Storytelling in Environment Art & Level Design
“We as humans exist largely in story. The defining characteristic of humans is our ability to engage in empathy and to create and consume narrative.”
- Patrick Rothfuss (Why is D&D So Popular Again?)
There is a lot of information online about the technical skills involved with creating environment art, how to model, texture, etc. But how do you make an environment memorable? Engaging? I wanted to break this down in a simple way, so it could easily be used and incorporated into any art piece–whether it be for your portfolio or a game project, etc.
- Create a memorable experience
- Help the player with orientation
- Compliment the narrative
- Creating landmarks
- History / Function
- Emotional connection
- Treating the environment as a character
All of these overlap in ways or can be combined, so don’t take them too literally. It’s also worth noting that the type of game or project can change what works best. In a lot of games, it's important to help the player navigate and give them a sense of direction.
I’d say the most useful tool for this is to create landmarks. But perhaps you want to use the environment to help the narrative and tell the player the history of what has happened there before. Nothing is set in stone.
Landmarks help with both creating more memorable experiences and helping the player navigate your world. Even for a single shot, it can be important to guide the eye of the viewer.
To me this is the most obvious one to focus on, it should be a collaboration between design, art, and narrative. For level design, this can heavily affect the gameplay. For level art, it might determine the art set required and for narrative purposes, the landmark could be extremely important to push the story. Whatever might be prioritized, it always creates a certain 'theme' for an area.
In multiplayer games, landmarks are usually about map orientation and creating 'call-out areas' as you want to make it easy for players to know where they are and to be able to communicate that with other players in their team.
Example: Call of Duty Warzone
While in a single-player game, landmarks are usually more focused on guiding the player from point A to B, with gameplay/exploration in between them. This creates a form of tension and reward which, in turn, makes it a more memorable experience. This also works for the Open World genre, by letting the player navigate from landmark to landmark and keeping their interest for exploration continuously peaked. This is easily recognizable if you ever played a game like MMORPG's (think World of Warcraft) or recent open-world Assassins Creed's games. There is always something new to keep up the player's interest.
In the example below you can very easily guess what direction the player needs to go, there is an establishing shot of the landmark, the silhouette stands out and it is the only structure with an obvious material shift, which is then also highlighted by the lighting setup.
The only way you could make it more obvious is with a big red arrow screaming 'GO HERE!'. Now that the player knows where to go, they just need to figure out how. This creates a nice challenge/reward structure commonly seen in typical linear games.
Example: Tomb Raider
In the Open World genre, the same principles apply, but you want to essentially build up the world and space the landmarks in a way that when a player reaches a landmark, they can look to the horizon and see more landmarks.
Again this creates a loop of exploration/reward, just be careful to avoid placing more than 1 landmark too closely together. Small areas should have 1 landmark only, bigger areas might have more, but they should never be fighting for importance if it can be avoided.
Example: Assassin's Creed - Origins
Something worth noting when it comes to landmarks is pacing. You will want to balance areas of interest and areas of rest, not just visually, but also narratively. Create moments or pockets of interest, don't just throw them around carelessly. A landmark stops being a landmark if it's not standing out.
Extra reading material around this from Disney parks: Theory of Themeland + 'The Weenie'
History, what happened here? Function, what is it for?
This is often the main tool to assist with narrative, it can be core to the exposition or just a cherry on top to set the mood. It can serve as a motivation trigger for the player to get invested. It’s also a great way to enrich the environment without compromising the level design and additionally rewarding attentive players. If you’re not sure what to add to a scene, just start wondering: What was its purpose? (Function) - What happened here? (History) - Who lived here? (History + Function) - Why would the player pass through here (Function) - What should they experience in doing so? What message are you trying to convey? (Also relates to: Emotional Connection)
An example of using the environment to tell the story (history) and letting the player jump right into the gameplay:
When working on For Honor, the team wanted to add a simple onboarding experience that taught new players everything they needed to know while immersing them into the game as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Below you can see the intro cutscene we created. The environment sets the mood and tells the story, you don't need text, dialogue, or a voice-over to see that a battle went down and your character was on the losing side. You can see 2 main things, a fortress with the damage of battle (function) and lots and lots and lots of dead bodies (history).
History and function might seem very straightforward and obvious, but make sure to execute well on these when creating an environment. It makes a space believable, immersive, and memorable.
Whenever you create an environment, you want players to instinctively know where they are finding themselves without any obvious text telling them. Unless of course, the whole point is that it needs to be unclear and you want to surprise the player. But then it should still make sense in hindsight ;)
This one is tricky but worth trying to pull off. If you can evoke an emotion in a player, you have made the area more memorable and interesting. It will enrich the entire experience and make the moment more meaningful. I've personally found empathy to be a massively understated tool in environment art.
People are emotional beings, often memories or how much we care about something goes hand in hand with how strongly we connect with someone or something, as well as, how memorable that experience, person, or thing is. So what does this mean in practice? Whenever making an environment, consider adding someone's story in there. Or something relatable. Try to think about what you want the player to think about. Is there a story to tell?
An overly simple example, using a teddy bear, but hopefully a good starting point to illustrate why small things with emotional attachment can make a big difference. (a story vs a road)
Now, this is something easier said than done. The easiest way is to add a character or some reference to one. People can often connect with each other through stories. So try to add hints of things that might let the imagination of the viewer/player take over.
Below you can see another simple example. During a lunch break, I had started working on a small quick scene. It was put together quickly, but it wasn't quite conveying the message or story I had imagined with it. As soon as I added the characters it felt quite different without any change to the environment.
In this example of a train crash, you can see some simple props being added of someone exploring the wreckage, a cowboy hat, a rucksack, and a lantern. Why are they there? Maybe they are looking for gold, or a lost loved one?
The emotional connection element can be tricky to add as a physical thing, you might be better off focusing on lighting, camera work, dialogue, and so on to really get where you want a piece to be, but I'd encourage trying to also add it into the environment.
The video below is a nice example of the environment, storytelling, sound, character animation (and everything else) coming together to create a great memorable moment.
Last of Us 2:
Treating the environment as a character
This is something I've personally not had much experience in doing but can be often seen in movies, especially animated ones. Imagine the environment as a character that your main character will meet. What are their characteristics? What would their interaction be like? Do they want to help or are they dangerous? Let's look at some examples.
Characteristics / 'Personality'
Example: Is it a dangerous place? Then you could use aggressive shapes and colors. Notice the eerie feeling in the image below and all the pointy objects.
https://www.artstation.com/artwork/lVQ8ao - example ‘Klaus’
Another example of this is Lord of the Rings, think of the Shire, where the hobbits live, versus Mordor, the land of Sauron and the orcs. The Shire has bright and saturated colors, lots of rounded shapes, and areas that just feel 'fluffy' and warm. Mordor has a lot of angular, sharp, and jagged shapes. Mostly barren rock fields, toxic gas, and thick black smoke.
For a player or a viewer, it will immediately be visible what to expect from these environments without having any need for characters or a narrator explaining anything. The environment tells the story through its personality.
Age / Experience / History
This one works great with buildings and structures but can apply to anything. Just ask yourself questions like: How long has this been here? What would have happened to the material definition during that time? What would have been the primary and secondary experience for the area?
Below is a simple example of showing the viewer time has passed, it's just a prop, but you make the same adjustments for an entire environment. Color has faded, some additional wear and tear mean the 'shine' is gone and cobwebs have formed. It's an easy way to tell a player or a viewer there hasn't been anyone around in a while. The material definition is massively affected by age, but it really can apply to anything.
https://www.artstation.com/artwork/lVQ8ao - example ‘Klaus’
Connection to the player/viewer
You could always keep things simple when it comes to story elements in your environments and just focus on the player: Why is the player here? How did they get there? What can this place do for the player?
This could be as simple as having a player who wakes up on a stranded island, with a broken boat behind them, a treacherous path ahead of them, and in the distance a glimpse of a boat, ready for the player to take off in.
Ideally, this is a fun starting point, after that, you just keep on adding layers and layers of environmental storytelling!
As I said in the intro, none of this is written in stone, you should do whatever feels right for your environment and add as much or as little as fits the circumstance. This list is merely here to help guide ideas and goals when it comes to environmental storytelling. If you enjoyed this article, have questions or ideas, maybe a story to share, or suggestions for future blog posts, please feel free to write it all down in the comments below!
If you feel like supporting more of these posts, maybe consider following me or treating yourself to something from my Cubebrush store, currently, 40% off - valid until the end of the month.