Environmental Storytelling

Environmental Storytelling

It’s tough to judge games. So much of it can be determined by where in the game you are, who you interact with, and what happens to you. Even if you don’t have fun, the staff involved in it are skilled at making it an enjoyable experience for the majority of people. Generally, you can feel whether a game went well or not (especially as you become a staff member), but if you asked me what the best five games I’d ever played was, I wouldn’t have a concrete answer. Game writing is a cumulative process which I’ve learned from playing games, reading articles on the Story Board tumblr about games, and talking about games (a lot!), and every single game contributes to that process. However! There are two games I’ve played over the past 6 years that I believe have introduced a completely new method of storytelling to Wayfinder Adventure Games, and have deeply and profoundly impacted my view on what can be done in an Adventure Game. These two games are A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes by Zach and Penny Weber, and Out of the Frost by Kate Muste.

A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes

A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is a very strange game. While perhaps it’s similar to games run in Wayfinder’s history (a subject I’m not an expert on), it is vastly different from what we think of in modern terms of gamewriting. It’s set in a small village on a small island (very similar to Edo-period Japan), where a group of British-inspired sailors have washed on shore and caused all sorts of mayhem. The bear they brought with them killed the guardian of the forest and ate its heart, transforming into the new guardian spirit and driving the spirit world of the island into disarray. Horrible diseases (including red string, black eyes, and smallpox) were ravaging the population, and only the spirit doctors could help the people of the village return harmony to nature. It was a game about community, interpersonal support, the magic of nature, and the feeling of something absolutely unknowable happening to you. Production made more than 30 tiny puppets and statues which represented the various minor spirits of the forest, and lit them up with glowsticks and LED lights, creating the illusion that the forest is full of teeming, glowing magic. The sound of tinkling chimes and rushing water played across the entire campus, creating the illusion of strange forces at work. And the flow and game mechanics were unlike anything we’ve done since.

An important game convention was the use of disease. Everyone had a metal water bottle with them that contained about a dozen small slips of paper, rolled up into balls. Whenever the bell in the main space would toll, everyone would pull a slip of paper out of their bottle, and gain the new symptom of the disease. This might mean drawing eyes on your knuckles, tracing a new red line across your skin, or acting like you’re slowly going blind. This was the main antagonistic conflict of the game, as players feared and were tortured by the strange magics that consumed them. While the spirit doctors could help, their resources were limited. It created an atmosphere of terror and desperation as everyone’s health slowly decayed.

The flow of the game was also strange. When we traditionally talk about flow, we talk about it temporally – that is, events which unfold through time. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, although presented temporally within the game submission, is more accurately talked about spatially – how groups of people travel to locations, what they seek to accomplish by being there, and then how they travel back. The flow structure in the game submission breaks it down into 4 hour-segments, and describes how locations and the characters in those locations change over time. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, a spirit doctor (a PC, mind you) would take a few willing villagers to go hunting for a particular spirit in order to accomplish a particular piece of magic. Larger objectives, that carried the fate of the game’s inhabitants, were hunted out by larger groups of people. At one point, players had to lead the Box Spirit (a mindless being that was the only creature that could carry the seed of flame) up a very large hill by shouting and distracting it, creating lures that could trick it along. This flow wasn’t concerned about whether or not this would happen, or how long it would take. It was one possible path for the PCs to engage in, and if they failed to complete it before the end of game, oh well! Such are the trials and tribulations of life.

If I was running this game, I’d be terrified over the ending. The danger of a spatially-oriented game is that there’s no actual way to conclude it without just interrupting a bunch of people. But, in true Wayfinder fashion, everything turned out amazingly. There were two endings in two locations across the land, both of them super exciting and beautiful, and it started raining at the end to boot! Which added a beautiful, mystic quality to the emotion of the ending that left everyone exhilarated and filled with hope. Playing in that game truly felt magical. One participant sat on the bridge by the lake the entire game and just watched the world go by, and for him that was more than enough. The game wasn’t about creating a narrative which players moved through over time, it was more interested in a series of interactive locations which together, built a narrative.

Out of the Frost
Out of the Frost was the third Frontier ever run, at the Hudson Valley Sudbury School in February 2015. For those of you unfamiliar, Wayfinder Frontier Events are a series of off-season one-day events that are focused on a small production budget, low cost of admission, and character-based storytelling. When I want to tell people about what Frontier games are like, Out of the Frost is my premier example. Unlike A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the production for this game was practically nonexistent. If I wanted to, I’m confident I could run it again in my own house, with the random scary masks I have lying around. The premise of the game is simple – a research base has been abandoned, and you’re the rescue party. A freak snowstorm has trapped all of you in the base, and things are about to start going seriously wrong. In another beautiful (albeit frustrating) instance of Wayfinder weather, a freak snowstorm forced the event to end early, and the game was started several hours in advance.

The flow of the game was very simple. Horrific spirits called Hazard Ghosts slowly began appearing, tormenting the players and passing them notes which indicated the madness setting in. If you died (generally from suicide, or another player turning on you), you became a ghost, who needed to work with the few living humans in order to cure the diseases tormenting them. Ghosts could speak with humans, but couldn’t talk about or acknowledge the Hazard Ghosts. The only flow points in the entire game were three points where three main SPCs (the mayor, the head of the CSIS, and the head doctor) were flowed to die. These players would then come back at the very end (when things seemed most bleak) and rescue the surviving players, bringing them home.

This game is far less complicated, both mechanically and flow-wise, than A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes. However, in its simplicity a valuable lesson can be learned. This is a horror game about fear, about the ways people react when put in horrible conditions. As the game went on, the lab complex became a nightmarish parody of survival. Small clumps of people were clinging together, holding hands and communing with the dead. Hazard Ghosts were shrieking and mocking human speech, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and despair. People were wandering the halls aimlessly, lost and broken, looking for hope. The sun set through the white clouds of the incoming blizzard, lighting the main room with an eerie blue glow. Under these conditions, the game became about genuine, earth-shattering terror, caused by being pushed to a breaking point. It was, and I mean this in the absolute best way, a circle of hell brought to earth.

But what’s the connection (besides the use of small pieces of paper to communicate horrific mind-melting disease)?

The Connections
Both of these games featured an entirely new Threat, something which none of the participants had ever encountered before. In the vast, vast majority of games we run at Wayfinder, the focus is on interpersonal conflict. The bad guys show up, with claws and axes, and the good guys (with swords and spell bolts) must use violence to take down this evil. This is a very good storytelling structure, and it feels good for the players. It’s nice to know that darkness can be stopped with the swing of your sword! In the games we write this way, violence is central to our narratives. The only way to defeat the Big Bad is with a swirling storm of swords, the only way to hold off the monsters is with magic and talented tactics. When non-violence is presented, it’s as an exception to violence, it’s the idea that instead of hurting our enemies, we choose something else. In both of the games I’ve discussed above, we instead discover what I’d like to call False Violence, contained within a game that’s all about environmental conflict and storytelling.

These games are deeply, profoundly rooted in atmosphere. You can have a lot of fun if you just wander around and look at what’s going on. Everything in game feeds into this atmosphere, and the enjoyment of the game is rooted in becoming immersed in the texture and sensation of the world. In addition, the conflict experienced in these games are themselves environmental. The monsters aren’t something you can overcome with weapons, they’re woven into the very fabric and conventions of the world. The Hazard Ghosts of Out of the Frost are immune to literally anything you could do to them. They exist as part of the environment, and like a blizzard or an avalanche you have no hope of stopping or controlling them, and must deal with the consequences. The spirits of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes blur the line between playing character and prop. What’s the difference between having a scene with a spirit made from a few bent branches and a scene with someone pretending to be a spirit made from a few bent branches? The game was fundamentally about environmental storytelling, where the process of discovery and adventure is provided by the world around you. In addition, the diseases are an example of environmental conflict. They’re an evil force working against you and making your life harder, but just like the Hazard Ghosts, you cannot fight against them.

Both of these games also contain False Violence. While in a traditional Adventure Game, violence is the tool you use to solve your problems, in both of these games violence doesn’t actually help accomplish any of your goals. Violence is used to hurt people and to try and defend yourselves, certainly, but it doesn’t actually keep you any safer from the monsters that are hunting you or the diseases that are eating away at you. Violence becomes an activity performed, instead of a tool applied. This is fascinating to me! In a game about environmental conflict (man vs. nature), players seek to develop new tools to solve their problems. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, the players can call upon their environment, and the spirits that live in that environment, in order to help them solve their problems. While there is a primary antagonist of the game (the Head Priest, who believes the disease is a beauty and should be encouraged), stopping him isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. In Out of the Frost, a far darker game, there’s no hope to be found until the absolute last possible second.

Great, great, that’s cool. How do we use this to improve our games?

green-trioWhat We Can Practice
So, frankly, I’m not sure how to mimic the atmospheric and visceral power of these games, although I’ve certainly been trying. I’m going to identify what aspects of these games led to the scenarios described above, and some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while aping these games that creates for enjoyable experiences.

Firstly, I want you to read my article about Part 1 to Intro Gamewriting, and apply the concept of a Premise very, very heavily to this game. Firstly, both games had extremely powerful theses. Zach and Penny describe the themes of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes as “This is a story about whether or not humanity deserves to live. It’s also a story about the terror of dying when there’s nothing to fight, the weariness of being surrounded by death. It’s a story about tragic love, about shipwreck and disease and the cruel but arbitrary patterns of nature. About the line between Us and Other, and how we cling to the superiority of civilization, no matter how baseless it might be. It’s also a story about a ghost bear.” In Muste’s own words, “The game [Out of the Frost] was very much meant to push people to their breaking points in a cabin fever-y kind of way.” The game also carried strong themes of madness, frustration, isolation, and eldritch horror.

Secondly, I want you to imagine the sensual experience of playing this game. If you wander into the game, what does it look like? What do you see? Are there any smells or sounds that linger with you? Work into your production lists things that can contribute to this atmosphere. Having colored gel lights or black lights can add a unique vibe to the game, as can ambient music or even cooking food. One cool aspect of A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes is that orange lights and candles were used for locations associated with humans, while cool-colored and black lights were used for spirits. This created a natural association between the mundane, soft beauty of the human world and the exciting, alien world of spirits. If you intend on running a game that is so heavily dependent upon mood and aesthetic, be ready to work with Production an absolutely huge amount. When I’m running a game like this, I reach out to Production months in advance, and see what’s feasible, what’s not, and what ideas they have of their own to contribute. As an SIT working with Zach on running A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, I remember extensive production meetings between him and the Sets & Props heads, which was vital for making the game as beautiful as it turned out to be.

Thirdly, I want you to be thinking about Mission statements. While one of your Mission statements can definitely be “soaking in the aesthetic”, the players should have lots and lots of other things to do in order to make the game enjoyable. In A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes, each team has objectives and desires which propel them from scene to scene. Across the entire campus there were interesting and engaging spirits to interact with, and when in doubt, they always had the symptoms of their diseases. Out of the Frost had the madness spread by the Hazard Ghosts, the struggle of trying to find a way out of there and communicate with the outside world, and the mystery of trying to figure out what exactly happened here before the base was abandoned. A few people had weapons, and those weapons were used extensively against each other in fits of rage and delusion, requiring other people to heal them. In both games there was also a heavy, heavy focus on inter-character relationships. Love, spurned love, friendship, family, and mentorship were all common throughout both games.

These games also require something which can be a huge challenge for newer gamewriters – immersive mechanics. In both games, small slips of paper were used to create the illusion that some external source was influencing your existence, and added uncertainty and mysteriousness to what the future would hold. Other examples of environmental mechanics that lead to immersive storytelling are having an area covered in traps for rogues to deal with, and having the air outside the main space be toxic and require limitations on how you interact with it. All of these mechanics impact play on one level or another, and change how you engage with the world. The reason why both of these games make heavy use of the spirit realm is because spirit costumes are already an important mechanic in our systems, and exploring that is very intuitive for the games we run. It’s not necessary for a game heavily rooted in environmental storytelling to make use of game conventions, but including ones that are immersive and change the tone of play really allows for some deeply profound gameplay.

Finally, think about the spaces of your game, and how they interact. Out of the Frost was able to work so well because we had about half a dozen different rooms in the property we were using, which made everything feel isolated and claustrophobic. You could never tell what was going on everywhere at the same time, which allowed information and madness to travel slowly. The game would end much faster and feel much less dynamic in a space with only one large room. A Hollow Egg Hatches Eyes had many, many locations, spread out across campus, along with the paths between those locations being decorated and marked. While a game like a Tavern scene really only needs one location, an environmental game needs a diverse environment.

Now, this isn’t really a new or unique way for games to be written. I’m sure that what I’m describing would seem entirely natural to a gamewriter from 15 years ago, for instance, and I’ve heard of (and written) games since that connect thematically to this style. What I’m hoping for this article to do is shine a spotlight on a very unique game structure and nature, and how that can help us create better games on our own. My hope for this previous summer is that Silence Blooming, the game I ran with Jeremy Gleick, continues this tradition and provides a new step to the nature of environmental gamewriting.

Written by Jay Dragon
Posted 1/16/18