The Death of Subtlety
I was playing one of the newer Tomb Raider games recently, and although I was enjoying myself immensely, something was bothering me. This is a series that’s ostensibly all about archeology. Of course, this being Hollywood Archeology, protagonist Lara Croft has more in common with James Bond than a stuffy academic, but nevertheless, she is all about raiding the titular tombs( although increasingly less so over the years) and uncovering their mysteries. But, for a game that’s supposed to be all about piecing together a story by looking at the environment, there’s really not much thought put into your surroundings. These games are gorgeous, of course, and I don’t want to belittle all the concept artists and designers who clearly put a lot of work into them, but all the intricate beauty of your surroundings is clearly just there for set dressing. There’s of course a lot of exploring and secrets and side stories, but all these stories are told to you through interactable objects and audio logs. There’s no incidental narratives, there is nothing to actually discover or piece together that isn’t pointed out to you in big, bold colors.
I am not singling out the Tomb Raider trilogy here or even criticizing it in a particularly harsh way. Even though it’s the most obvious example to me, it’s merely a symptom of a larger problem that is affecting the AAA gaming space. In an age of increasingly shorter attention spans and sensory overload, there is very little room for subtlety in big budget titles. Games of the past used to be entitled to your attention span, now they’re competing for it.
The Golden age of Environmental Storytelling
Obviously, that’s only a partial explanation for why environmental storytelling has fallen out of favor. The other side of the story is why it emerged in this form in the first place. Back in the day, video games used to be very limited by the hardware they had to run on. So many things that we take for granted these days, like voice acting, cutscenes, or hell, even graphics(remember MUDs?) were either very limited in nature, or plainly impossible. Of course, this meant that games were very limited in terms of what they could do to tell a story. But limitations aren’t just a hindrance. They also provide room for innovation. In this case, using the environment to tell a story, in the absence of other elements.
Environmental storytelling is of course, natural to video games, more so than any other medium. Whereas books have to rely on your imagination to fill in the gaps, and movies can only show you fragments of the full picture(because of course, there is no full picture), a video game can provide you with a fully realized world to explore at your leisure. There is also the matter of resource conservation. Even at the most rudimentary level, any game requires some basic level design. You can use that design to facilitate gameplay, sure, but why not use it to tell a story at the same time? This is a realization that many legendary game developers came to at the same time. But none did it better than Bethesda.
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