This article was published on: 16/10/2010

Bioshock 2

Evidence of our lives and personal story are all around us. Everywhere we spend any time. I like to call it emotional residue. If you look around your study or living room and pretend you’re a stranger, what could you tell about your life? Our imprint on the world is determined by how we leave things and the extent of the impact. Like a safari tracker you can tell a lot about a person by their trail.

In game design we exploit this idea with environmental story-telling. In a narrative driven game it’s very important to flesh out the entire back-story of events. Ask the question, what has happened in the world you’ve created leading up to this moment in time? In a specific room or area we can then fill in that trail. Literally inject story, journey and life into that environment.

The fascinating thing about games as a medium is that they allow for personal discovery a lot more. I’ve touched on this before. In books and to an extent in films they selectively show or describe a world to you. In games there is more freedom for personal exploration and discovery. This means more to people. As a player it is your insight not someone else’s. Or at least that is the impression we create!

We can craft an emotive experience a lot better by looking at emotional residue. Games have got very good at dealing with action. The here and now, what you role is and what you have to perform. But to miss out on filling in all previous actions and life in that environment is a big missed opportunity. What can you learn from what has already taken place to make this moment more meaningful?

People talk about a place being steeped in history and of feeling a deep spiritual connection. This is emotional residue. We are reaching out back in time and connecting emotionally with every person who has ever occupied that space. Our physical environment is a deeply emotional canvas. You are sharing a collective footprint and mark in the world. To ignore this incredible opportunity to impart emotion and story in a game where players can physically (at least through an avatar) occupy that space and leave their imprint would be a travesty. It’s a remarkable string to our bow as a medium that few others can access.

* Thanks to Ian Hall, Liam Morrey, Neil Walker and Anthony Filice for the inspiration for this article.

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