivations and personalities of a range of story characters, players can engage with an intricate exploration of family dynamics and belonging in a middle-class American household, but in a way that allows them to interpret the events for themselves.

Importantly, though, environmental storytelling relies on players to find these narrative elements in the game world by exploring their surroundings. In narratology14, the relationship between the unfolding action of a story and what’s actually observed by the recipient is known as a story’s focalization. But what Michael Nitsche argues is that video games enable ‘dynamic focalization’, through which players can choose where to point the camera, which directions to move in, and what to focus on in their surroundings.

This has some important consequences for narrative communication. The possibility15 of ignoring information means that players can choose how they want to invest in the world, but also rely on their own observational skills to discover information rather than being ‘told’ or deliberately exposed to it. The player experience deriving from the emplaced narrative elements is tailored to the player’s own affective and emotional sensibilities. Indeed16, many developers choose to actively hide impactful pieces of narrative detail in the world, knowing they’ll provide a significant emotional payoff when found by those looking for secrets.

Dynamic focalization demonstrates how the communication of visible and audible narrative information is closely entwined with the player’s haptic control of an avatar as they explore game environments. And indeed17, the emplacement of narrative elements is as multisensory as the practice of game playing itself. Shibolet’s paper on the avatar’s movement in Journey describes how the ‘story’ of the experience comes into being almost solely through the shifts in movement dynamics you embody as you move across the world, each ingrained with a kinaesthetic significance that echoes the game’s wider metaphor of the path of life.

It’s an example that reminds us that game worlds are not just a mise-en-scene, but what Andy Lavender calls a mise-en-sensibilité. The interplay between diverse player sensibilities, material hardware and aesthetic representations assembles to generate events of narrative meaning-making.

What’s notable18, then, about environmental storytelling is how the stories that derive from the evocative narrative elements emplaced in the world become personalised to the player. The affects and perceptions that players chart become closely mapped onto internal topographies of the self, providing opportunities for players to engage on their own terms with aesthetic and kinaesthetic possibilities in the world. It’s this highly personal quality of player interaction that can make game environments “a place for dwelling rather than merely a territory”.

All this said19, the evocative narrative elements in themselves aren’t narratives. It’s the player’s navigation across environments populated by these pieces of information that leads to the development of stories. But how does this navigational process work?

When speaking to developers of the games I played, it became apparent that, even in worlds that seem to let you explore more or less ‘freely’, behind the scenes there are devices encoded into the world to subtly guide the player’s navigation. In the games I played, there were three main techniques developers used. The first20 is gating, in which entry and exit points in the world are carefully coordinated to structure the flow of information the player is exposed to. The most common method is to require that the player has found a particular object or piece of information in order to advance to the next area, such as locked doors that require keys or passcodes to open. The second is signposting21, in which light and sound directs the player’s attention towards certain significant elements in their surroundings. And the final method is pacing22, in which the spacing between narrative information is carefully managed to elicit dramatic tension and mood.

Together, these three techniques help to negotiate one of the key ‘perils’ of interactive storytelling – retaining drama when the interactor can determine which information they encounter and the context in which they encounter it. These techniques23 provide a basic framework that subtly shapes how players ‘join the dots’ between the world’s dispersed narrative information, preserving the intended affective qualities of the story, while still enabling the sense of thrill and intimacy that comes with encountering and interpreting this information for yourself.

Nonetheless, this balance between dramatic emplotment and player agency emerged from my interviews with developers most often in the notion of ‘believability24. The developers wanted to spin worlds that players could ‘imagine themselves into’, but recognised that achieving this aim meant purposely ‘leaving room’ for the player’s imagination. That’s why many exploration-based game design teams actively imbue depth and ambiguity into their worlds25, using juxtaposition, symbolism or even contradiction to invite players to formulate their own beliefs about what any arrangement of narrative elements ‘means’.

At the same time, designers need to reinforce the idea that each individual narrative element logically belongs to the wider fictional universe. For game environments based on real-world sites, this might entail quite extensive research – such as this26 example, where the developers used academic articles about farming practices to learn whether hay bales were wrapped in 1980s rural Shropshire. More generally, games testing27 is crucial, as developers of these games use player feedback to carefully manoeuvre the spatiotemporal attributes players interact with to achieve “positively affective” outcomes, with believability being one of these key objectives.

So by manipulating how narrative information is exposed to players as they traverse game worlds, developers create the conditions for players to draw meaningful associations between the evocative narrative elements. They calibrate player perception to ensure that dramatic agency is retained and believability is maximised, while also inviting personal interpretation to enable intimate narrative world construction by the player. The navigational process of enacting environmental storytelling isn’t a process of narrating events in sequence, but enabling dwelling in a storyworld that spills out of the screen, whose narratives are intimately tied to player dispositions, sensibilities and real-world contexts.

Everything28 I’ve said so far about environmental storytelling is based upon the findings of my research into video games. But today, particularly with the increasingly hyped ‘immersive media’ paradigm that’s shaping the future of work in the creative industries, we’re seeing an ever greater number of narrative works being produced that use locative media, 360° video, sound, AR, VR and MR technologies. Like video games, these are interactive and often involve some form of spatial navigation by the user. But to what extent can the game design techniques falling under the banner of ‘environmental storytelling’ be of relevance to these emerging media forms?

Well, the informational environments29 that users engage with in these immersive media arts often differ quite considerably from video games. Johann Huizinga famously described playful activity as something that takes place in a ‘magic circle’ – a sphere of activity separate from the spaces and times of everyday life that participants enter voluntarily. Yet for many of these emerging storytelling media, this magic circle is forced to expand in some way, whether spatially, temporally, or socially. The affordances of immersive technologies increasingly enable the blurring of fictional environments with the environments30 of everyday life.

This presents some important questions. How would a storyteller go about embedding narrative elements in changing, off-screen environments? In turn31, how would the gameplay interact with existing material processes, histories and social norms? And lastly, when the boundaries of the storyworld are less clearly defined, how can narrative designers ensure that participants continue engaging meaningfully with the narrative architecture they’ve designed?

It's evident that, if the ideas and practices associated with environmental storytelling are to be useful in these contexts, the informational ‘environment’ we engage with needs to be expanded too. In video game development32, environmental design currently refers to a very specific set of practices – such as modelling and texturing, lighting scenes, and creating concept art. Yet narrative world-building in hybrid ‘immersive’ storytelling forms often relies on a much broader ecology of human and non-human agents – intersecting with processes and phenomena we study across geography as a holistic discipline.

By adapting the environmental storytelling concept to encompass the array of materials, bodies, social norms and physical processes through which digital narratives of all types are produced, we can work towards understanding the significance of space and place in communicating stories across a range of digital media and contexts.

I also33 want to emphasise the importance of practice-based methodologies for answering these questions. From my own experiences so far in my practice-based PhD, being involved in the iterative process of game development reveals the myriad challenges and affordances that designers inevitably negotiate when working with environmental storytelling techniques, which can easily be missed after the creative process has taken place. Yet it’s often ‘interesting failures’ that offer the best opportunities for learning, and could address important questions here, such as: what kinds of story are most appropriate to tell using environmental storytelling techniques? What are the possibilities and limitations of this storytelling method in different contexts? And what implications are there for the experiences of creative practitioners involved?

All these questions would appear to suggest that there’s not only mileage in environmental storytelling as a conceptual framework through which research can be conducted, but more broadly that there are ample avenues for potential future study by those working across disciplines, and between theory and practice.

To finish34, I would argue that it’s no coincidence that scholars have observed a ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and social sciences at the same time as a ‘digital turn’. Digital media have not only impacted the geographies of how societies operate and organise themselves, but the distinctly navigational qualities of how we interact with media generally. Both in how spaces are represented and negotiated, and how information itself is spatialized, digital media have influenced our understandings of dwelling in the world as humans.

Digital35 narrative forms such as video games are at the forefront of research into the relationship between ‘place’ and the digital because these media actively seek to create believable worlds that we can dwell in. Their storyworlds hinge on the sense of place curated by players as they encounter, associate and interpret information through navigation.

I’m contending36, therefore, that environmental storytelling can be an important frontier for future research at the intersection between digital geographies and narratology. Understanding how these storyworlds are crafted and inhabited can help to reveal and dissect the meaningful interrelationships of technologies, bodies and social norms that unfold when we engage with interactive media forms.

In particular37, I’m proposing that the environmental storytelling toolkit has mileage beyond its current limited use in games studies and game design circles. By expanding our conception of the informational ‘environment’ that participants in interactive digital narratives engage with, it can help us think about how the interaction between navigation and narrative plays out across a range of ‘immersive’ media, and not only in playful contexts38.