ASSIGNMENT: Environmental Storytelling Tools

PREFIX: In 2021, I was lucky enough to participate in an IGDA mentoring program, and had Dawn, an incredibly talented and clever young woman, as my mentee. Being able to talk about the craft of narrative with her was fantastic, and we shared a lot of common interests in games. In coming up with “assignments” for her, I wanted to not only teach, but do my best to better express my understanding of narrative in games and my interest in directions it can go.

For this assignment in particular, I feel like the vast majority of narrative designers come from writing towards design, not the other way around: each side has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course (design often pushing for writing to explain techniques that should be self-explanatory, or don’t allow for enough flexibility in time to write specific text for evolving mechanics… I have been both guilty of this and experienced it on the writing side!) Towards this end, I think that too much of our storytelling in games relies on an overabundance of text, or extremely heavy-handed environmental design (I have gone on at length elsewhere of how this bothers me, I even made it a point in a PAX Prime panel I put together in 2018, I won’t belabor it more here). But – as anyone who has studied editing and cinematography can tell you – there is so much more to telling a story than just text. Lighting, sound effects, set dressing… these are all tools at our disposal (or options for collaboration with those in charge of them, at least) to make an area begin telling its tale before a single word is spoken, or a blurb of text enters the screen.

I don’t think this instinct of breaking down and rebuilding feelings and sensations evoked in their arrangement for storytelling purposes is instinctual beyond a certain level. We have a generalized cultural sense of what is comfortable, or scary, or peaceful, and so on: but there is a great deal of subtlety than can be accessed with further study. Towards this end, I wanted to focus this exercise on the tools of sound, lighting, and props.


Setting: A room in a suburban house with a single window. Room can be anywhere from the size of a small bedroom to a very large living room, window can also be any size. Assume basic floor, wall, and ceiling textures. If you can see out the window, it is very minimal.

Props: You have a chair, a table, and a lamp. While they can have a certain style, they must be whole (no broken chairs) and potentially reusable in other parts of the game, so nothing too elaborate or outlandish.

Lighting: You have two potential light sources - environmental (like light coming through the window), and point (most likely from the lamp). The environmental light is tied to time of day, and the lamp is restricted to more normal lightbulb colors - warm or cool tint - and reasonable levels of intensity.

Sounds: You have two sound sources, just like light - exterior and interior. These cannot be specific scenes but could potentially be something like looped emergency broadcasts or generic wallah.

Restrictions: Props can be adjusted in size but not to intense degrees - child-size is okay but not a chair the size of the whole room - and while they must obey the laws of physics, can be manipulated (chairs upside-down, lamp knocked over, etc).

With this setup, specify adjustments for the following:

  • A cozy scene, based on a memory.

  • A tense moment in a horror game.

  • A sad moment evoking loss and/or failure.

  • An awkward or unnerving situation.

In all of these situations, assume the player character is ALONE, and the player only has what they see in that environment to set the scene, nothing verbal or textual.

EXAMPLE: for a scene meant to be kind of silly

  • Lighting: Time of day is early afternoon (neutral kind of light, nonthreatening), and the interior light is from a small lamp - very dim light and basically useless in the brightly lit room Space: The room is roughly medium living room size (4-5 meters?) and perfectly square. Black and white linoleum, pale blue walls, big window with tiny useless curtains on it that cover maybe the top third at most. Spotless but empty.

  • Props: Table is a cheap kind of office cafeteria table, chair is a stool that is painfully too short for it, and the lamp is a cheap ceramic sphere with a big shade on the floor on the other side of the room, straining at the very end of its painfully short cord.

  • Sounds: Outside there's a distant dog howling repeatedly (like a dorky beagle, not a scary wolf), and inside there is faintly a drip of water coming from an indistinguishable source.


These alterations are meant to mimic new demands in a development cycle, and force adaptation of the form.

  • PROP ALTERATION: The chair needs to be more generic; the table was cut

  • SOUND ALTERATION: You can only have a single sound, coming from either inside or outside.

  • GRAPHICS ALTERATION: The scene needs to have incredibly exaggerated colors / sepia tone / black & white.

  • DESIGN ALTERATION: Take the scene from before and make it suit the next scene down the list (ex. awkward or unnerving -> cozy memory) WITHOUT changing any of the props or lighting sources (props can be moved and lighting tweaked – like color or intensity or consistency - but they cannot be swapped out)