Environmental Storytelling

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Storytelling that occurs through movement and exploration of an environment.

Many games tell stories as part of playing them. While this can be done through cutscenes and dialogues and thereby guarantee how the narration is done, an alternative is to use Environmental Storytelling. While focusing more on previous events than future events, this makes the unfolding take place as part of actual gameplay due to players noticing things about the game world, and lets players have a freedom to try and figure out what had happened or not.

For more on Environmental Storytelling, see articles on Gamasutra[1], presentations at Game Developers' Conference[2][3], and Game Design as Narrative Architecture by Jenkins[4].


The Bioshock series, as well as Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas all provide places where things and effects on the environment give hints of what has happened earlier. In many cases there are related things and effects in other places of the game world, and players that find these can piece together possible narratives.

Hideouts of the resistance in Half-Life 2 are often marked by a lambda symbol. While this shows that other people in the game world are struggling for the same cause as the player and have set up camps while doing so, it also gives hints the resources may be available. Evidence of other survivors are similarly present in Portal 2.

Player of Doom 3 can find PDAs that have belonged to various people on Mars. They both give insights into the everyday life and provide hints on how to access resources later in the game.

Using the pattern

While deciding on what story that should be told by Environmental Storytelling is not in the scope of gameplay design, the specific design elements are since they are also those that help create Game Worlds, Levels, and Scenes. The latter of these can be virtue of not describing unnecessary parts make the Environmental Storytelling hard to miss.

The typical set of game elements available include Big Dumb Objects, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Environmental Effects, and Props. Game Items can also be used, especially those that can contain information, e.g. notes, books, and computers. While Landmarks are Diegetically Outstanding Features, they can usually not provide enough information to carry Environmental Storytelling. They can however modulate them by pointing players to other parts of Game Worlds and make it easy to backtrack to earlier parts of them. Scripted Information Sequences is the most active form of Environmental Storytelling since it may involve the actions of Enemies and Characters but it is still a form of Environmental Storytelling since it is located within Game Worlds during gameplay and players may have a Freedom of Choice to engage in the unfolding events or not.

As an incentive to make players interested in the various pieces of Environmental Storytelling available in a game, the game elements used to tell them may be placed in Resource Locations.

When using Environmental Storytelling to provide Predetermined Story Structures in games, it may be worth considering to combine this with other ways, e.g. Cutscenes or through Dialogues.

Diegetic Aspects

Environmental Storytelling is both a diegetic and narrative pattern.

Narrative Aspects

As said above, Environmental Storytelling is both a diegetic and narrative pattern. Besides providing Predetermined Story Structures integrated into Game Worlds, Environmental Storytelling can also provide Clues and Traces to the players.

When Environmental Storytelling is intended to be experienced in several different chunks, the use of Inaccessible Areas that successively are opened up can ensure that they are encountered in the right order. It is probably more fitting to make use of the pattern, or at least use it more often, in Transport Routes than in other types of locations since players can focus on them there and these routes can otherwise be uninteresting areas.


Environmental Storytelling is a way for games to have Storytelling integrated into Levels and Game Worlds, and thereby have the Predetermined Story Structures of the game embedded in the game environment. Players have the Freedom of Choice to engage in these Predetermined Story Structures or not, but may have to do Puzzle Solving in order to figure out, or at least guess, what actually transpired. In this way, they represent Optional Goals for players.

While Environmental Storytelling can be used purely to provide Predetermined Story Structures or help players locate Resource Locations, they can also used to create Clues and Traces.


Can Instantiate

Clues, Freedom of Choice, Predetermined Story Structures, Optional Goals, Puzzle Solving, Storytelling, Traces

Can Modulate

Game Worlds, Levels, Resource Locations, Transport Routes

Can Be Instantiated By

Big Dumb Objects, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Environmental Effects, Game Items, Props, Scripted Information Sequences

Can Be Modulated By

Inaccessible Areas, Landmarks, Scenes

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



New pattern created in this wiki.


  1. Gamasutra article about environmental storytelling..
  2. Robertson, M. Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money: Why Your Game Doesn’t Need a Story to be a Hit Presentation at GDC 2009.
  3. Smith, H. & Worch, M. “What Happened Here?” – Environmental Storytelling. Presentation at GDC 2010.
  4. Jenkins, H. article Game Design as Narrative Architecture.