While studying my Master’s Degree at Bournemouth University we had to undertake a research project of our choice.  I have always been extremely passionate and interested in visual storytelling and I am always interested in new ways of doing so.   Over the past few years, the gaming industry has experienced a trend of studios starting to use other forms of conveying narrative and not just the established method of dialogue. Instead of just using these traditional dialogues driven narratives, studios are now using the game’s world to further tell the story. Using various aspects of the environment, designers are constantly relaying conscious and subconscious information to the player; creates a more engaging environment.  Not only does this subconsciously teaches players about the world they are exploring, but environmental storytelling further engages the player as an active participant in the narrative; game systems that reflect the player’s agency can do the same. My research project led me to analyse existing uses of environmental storytelling and seeing how they provide a framework for dynamic environmental storytelling in games.

The term, environmental storytelling was first used by former Disneyland designer Don Carson, who wrote an influential article in 2000 called “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry.” The term was then made even more popular by a GDC talk by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch, called “What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling” where they described it as:

“The act of staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game. (Smith and Worch, 2010)”

It refers primarily to static objects; but it can also refer to other things such as overheard conversations, in level animations and text found in things such as books, emails, and posters.

Environmental Storytelling exists in the space between the scripted story and the story created by gameplay. It is the story that the player deducts from the world itself and is only found through the player’s own investigation (Gaynor 2013). So, the primary purpose of environmental storytelling is to convey narrative and does so by conveying:

  • The history of what happened in a place
  • Who inhabits the world and what are their living conditions?
  • What might happen next
  • The overall mood or theme
  • The player’s identity
  • Where the player should head next

But it can also be used to establish the rules of the world by:

  • Influencing and restraining a player’s movements through the physical properties and ecology
  • Using a player’s own experiences to communicate boundaries and affordance 
    (Smith and Worch, 2010)

Using a stories environment to help tell the story is not a new technique but one that has been used for years in theatre, film and theme parks. In theatre and film, the technique is referred to as Mise-en-Scene, which is defined as the arrangement of the scenery, props, etc. on a theatre stage, or a film set, as well as the setting or location of the events. Both Environmental storytelling, found in games and theme parks, and Mise-en-Scene are examples of visual storytelling and are embodiments of the sentiment “show don’t tell”.

But why use environmental storytelling instead of other narrative techniques such as cut scenes or in-level scripted storytelling sequences? There are many advantages to using environmental storytelling its:


  • It doesn’t require unique game mechanics or budgeting as it does need additional writing, voice acting, or character animation and has a relatively short creation pipeline.
  • However, it does require unique art assets to be created and placed in specific ways and as a result, it does have setup and memory costs; but in comparison to cinematic cutscene these costs are much less.


  • Scripted stories and cutscenes take time, to not only produce, but also to happen during gameplay. As a result of this scripted stories, though visual dynamic, are actually a more static storytelling technique. With scripted stories, it doesn’t matter who the player is, the story always takes the same amount of time to complete; something that can lead to player frustration and disengagement if they just want to get on with the gameplay.
  • Environmental storytelling moments on the other hand only last for as long as the play wants them to; it is purely up to the player how much, or how little, time the player wants to spend on that storytelling moment. For players who aren’t interested in the additional narrative, and just want the action from the main storyline, environmental storytelling allows the player to focus on the action without the story getting in the way.

Meaningful and Memorable

  • Environmental storytelling is a non-intrusive way to build additional world lore into a game and is a storytelling technique that involves player participation. A level of deductive reasoning is required from the player in order to understand the stories being told by the environment. Through the use of investigative and archaeological skills, the player is able to determine relationships, cause and effect, and the history of the world they find themselves in. Environmental storytelling transforms the player from a passive viewer of the story into an active participant in the storytelling process which builds player investment.
  • As environmental stories are not scripted sequences they are open to player interpretation. It is this openness to interpretation that makes the stories more meaningful and memorable as they are often unique to each player as they are dependent on a player’s own personal experiences.
    (Gaynor 2013)

At a fundamental level Environmental Storytelling is just another visual storytelling technique, so this next section will look at how to successfully tell a story through a game’s visuals. Visual storytelling is one of the oldest storytelling techniques and has been around for over 50,000 years (McIver 2016) and as such there are many established techniques for how to successfully convey a story’s narrative visually. Many of the techniques discussed in this section are well-established storytelling practices is theatre and cinema and can be directly applied to visual storytelling in games. The techniques which will be explored are the following:

  • Mise-en-Scène
  • Psychology of Colour
  • Lighting
  • Contrasting Elements
  • Cause and Effect
  • Use of the Familiar
  • The Montage Effect
  • Telegraphing
  • Echoing the World at Large


Films are highly successful forms of visual storytelling thanks to their use of Mise-en-Scene and offer great examples of how the setting and environment can be used to help tell a story. Mise-en-scène, pronounced meez-ahn-sen, is a term used to describe the setting of a scene in a film or play. It refers to everything placed in front of the camera; including people. Mise-en-scène is an encompassing term for everything that contributes to the visual presentation and overall “look” of a production. When translated from French, it means “placing on stage.”

Mise-en-scène creates a sense of place for the audience whether they realize it or not. When applying the technique to environmental storytelling in games the main components of Mise-en-scène to pay attention to are:

  1. Props: Props are often used to add additional information about the location and time period of the action, they can also be used by characters to provide additional information about the character or action taking place.
  2. Location: The location of the scene provides the audience with information on the time period that the action is taking place, helping to quickly establish what social behaviours the audience can expect from the characters.
  3. Setting: The setting is, the physical space in which the action unfolds and can reveal a lot about the mood and state of mind of the characters but also the overall story.
  4. Lighting: Lighting is often the tool that conveys the mood most clearly. High-key lighting, widely used in musicals and romantic comedies, relies on hard light to minimize shadows. Low-key lighting, most commonly used in horror movies, features a high-contrast lighting pattern to both brighten and darken parts of the frame.
  5. Colour: Colour is often the tool used to convey symbolic and emotional meaning. It can be used to set the tone, show character traits or establish links between things
    (Verstraten translated by Lecq 2009)

A film that successfully uses these elements of Mise-en-Scène to tell a story through the environment is Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Using Children of Man as a case study, the next section will show how these elements of Mise-en-Scène are used by film to convey narrative, with these techniques being directly transferable to environmental storytelling in video games.

The film’s plot takes place in 2027 where a series of ecological and nuclear disasters, war, and terrorist attacks have rendered most of the world ungovernable or uninhabitable. Britain stands alone, as an island of relative order; held in line by a fearsome police state. The events and changes to the world’s climate also mean that it has been 18 years since the last birth of a child. All of this information is provided to the viewer, first by audio and then later with visual cues in the background before the audience has seen any footage from the film or even met the protagonist.

The film is able to tell the audience so much information through its clever use of setting and props. An example of this is the use of TVs showing the news, both on the train and in the cafe. The news read “Only Britain Soldiers On”; part of the ubiquitous propaganda found throughout the environment which demonstrates how England has turned into a military dictatorship that ceaselessly hunts down “fugees”— the term commonly used to refer to migrants in the film. The breaking news seen in the cafe provides the viewer with the information that more than 18 years have passed since the last recorded birth. All of this information is gained from the films setting with none of this information being told to the audience by the protagonist.

Figure 1. The trains TV provided the viewer with important information to do with the film’s setting
Figure 2. The cafe’s TV provided the viewer with important information to do with the events taking place before the films has started

Another example of how the film’s setting is used to tell the story is the scene where the protagonist is surrounded by newspaper clippings. This scene successfully informs the audience, in a non-intrusive way, what has previously happened to cause the events they are now witnessing. By letting the audience see what has happened before the film takes place it raises the tension for the audience as they are more aware of what is at stake and as a result, become more emotionally invested in the story.

Even when the protagonist is introduced, a lot of the storytelling is done through the film’s environment and clever use of set dressing and props. While the protagonist is important, a large part of his role is to guide the audience through the space and let the environment do the talking. The camera often focuses in on the protagonist and then moves to focus on the environment. An example of this is the graffiti in the background. The slogan, The Human Project, is shown from the beginning of the film but the audience is not told who they are until the later on in the story. By introducing the name early through the environment though, the audience is left to wonder, what is The Human Project, what do they do, what is the purpose? By posing a question through the environment design, the film is able to build audience investment in the narrative.

Figure 3. The background is covered in old newspaper clipping informing the viewer of the history of the world before the events of the film
Figure 4. Graffiti for The Human Project is shown with more emphasis than the protagonist who is there to guide the viewer through the world

Psychology of Colour

Colour is a powerful method of communication. It can be used to signal action, effect people emotionally and psychologically, and even cause physiological reactions. This is because colours all have well established meaning associated with them; something that film has made use of for decades. Colour in films is used to build harmony or tension within as scene, as well as draw the audience’s attention to a key them. When telling a story colour can be used to:

  • Elicit a psychological reaction within the viewer
  • Draw focus to significant details
  • Set the tone of the narrative
  • Represent character traits
  • Show changes or arcs in the story (Risk 2019)

It is important to remember however that the meanings associated with colourable are cultural not universal. When using colour to tell a story it is important to think about who the target audience is and what associations their culture has with specific colours. An example of this is the colour red. In the West red is associated with love but also danger and anger; in the east however, it is primarily associated with success and fortune.

The following images explore the meaning of the most commonly used colours and provided example of their use in film to convey those emotions. As in films, games can also use colours and their associated meanings to convey specific emotions, set the tone and draw attention to important details.


Lighting is another technique from film it can be used to:

  • Direct the viewer’s eye to what is important in the environment.
  • Enhance the mood, atmosphere, and drama of a scene.
  • Create depth
  • Convey what the time of day is and season  
  • Reveal character personalities  
  • Foreshadow future situations

In film, spotlights are used to highlight specific elements in a scene, this draws the viewer’s eye and makes the item bathed in light clear. Having a strong light source in a game’s environment is an effective way to guide a player through the environment. On the other hand, limiting the amount of light and silhouetting an object can isolate specific elements from the surrounding causing it to stand out but keeping the details hidden. The mood conveyed by the lighting is also dependant on the situation the character is in and the theme of a narrative. In a horror story, a darkly lit environment will creates the feelings of unease and discomfort as the viewer is unable to see what is ahead. In a stealth game however, a dark environment can create the feeling of power and safety as the character is able to use the darkness to their advantage. When using lighting as a tool to convey narrative it is important to think about the genre of the game as this will directly impact the tone created through lighting. (Lowell 1992)

Figure 5. The Nun uses low-level lighting to build tension
Figure 6. James Bond uses low lighting to give Bond the power as he can use the lack of light to his advantage

Contrasting Elements

The physical space of an environment is also a tool that can be used to tell a story through the way it can generate emotion. For years theme parks have used the physical layout of their space to help tell a story and guide the audience through the environment. This can be done through landmarks but also through contrasting elements within the environment.

Contrasting elements can be used to create moments of pressure followed by moments of relief, a prime example of this are medieval churches and cathedrals. From the outside, the building are large and looming and are often surrounded by a graveyard, which are in contrast to the tallness of the building. When entering these spaces, you are unable to enter directly into the airiness of the main space but must enter through the small, confined space of the entrance. By having to enter through such a confined space the vast interior which is then revealed feels awe-inspiring. This is done deliberately, as the contrasting effect of the small entrance makes the next area even more dramatic and emotional (Carson 2000).

Contrasting elements can be achieved in an environment by:

  • Having a cool lit space followed by a warmly lit space
  • A place of disorder and chaos followed by one of order, such as areas of high detail followed by areas of low details
  • Using asymmetry and angles wherever possible
Figure 7. Disneyland Paris’ shops are a good example of how contrasting areas of high detail with areas of low detail creates areas of interest and invites the visitor in
Figure 8. The natural asymmetry and disorder of the crooked forest in Poland create a mysterious environment that draws people in

Cause and Effect

Cause and effect vignettes are staged areas that lead the viewer to draw their own conclusion about a previous event or to suggest a potential future outcome. A technique used by theme parks, it has seamlessly transitioned into games and are used to help the player to better understand where they are and what might happen next (Carson 2000).

 Cause and effect vignettes can be used in many different ways they can be used:

  • The passage of time
  • Establish a chain of events that engages the player
  • To lead the player through the environment

Cause and effect can also be used to depict the passage of time. A player may return to a place they have previously been to or are familiar with only to find that the area has changed. These elements can be a natural passage of time, such as seasonal changes, or can be directly triggered by the player (Carson 2000). An example of this is Deus Ex: Mankind Divided; if you kill a shopkeeper and then go back to the same shop later in the game the shop has become a police crime scene and then become permanently closed. This event; previously triggered by the player’s actions is an indicator to the passage of time within the game.

Figure 9. The player is given the option to kill the shopkeeper in the game, triggering events in the game’s future
Figure 10. Having killed the shop owner the area becomes a police crime scene when you return and then permanently closed

Uncharted 4 uses cause and effect to establish a chain of events which create interesting storytelling moments during the Libertalia level, such as is the placement of a grand piano in the kitchen area. The piano has no place being in the kitchen as it has fallen through the ceiling from the music room above. The placement of the piano causes the player to think about how it ended up there and what was it that caused the floor to give way? The rest of the environment of Libertalia suggests that its people rebelled against the pirate Founders; did the floor give way because of this rebellion and the damage caused to the building? Or did the floor give away first and in doing so showed the stark difference between the lives of the colonist and the founders, thus leading to the rebellion. Storytelling moments like these are completely open to player interpretation, but it is this openness to interpretation that leads to player investment and engagement as players are able to apply their own experiences and create a narrative unique to them (Gnomon 2017).

Figure 11. The environment of Libertalia is all pointing to the overall theme that the people rebelled against the Founders 
Figure 12. The piano in the kitchen of Avery’s mansion causes the player to question how it got there

Another way cause and effect can be used is to lead the player through the environment, following a bread crumb trail left by other characters. This can be done through documents and murals left in the environment, giving the player insight into the minds and history of the people who came before, or by having the player follow the destructive path of a creature or enemy. Games such as the Lara Croft reboots do this very well; the environment informs the player of what happened before the player arrived and the documents and images left behind inform the player not only of the inner thoughts of the characters who created them but also act as a breadcrumb trail letting the player know they are progressing in the correct direction (Carson 2000).

The reason that cause and effect is such an effective technique of environmental storytelling is it relies on the player to combine all the clues together from the environment to work out the narrative (Smith and Worch, 2010). Players derive joy from being able to work something out in a story, problem solving leads to player investment and makes the player an active participant in the storytelling process. Director Billy Wilder was fond of the saying that if you let the audience add two plus two together to equal four they will love you forever and this is as true for games as it is for cinema (Chung 2015).

Figure 13. The murals found in the world of Lara Croft: Rise of the Tomb Raider informs the player they are heading in the right direction
Figure 14. The documents found in Lara Croft: Rise of the Tomb Raider provides the player with additional narrative context to other characters within the world

Use of the Familiar

Techniques like Cause and Effect work because the player is able to instantly understand the world they are in and as a result make connections and links between objects. This is only able to happen through the use of the familiar within the game’s environment and world. Environmental storytelling is only effective is the player is able to understand what they are seeing and from this derive and interpret a narrative; if a player is presented with a completely alien environment with no familiar reference point the player will be unable to anchor themselves within the environment and as a result they will be removed from the environment (Carson 2000).

The use of the familiar is an important part of player interpretation. Interpretation transforms the player from a passive viewer of the story to an active participant and it is this activeness that is important. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s “Theory of Play” showed that play, discovery, and interaction are all key to learning (Piaget 1999). This active approach to learning creates participation which in turn builds investment. As students, and in this case players, bring their own experiences with them, the act of interpretation gains a personal meaning, and the resulting narrative interpretations are often unique and personal to each player. The use of the familiar also means that the story isn’t forced upon the player; instead, the player is left to discover the story at their own pace. By being able to uncover the story at their own pace the narrative becomes more immersive and complex and is reinforced by the player’s own real-life experiences.

The use of the familiar can also be used to establish the social norms with the game’s world. In the first Bioshock, players are often comfortable in looting from safes and cash registers and killing the characters within the world. In the third Bioshock however these actions are less comfortable, and players are less likely to perform them. This is largely down to the design of the game’s environment and the associations the player has with them. In the first Bioshock Rapture is a city in ruins, and the only people who have survived are insane bloodthirsty splicers; killing these people makes sense as it is often a case of survival. In the third Bioshock however Columbia is still a semi-functional society when the player gets there; something the player is able to instantly recognise because of the use of familiar things like shops, food stalls, and innocent civilians; all things that Rapture no longer had. From these familiar things, the play is able to work out that in this society violence and robbery don’t make as much sense. (Dowling 2015)

The Montage Effect

The montage effect is another technique used in film and is used to convey the narrative to the audience through only the use of visuals. Pioneered by Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov the principle states that:

“A series of images juxtaposed next to each other will be prescribed meaning by the viewer, based off upon the views own personal experiences. The images will not be viewed as separate, but rather the relationship between them will be formed in the head of the view, regardless of where the images are directly related to each other or not.”

In film, montages are often used to compress time or convey a lot of information quickly. Environmental storytelling works on the concept of the montage effect to convey a lot of information to the player quickly. It clusters concepts and images together in the environment which the player observes and then prescribed meaning to. (Gaynor 2013)

A good example of a game that uses the montage effect to convey a lot of information at once is the first Bioshock game. From the game’s environment alone, the player is able to determine that the downfall of Rapture occurred on New Year’s Eve 1959. By staging the party decorations for the New Year’s Eve celebration alongside the ruined remains of the city the player creates a relationship between the two, forming the narrative of how and when the fall of rapture happen.

Figure 15. Screengrab from Bioshock showing the city of Rapture in ruins
Figure 16. The combination of props in the environment show how the downfall of rapture happened during the new years eve party


Telegraphing is a term which commonly refers to the early reveal of what is going to happen next; in film and writing it is seen as negative as it often kills the suspense the author has worked to create. In games however, it can be a useful tool to communicate to the players what might happen next, allowing them to prepare. Telegraphing works in games and for environmental storytelling as it allows the player to choice where or not to engage; this is useful for games as a large part of the enjoyment derived from playing games is the ability of the player to play the game their own way (Smith and Worch, 2010).

An example of the effective use of telegraphing in games is the use of blood stains leading into a room in games such as Doom 3. The blood on the floor informs the player of the presence of a monster in the following area; by providing the player with this information the player is able to choice how they handle the situation. Some players may head right in, others may choose that time to prepare by restoring their health or choosing their weapons whereas others may choose to avoid the area entirely or come back to it later on. What is important is that the player is able to choose how they want to play the game; and with environmental storytelling being a tool that relies on player participation, the player is able to just ignore the narrative, and thus the telegraphing, entirely.

Telegraphing can also be used to help a player navigate an area; in Half-life 2 a zombie killed by an electric fence warns the player about touching it and informs then that they have to avoid trying to climb it until they have figured a way to turn of the electricity.

Figure 17. Bloodstains in Doom telegraph the presence of a monster ahead
Figure 18. A zombie killed by the electric fence in Half-Life 2 warns the player of the dangers of touching the fence

Echoing the World at Large

Environmental storytelling works best when all areas of the game’s design are pointing towards the same narrative theme. When using the techniques previously mentioned it is important to make sure that they are all conveying or contributing to the same overall story otherwise the narrative will feel disjointed and fake (Rouse 2010).

All levels of the game design need to be moving towards the same narrative goal; the types of buildings inform the players about the purpose of the space; their condition tells the player about where the space is still in use and the items, posters and graffiti tells the player about the people who inhabit the space. This is an important factor when trying to achieve environmental storytelling; all storytelling moments should draw from the games overall premise, echoing the themes of the world. By tying the storytelling moments to the premise, you can create a narrative positive feedback loop:

  • The game’s premise spawns environmental storytelling events
  • These environmental storytelling events remind the player of the games overarching narrative
    (Smith and Worch, 2010)

A game that does this well is Deus Ex: Mankind divided. All three parts, environmental storytelling, level design and world build work together to create a narrative that passes up and down the levels; from the grand systemic story of the world to the more intimate and specific stories told through environmental storytelling all aspects of the game are working together to convey the same narrative. At a world level it is established that the setting is a futuristic Prague where augmented humans faces oppression from those without modifications. In the level design this divide of society is shown through places like the train station where there are different cars and housing areas for those with and those without modifications. At an environmental storytelling level, the use of graffiti and emails is used to show the divide in society and tell individuals stories about being kicked out of the city for have modifications. Storytelling through a game’s environment is most effective when all aspects are marching towards the same narrative goal.

Case Study 1: The Last of Us

A World Frozen During its Crisis Point.

Figure 19. Screen grab from the Last of Us showing an abandoned quarantine zone

 The Last of Us Synopsis

The Last of Us is a linear, third-person action-adventure survival horror video game created exclusively for PlayStation 3, and was later remastered for the PlayStation 4.

Set in the post-apocalyptic United States, the game tells the story of survivors Joel, a bitter smuggler, and Ellie, a 14-year girl, as they work together to survive their westward journey across what remains of the country to find a possible cure for the modern fungal plague that has nearly decimated the entire human race.

1.      The History of What Happened in a Place

The Last of Us is a perfect example of a game’s environment being used to provide narrative context and does so through the use of the familiar. Throughout the game the player travels across America, passing through towns and cities which were once thriving, functional societies. The shops, adverts, and belongings found throughout the world are all familiar objects that the player can easily recognise and because of this, they speak volumes about the state of the world before the collapse of society.

The environment also uses cause and effect and the montage effect to informs the player about what has happened between Sara’s death at the beginning of the story and when the player starts playing as Joel, a time jump of 20 years. The abandoned quarantine zones with medical centres show how society tried to build spaces safe from the infection and in doing so committed horrible acts of violence against each other in order to ensure their own survival. One example of this is the way the military had mowed down the hundreds of people who were unable to make their way into the quarantine zones after they were closed, with the military choosing to kill innocent civilians to prevent them from catching the infection. While the information that the military are responsible is provided by Joel, the player would still come to a similar conclusion thanks to the way that the props have been deliberately staged within the environment.

Figure 20. Film poster gives more clues to the player as to what life was like before the spread of the infection
Figure 21. The environment and conversations of the characters all tell the same narrative about the events leading up to and immediately after the infection spread

2.      Who Inhabits the World and What Are Their Living Conditions?

The environment also tells the player about the people who live in the world, and what their lives are like, using the principles of mise-en-scène, cause and effect, and echoing the world at large. As the player travels through the world, graffiti can be found which tells the story of how when the infection appeared society was unprepared to deal with it and collapsed. With the people who survived split into fractions. This story of a divided society, fighting to survive, is told primarily by the environment and is backed up through notes, diaries and conversations of other characters. The graffiti gives the player insight into who has survived and how they are living; with the graffiti throughout the world showing that the military initially took control and limited people’s rations and freedoms.

The graffiti found in Pittsburgh shows how the people living in the city felt controlled and repressed by the Military, who they saw as corrupt and liars. The graffiti shows how the people in the city split into fractions and rebelled against the Military, ultimately taking control and forcing the Military to abandon the city. This narrative of a corrupt governing system is reinforced by the dialogue in games, but the story could still be told through the environment alone. The graffiti also provides the backstory to the hunters who now control the city, serving as a warning to players that the characters who inhabit the area will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Figure 22. The graffiti gives insight into the lives of people who once lived there
Figure 23. The graffiti and bodies of the soldiers give insight into how the people of Pittsburgh rebelled against Military control

3.      What Might Happen Next

Telegraphing, the use of the familiar and echoing the world at large are used though the Last of Us to suggest what might happen next. In The Last of Us, the bodies of soldiers serve as a warning that there are clickers in the area. As the bodies are those of soldiers, and not just civilians, it also implies that the things that killed them are very dangerous as player knows that soldiers are often better trained and have access to weapons that the rest of society doesn’t. Placing the bodies of soldiers at the entrance of the buildings that the player needs to enter suggests to the player that they may be entering a combat situation next, thus gives them the time to prepare.

Throughout the game players come across areas that are taken over by spores where the player had to wear a gas mask to prevent contracting the infection. While this helps to raise the tensions of the game through the use of lighting and contrasting elements, as these spaces are often dark and claustrophobic, it is also another way the game warns players of the dangers ahead. In the abandoned university the player is made aware of the fact they are about to enter an area swarming with clickers because of the spores that rise up out of the floor. In doing so the player is giving the choice of heading straight into the area or avoiding the area until they have the supplies to tackle it.

Figure 24. The bodies of dead soldiers warn the player of danger ahead
Figure 25. Spores rising out of the floor warn the player the place they are about to enter is swarming with infected

4.   The Overall Theme or Mood

Mise en scène, the montage effect, and echoing the world at large are all used to convey the overall theme or mood of an area. The signs, graffiti and items left behind gives the player insight into the history of the place and people who once lived there. The graffiti found throughout The Last of Us tells the story of how when the infection appeared society was unprepared to deal with it and collapsed; with the people who survived split into fractions. This story of a divided society fighting to survive is told primarily by the environment and is backed up notes and diaries of other characters. There is however a feeling of hope throughout the games, a large part of this comes from the fact that Ellie is a possible cure to the disease but the environment itself also conveys a feeling of hope.

One example of this is the graffiti found throughout the world left by the fireflies. The fireflies are a radical group in the world of The Last of Us who still believe that a cure can be found to the infection that has destroyed the world. Their sigil and motto “look for the light” can be found throughout the world and show that in a society where most people have given up there are those who still have hope. Contrasting elements, colour and echoing the world at large are used to create these feelings of hope and healing through the way that nature has reclaimed much of the abandoned world. The way nature has reclaimed the abandoned areas of the world is eerily beautiful; showing how nature always finds a way to survive. The giraffes found in the run up to the Fireflies hideout show how nature adapts to survive and the overall mood of this section is one of hope as Joel and Ellie have almost reached their intended destination (Rouse 2010).

Figure 26. Fireflies motto “look for the light” sprayed over their wanted posters
Figure 27. Ellie and Joel watching giraffes, the giraffes show nature’s ability to adapt

5.   The player identity

When playing a game players are asked to assume the identity of the character they are playing as. Echoing the world at large, mise-en-scène and use of the familiar are all techniques that can help a player discover a character’s identity. This can be seen in The Last of Us is where the setting, a post-apocalyptic United States, has split into fractions that compete and fight for resources to survive. There is an emphasis on survival, with the people who survived evolving and adapting to the situation. The brutality of survival has led to society decimating and splitting into groups that resort to terrible and violent acts to survive, or who use survival as an excuse to do terrible things.

This is very apparent in Joel and Ellie, the two character the player assumes the identity of. The Last of Us makes the player feel at ease with not only killing the zombies, or clickers as they are known in the world, but also with killing other survivors; such as the police, hunters, or other fractions. Society no longer exists in the way the player is familiar with; with everyone out for themselves and survival of the fittest being the main theme of this new version of society. Killing and looting in The Last of Us is a comfortable action as the environment echos the collapse of a civilised society through the game and killing is often a case of survival. Even when playing as 14-year-old Ellie the player feels no remorse when killing the other characters as it is either kill or be killed. The fact that Ellie is a possible cure for mankind also gives Ellie’s survival more meaning and importance (Gaynor 2013).

Figure 28. Early on in the game violence is established as a social norm
Figure 29. When playing as Ellie survival is often only possible through violence

6.       Where the Player Should Head Next

Colour, lighting and contrasting elements are all used to create environmental storytelling moments that help guide the player through the world. Throughout the Last of Us the player must navigate and understand the world all without the use of a map. So the environment must be able to effectively guide the play through the world. Colour and lighting are used very successfully to inform the player of where they need to go and provide hints of how they are going to get there. In the dark levels, such as the once set at night; in the subway or underground, light is the most effective technique used to guide the play. The game subtly makes uses the color yellow to direct the player through the level by marking pathways with yellow caution paint, yellow lights, or yellow objects. This combined with the use of familiar items such as street and subways signs and the use of contrasting shapes in the environment help to guide the player through the environment with them having to be glued to a map. By removing the map and using the environment to guide the player it also builds player investment as navigating the world becomes another problem for the player to solve; leading to more compelling and emotion storytelling moments throughout the game (Chung 2015).

Figure 30. Colour yellow of the police tape and caution paint against the green of the plants and brown of the wall draws the players attentions and guides them through the area
Figure 31. The contrasting elements of the circular shape of the bridge against the square structures of the buildings combined with the colour yellow draws the player’s attention and informs them of their next waypoint.

7. Influences and Restrains a Players Movements Through The Physical Properties and Ecology

The level design of this space demonstrates the idea that an environment can influence and restrain a player’s movement through physical properties and ecology. 

  • The physical properties are represented by the walls, doors, cars, concrete road barriers etc
  • The ecology is made up of your allies, enemies and item placement
    (Smith and Worch, 2010)

The Escape the City,  Pittsburgh level of The Last of Us is a prime example of how a games environment represents access. By placing restrictions on what the player can access it creates decision for the players to make which leads to meaningful play. During this level the player has to remove the enemies and make their way to the quarantine gates. The environment is shrouded in darkness and the player must avoid the search lights to stay hidden. The layout of the environment, and objects scattered throughout allows the player to make a choice as to how they will tackle this level. They can either make use of the environment and use stealth to take out the enemy characters or they can engage them directly using the environment as cover. Either way the games environment presents different possibilities for tackling the level and encourages the player to play their own way.

Figure 32. The light telegraphs the presence of hunters allowing the player time to decide how they will approach the situation
Figure 33. The contrasting elements of the Escape the City, Pittsburgh Level provides the player with areas to hid but also open areas that they must cross undetected

8.      Use a Player’s Own Experiences to Communicate Boundaries and Affordance

Through the use of the familiar and colour the area itself can also be used to communicate to the player what they can and cannot interact with. In the images below you can see what is left of Lincoln in Massachusetts. From the Liquor store, Diner, and other shop signs the player is able to work out that they are standing on what used to be one of Lincoln’s main streets. The barred doors and windows of the Liquor store and the Diner tells the player that these are not areas that they can enter. This encourages the player to move forward in search of resources and Bill, the character they are trying to find.

The sign stating “Mandatory Evacuation Notice” gives the player insight into what happened and why there are so many abandoned cars around, to make sure the player notices the sign the colour red has been used. Red is an eye-catching colour and in this instance, it conveys the message of danger and urgency as it is used for an evacuation sign. The date on the sign, 10/17/13, gives the player important information about when the infection first appeared in America and also implies that most people would have had to leave belongings behind when they were forced to evacuate; this is something the player can make use of by searching for supplies which can be used to craft weapons and health kits.

Figure 34. The abandoned remains of what use to be a thriving town
Figure 35. Government-issued Sign found in what was Lincoln but is now Bill’s Town

Echoing the world at large and mise-en-scène are ways to establish how the player, and other characters, are able to interact with objects in the environment establishes the boundaries of the game. The use of vehicles in The Last of Us is a good example of how an environment communicates the game’s boundaries.

Throughout the game, the player comes across cars abandoned when people were forced to evacuate to quarantine zones; as well as characters who can use vehicles to get around, such as the Military and the Hunters, a theme continually conveyed throughout the game. As the player though, cars are not something you can use. This is because a large part of the tension and conflict in the game is created as a result of the player having to cross America on foot, driving around in a car just doesn’t fit the games mechanics. Even when Joel and Ellie do get access to cars it is only for cut scenes and the player doesn’t get to control any of the action during that time. By providing spaces where the player can find vehicles but is unable to use them, the environment quickly establishes the boundaries of what is and isn’t possible within the game.

Figure 36. Early on in the game it is established the police have access to vehicles, but the player does not
Figure 37. When Joel and Ellie do get access to a car, it is for a very small amount of time and only for cutscenes

Case Study 2: Journey

A Story Told Entirely Through its Environment

 Figure 38. Screen grab from the game Journey showing the fast environment that draws the player in

Journey Synopsis

Journey is a linear walking simulator adventure game co-developed by indie studio ThatGameCompany and Santa Monica Studio and published by Sony Computer Entertainment.

In Journey, the player controls a robed figure, the Traveller, in a vast desert, traveling towards a mountain in the distance. Other players on the same journey can be discovered, and two players can meet and assist each other, but they cannot communicate via speech or text and cannot see each other’s names until after the game’s credits. The only form of communication between the two is a musical chime, which transforms dull pieces of cloth found throughout the levels into vibrant red, affecting the game world and allowing the player to progress through the levels. The developers sought to evoke in the player a sense of smallness and wonder and to forge an emotional connection between them and the anonymous players they meet along the way

1.      The History of What Happened in a Place

Through mise-en-scène , cause and effect and the use of the familiar the environment of Journey is able to inform the player about quite a lot of its history. The Ruins found in the environment tells the player that the world has been abandoned for some time; their placement throughout the world of Journey and the complex structures suggests that the civilization that built them was technologically advanced but suffered a sudden and catastrophic downfall. From the state of the buildings that remain it can be determined that this past civilization has been gone for quite some time as the structures have crumbles away and the land reclaimed by the elements. A prime example of this is in the desert levels where the surviving structures are partially buried in the sand.

The environment also suggest as to what the crisis point that caused the collapse of the ancient society was. The hundreds of grave like structures found throughout the world, most notably in the desert and snow suggests the idea that the ancient civilisation fell into a civil war with themselves and it was the that lead to the collapse of the once prosperous society. This narrative is backup by the hieroglyphs found throughout the game which tell the history of this ancient society (Nara 2015).

Figure 39. Ruined buildings found in the desert tell of an ancient advanced civilisation
Figure 40. Grave like structures found in the snow suggest a war erupted within the ancient society

2.      Who Inhabits the World and What Are Their Living Conditions?

The hieroglyphs, buildings and locations found in Journey are examples of the use of mise-en-scène, colour, and echoing the world at large to provide the player with an indication of who once inhabited the world and their living conditions. The structures themselves are technology advanced and suggest that at its height the civilisation was a prosperous one. The buildings that the player travels through are large, vast and intricate; showing that the people who once lived there were technologically and scientifically advanced. The technology and science behind the building of such structures suggests that the society was a prosperous one, rich in wealth and power.

From the structures left behind it appears that the ancient civilisation got its power from the cloth creatures that inhabit the world, much in the same way that the player does. As the player travels through the world they come across structures where the cloth creatures are trapped, some of which glow an eery blue. This would suggest that the ancient civilisation found a way to harness massive amounts of power from these creatures, and it was this power that fueled there civilisation and allowed them to build such impressive structures. These machines used for harnessing the power of the cloth creatures suggests that this ancient civilisation became greedy and started to use more power than they could harness.

Figure 41. Complex structure that involves the use of switches, activated by singing to raise the water level
Figure 42. Complex ornate buildings suggest the society was a prosperous one before it’s collapse

3.   What Might Happen Next

Through the use of the telegraphing and the familiar the environment of Journey is constantly offering subtle clues as to what may happen next, but not in the same way that ation games like The Last of Us does. In Journey, these clue are the murals hidden throughout the world for the player to uncover. These hieroglyphs show the history of the society that came before, showing its rise to power and its eventual fall to ruin.

What is less obvious is the way the player is following in the exact same footsteps as the civilisation that came before it. The player is constantly heading towards the peak of the mountain, as it is the most dominating feature in a relatively empty landscape; the bright beam of light also acts as a beacon for the player to follow. The figures in the hieroglyphs the player finds do the exact same thing; from looking closely at the hieroglyphs the player can work out what challenges they may have to tackle ahead. This is most obvious during the cutscene shown after completing the water level. The hieroglyphs shown at this point shows the path taken by the ancestors who came before, but now this journey is also that of the player. From this hieroglyph, it becomes apparent that the next and final challenge that the player must undertake is the final ascent up the mountain.

Figure 43. One of the hieroglyphs found with the world showing the stone structures found in the world are the graves of the those from the past civilisation
Figure 44. After completing the ascent up the tower the player is shown hieroglyphs representing the player’s journey, with the mountain shown as the next and final step

4.      The Overall Theme or Mood

The overall theme of Journey can be summarized as the voyage of life. It is a theme which is told purely through game design as it contains no spoken or written narrative, particularly though the game’s environment, and is done so through the use of colour, cause and effect and echoing the world at large. The landscape physically represents the ups and downs of life, with the player continually traveling forwards and upwards towards the summit of the mountain while facing and overcoming many setbacks along the way.

The environment also convey the theme that only by understanding past mistakes can you prepare for the future. The path the player takes through the games mimics that of the ancient civilisation that came before. The murals on the walls show that the civilisation fell to ruin due to war as they fought over resources. While the player follows in the footsteps of this lost society their actions are very different. Where in the past the society hoarded the cloth creatures to use them for power, the player frees these creatures and in doing so is able to progress forwards in the game. These overall themes of life and learning from the past are told at every level of the game, from the world setting and level design of the ruined ancient society to the hieroglyphs and creature interactions scattered throughout the world.

Figure 45. The hieroglyphs found throughout the game show the journey the ancient people took in building their civilization and it is the same journey that the player takes.
Figure 46. In freeing the cloth creatures the player is shown where to go next

Each level of the game conveys a different mood or feeling to the player, and does so through the use of colour and lighting in the environment. During the levels spent crossing the desert the colour orange creates the feeling of mystery and happiness as the player is free to explore the environment and go where they like. Later the player is plunged downwards into a dark, murky green environment and the excitement it abruptly changed to dread as you enter the confined space of the underwater level. The overall mood of the level is one of danger and caution and is backed up by the environment which is dark and restrictive of the player movements. The end mood of the level though is one of hope; having escaped the guardians chasing you the player travels upwards, bathed in warm orange glow reminiscent of the earlier levels.

The architecture is also used to influence the mood of the level and does so through the use of the familiar. Before the moment of rebirth the architecture is very much inspired by Roman or Greek builds. This changes to Japanese after the moment of rebirth and in doing so the environment creates a more spiritual mood. This mood is entirely dependant the player existing knowledge of the spiritual nature associated of Japanese torii gates. If the player has the existing knowledge then the use of this particular architecture is very successful in conveying the intended mood (Chen 2016).

Figure 47. Each level has a specific colour pallet to invoke a specific feeling in the player
Figure 48. Through the use of familiar symbolism the game is easily able to achieve the desired mood

5.     The Player Identity

Throughout Journey, the player is constantly looking for clues as to who their character, the Traveller, is. The game features no dialogue or text; with the player being provided no explanation as to who the character they are playing as is or what their goal is. From the environment though the player is able to begin to piece together who the character is because of the use of telegraphing and the use of the familiar.

The hieroglyphs found in the world feature depictions of white robed characters who look like the Traveller; from this the player can assume that the Traveller is a descendant of the ancient civilisation that now lays in ruin. With no cue as to who the character is or why they are there the player must rely on the environment to work out what their next move is. The mountain is the most prominent feature of the landscape and as such it draws the play toward it and the player concludes that the mountain is the goal for the Traveller (Chen 2016). The hieroglyphs found throughout the world also suggest that the Traveller’s goal is to reach the mountain and with little to go on about who the character is it becomes the main focus for the player as well.

Figure 49. The mountain in the background is the focal point of the landscape and the player is drawn to it
Figure 50. With no explanation of who the Traveller is the player’s decision to head to the mountain is backed up by the murals

6. Where the Player Should Head Next

Colour, lighting and contrasting elements are all used to create environmental storytelling moments that help guide the player through the world. Throughout Journey the player must navigate the world without the use of a map or waypoints. From the start of the game though the play knows that they need to head towards the mountain as the size of it contrasts against everything else in the scene and is the point of most interest in an otherwise bleak landscape. (Chen 2016)

The colour white is also used to guide the player forwards and is often used in conjunction with bright light. Part of the reason that the player is drawn to the mountain is the bright white light at the top of it. The light creates an eye catching beacon that the player can’t help but be attracted towards. This combination of the colour white with bright light is used throughout the world to attract the player to areas of interest or importance to the player. The symbols that enhance the travellers scarf glow a bright white which stands out against the oranges and blues of levels. With no set goal or concrete narrative to guide the player through the world the colour of bright white in the environment works as an effective method for drawing the player through the environment, just not necessarily via the most direct route.

Figure 51. Colour white and bright light against the green sky draws the play towards the mountain, which also happens to be the largest aspect of the environment
Figure 52. The glowing white light draws the player towards it, guiding them through the environment

7.      Influences and Restrains a Players Movements Through the Physical Properties and Ecology

Journey is a game told entirely through its environment, there is no dialogue or text at all through the entire game with the only instructions being a simple explanation of the game mechanics right at the beginning of the game. Through the use of mise en scène, colour, and cause and effect the environment is able to influence and restrain the movements of the player. After the brief tutorial the game starts with the player alone in the middle of an open desert., the only feature being a mountain in the distance. There are no words, or directions, for what the player needs to do; but after seeing the mountain the player automatically heads towards it. Not because they are told to but because as the dominant feature of the landscape the player wants to explore it; the physical environment of the game has influenced where the player wants to go. As a player you don’t know where you’re meant to go next, so you look around the environment and go where you want to based off what looks interesting; from this the player is able to work out how going to certain places and performing certain actions cause different things to happen. The positioning and use of buildings, ruin structures and environments elements, such as wind or snow, limits and guides the player as to where they need to go if they venture to far of track, but do so in a non-intrusive way that doesn’t break with the game mechanics.

Figure 53. The design of the level guides the player through the landscape’s features such as the mountain, a constant guiding beacon in the background
Figure 54. The red cloth, once released by the player, creates a bridge that guides the player to the next level

8.      Use a Player’s Own Experiences to Communicate Boundaries and Affordance

Journey might not seem like a game that can make use of a player’s own experience due to it being such a stylised game, but this is not the case. The way that Journey is able to communicate boundaries and affordances to the player is through the use of the familiar, colour, and light. From playing other games, or from using battery-powered devise a player is able to easily understand that the while symbols on the character’s scarf informs the player how much time they can stay in the air for when flying. Without the game even telling the player how their power works the player is able to understand that their ability to fly is linked to how long their scarf glows for.

The environment also provides boundaries that guides the player forwards. The buildings, bridges, and steps are all things that the player is familiar with and have experience interacting with in the real world. This means that the player instantly knows how to interact with the structures dotted about in the environment. When the player comes across a bridge they cross it, when they find stairs they climb them and when they come across a doorway they enter it. The player is never told where they need to head to but the environment is always guiding the player towards their ultimate goal, the mountain (Hosking 2016).

Figure 55. The characters can only stay in the air for as long as their scarf glow white.
Figure 56. The player is stuck in an enclosed courtyard, the only way out is through the doorway; forcing the player to travel forward towards the mountain

Applying the Techniques to My Own Practice

To show how these techniques can be applied to an artist’s own practice I have created an environment based of the game the Last of Us. The Last of Us has some amazing environmental storytelling moments so I decided to create an environment that would fit within its world. This quick scene was built with Maya, Substance Painter, Unreal Engine 4, Megascans, and the Quixel Suite. My aim when creating the environment was to hit the flowing purposes of using environmental storytelling: 

  • The history of what happened in a place 
  • Who inhabits the world and their living conditions 
  • What might happen next 
  • The overall mood or theme 
  • Where the player should head next 

To achieve these key points I implement the following techniques: 

  • Mise en Scène 
  • Psychology of Colour 
  • Lighting 
  • Use of the Familiar and Cause and Effect 
  • The Montage Effect 
  • Telegraphing

The Last of Us has some amazing environmental storytelling moments so I decided to create an environment that would fit within the world of The Last of Us. This quick scene was built with Maya, Substance Painter, Unreal Engine 4, Megascans, and the Quixel Suite.

The music is Gleypa Okkur by Ólafur Arnalds


Carson, D. 2000. Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park Industry [online]. USA. Available from: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/131594/environmental_storytelling_.php?page=4 [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC. 2015. The Art of Journey by Nava, M. [video, online]. GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHrwAacTwo [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Lecture by Smith, H. and Worch. M. 2010. GDC 2010; “What Happened Here? – Environmental Storytelling” [online]. USA. Available from: http://www.worch.com/2010/03/11/gdc-2010/ [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Vault. 2010. Environmental Narrative: Your World is Your Story by Rouse, R. [video, online]. GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1012712/Environmental-Narrative-Your-World-is [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Vault. 2013. AAA Level Design in a Day Bootcamp: Techniques for In-Level Storytelling By Gaynor, S. [video, online].

GDC Vault. 2015. Level Design in a Day: Using Level Design Tools Expressively by Dowling, F. [video, online]. GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1017639/AAA-Level-Design-in-a [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Vault. 2015. Level Design in a Day: Wayfinding & Storytelling Techniques by Chung, B. [video, online]. GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1022117/Level-Design-in-a-Day [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1022118/Level-Design-in-a-Day [Accessed 20 May 2020] GDC Vault. 2016. Designing Journey by Chen, J. [video, online].

GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1017700/Designing [Accessed 20 May 2020]

GDC Vault. 2016. Level Design Workshop: Architecture in Level Design by Hosking, C. [video, online].

GDC Vault. Available form: https://www.gdcvault.com/play/1023554/Level-Design-Workshop-Architecture-in [Accessed 20 May 2020]

Gnomon. 2017. The Art of Environment Storytelling for Video Games – Part One. [video, online]. YouTube. Available form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeUL-5wfj0U [Accessed 15 May 2020]

Gnomon. 2017. The Art of Environment Storytelling for Video Games – Part Two. [video, online]. YouTube. Available form: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr_uSTkBKtk [Accessed 15 May 2020]

Lowell, R. 1992. Matters of Light and Depth: Creating Memorable Images for Video, Film & Stills Through Lighting. UK: Broad Street Books

McIver, G. 2016. Art History for Filmmakers: The Art of Visual Storytelling. London: Bloomsbury Publishing

Verstraten, P. translated by Lecq, S. V. D. 2009. Film Narratology. Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Piaget, J. 1999. Play, Dreams and Imitation In Childhood. Oxford: Routledge

Games List

BioShock. 2007

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. 2016

Doom 3. 2004

Half-Life 2. 2004

Journey. 2012

The Last of Us. 2013

Rise of the Tomb Raider. 2015

Uncharted 4. 2016

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