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  • Sharing Accessible Narratives Through Environmental Design

    [01.16.20]
    - Sukhraj Johal
  • Dead Space: The Iconic Scene

    The original Dead Space is praised for its use of environmental design as a means to deliver compelling narratives to players. One such moment can be found within the opening act of the game when the player is aboard the derelict mining spaceship the USG Ishimura. The player approaches a dimly-lit room. It is covered with blood and guts; the iconic phrase "CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS" is smeared across the wall.  As a western audience, we generally get the gist of this phrase. It is a call to action! 

    However, let's examine this scene in isolation from the rest of the game. 

    How would someone who is dyslexic interpret this scene? They may have a hard time reading the phrase. Or, someone like my mom may have difficulty with comprehension because English is not her first language. There may be opportunities where a person would probably glance at these words and walk away because they are unable to interpret the meaning. It can come to a cost in the game's experience because they are missing an important piece of narrative and the introduction to a gameplay tutorial.

    Traditional methods to create narratives such as fully rendered cutscenes are commonly used in the industry. But, they often pull players away from the game's experience or may not be a viable solution for many developers, particularly indies. Tools such as localization exist but they are often costly to develop and may not reach everyone. 

    In general, making narratives accessible to different types of people is hard.  

    But, designers can leverage a powerful tool at their disposal. The Environment! Players interact with the virtual spaces all the time; they are perfect opportunities to interweave pieces of narrative.

    Accessible Environmental Storytelling Techniques

    Let's look at four different ways that designers have used the environment to create accessible narratives: 

    1. Environmental Set Pieces
    2. Visual Symbols
    3. Detective Work - Arrangement of Objects 
    4. Lighting & Colour​​

    1. Environmental Vista's in God of War Make Players Relive Events from the Past

    Environmental set pieces can be used by designers to share complex themes or narrative beats to the player.

    The Ominous Face Etched On the Mountain

    Early in the game, the player's goal is to spread the ashes of Atreus's mother on the highest mountain in Midgard. On-route to the summit, the player sees a human face etched on the mountain-side with black smoke coming from its mouth. 

    The human face is set up as a sort of "visual omen" or signifier of death. The vista warns travelers that the mountain is dangerous or cursed. 

    Thamur's Corpse 

    The corpse of Thamur in Midgard is rich in environmental storytelling. While exploring this area, the player will learn more about how the giant lived, its culture, etc. Most of this information can be found from a closer examination of the giant's corpse by looking at its tattoos, clothing and jewelry. As players progress through the level, they can start to form a clear picture of who Thamur was before he died. This can all be achieved without the use of dialogue or cutscenes!

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