The landscape is the story

In the process of producing my current procedural terrain/world engine I’ve been examining a number of key games that focus on atmospheric terrain as a key design feature. I am a firm believer in notion of landscape as antagonist or exposition. I am generally dismayed at the poor quality of storytelling in most AAA games. I am also infuriated by the general mimicry of hollywood linear cinematic storytelling. Games present a far wider range of channels with which to engage the player in some form of narrative. In my opinion, the space where this interaction takes place is one of the most powerful storytelling mechanisms.

To me, navigation IS narrative and the exploration of game-space proceeds at a tempo guided by a players natural pace rather than the storytelling enforced by linked sets of scripted events. Cutscenes, rambling tutorials and ‘story’ npcs can ruin immersion, often shaking you out of the game to point out something that the game-world might have been able to tell you itself. Usually Im just reminded of how bad the voice acting, dialogue tree or facial animation is. As a consequence, I find much more empathy and attachment with the subtitled babblings of zeldas charicatures, the disembodied voice of glados or the silent yorda. For me, less is generally more when it comes to character driven exposition, there are a few exceptions but they tend to be swamped in my eyes by the b-movie majority.

Exploration of game worlds is generally an experience conducted on your own terms, to me this makes it an ideal storyteller. I can ‘re-read’ a place, move slowly when I want to take things in or examine the details. Dialogue and cutscenes are usually out of the players control, particularly in the pace of events. Usually the player is locked back into the rollercoaster seat of storytelling, or given a paltry 3 choice menu tree of responses. Back in the game world you are free to explore and experience the ‘story’ at your own pace, and the world is the paper the story is written on, the frame that holds it, or even the picture that tells it.

In Ico the castle is the enemy,( not in a gothic devil may cry mode), acting with an almost indifferent sense of mystery, history and timeless power. There is no single antagonist, no true conclusion and no dialogue. The only verbal exchanges are the boys plaintive cries to yorda and the brief undecipherable demmands of the castles denizens (even these have unreadable glyphed subtitles). The scale of the castle’s story is made more epic through its silence. Where other games would have plaques to read, notes to collect and npcs to interrogate Ico has nothing.

In some ways this is just classic videogaming, from a time before there was space or need for expansive stories. Enemies were wordless opponents, gameworlds were abstract spaces that only existed ‘for the player’, even the brief synopsis on the back of spectrum cassette tapes bore little relevaance to the game itself. But now many games (and gamers) perceive quantity as quality, and so we are treated to complex stats, achievements, filmic cutscenes, hybrid gameplay etc. Ico is haunting, and haunting is something that is very difficult to do in the noise of featurecreep.

Shadow of the Colossus revisits this idea of the game-world as antagonist, but as you play you begin to wonder who is the innocent and who is the wrongdoer. The sense of being an interloper is as tangilble as it was in Ico and the world is even more melancholy and unknown. Perhaps not as solid now as Ico might be in gameplay terms, some of Sotc seems awkward. The flaws it had on its launch; sluggish controls, low stuttering framerate and imperfect gameplay are even more obvious when set alongside next gen productions. But there are still no other commercial games like it, the daring contrast of the huge, empty landscape and the gigantic lumbering colossi is remarkable. There is something wrong about it, but then there is something wrong about what the player is being aked to do. The symbiotic nature of the colossi and their domain is effective and intriguing, they are part of the land, part of the game world, part of the story. Sadly there is more actual dialogue (guidance from the temple god) in Sotc than Ico but it is still super-minimal and quickly replaced by haunting miles of quiet melancholic ambience.

Another series, another platform. The STALKER franchise is one that initially looks like so many other post apocalyptic FPS fragfests, but its not. The open world gameplay, the brusqueness of the narrative and the strangeness of the world itself combine to tell a story that is more the narrative of a place than of people. Undoubtably indebted to both Roadside Picnic and Tarkovskys Stalker, GSC made the scarred and twisted terrain of ‘the zone’ the star ‘character’ of the series. The enemies you encounter, mutant or human, are the products of the zone, twisted genetically and morally through exposure to the menacing alien landscape. The terrain has laid waste to its inhabitants, not the other way around.

Punctuating this land of derelict industrial units and half sunk barges are the anomalies, hazardous regions of concentrated gases, radioactive emissions, electromagnetic forces and toxic liquids. Mechanics-wise they aren’t too disimilar from lava pools or spiked pits, but they have a vital role in personifying the terrain, each location forming an expression of the zones abstract malice and alienation. These locations; the brainscorcher, the oasis, the wish granter, play clearer roles in the story of the zone than the story npcs . The world of Stalker is more populous than Ico or Sotc, but the terse inhabitants converse in downbeat monotones and rarely have much of any detail to say. Missions are usually ethically vague and npcs often act in exhausted or zombielike states. Their lack of communication and lack of control forces more of the story into the terrain itself.

There are other notable cases of this style of world-story. The Metroid franchise has repeatedly projected the story of dead civilisations (alien & mythical) through its intricate level design, again building a tangible sense of substance through the architectural remnants of absent alien cultures. Even some of the Tomb Raider games follow this archaeological approach to story, albeit with an increasing hollywood edge. But world stories dont need to be macabre or morose, games like oblivion, fallout, silent hill and red dead redemption clearly attempt to mirror their storylines within the landscape. Indeed, all games should do this to some degree, its the basis of anthropomorphic fallacy. But they often mar the experience with poor exposition from other aspects of the gameplay (see my thoughts on fallout3).

What is interesting from my perspective and from my current research is whether a world can be generated procedurally and still maintain the ability to speak to players in the way that the above do.