In a bit of serendipitous surfing last fall, I stumbled onto “What Happened Here?” a presentation by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch at the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The presentation focused on environmental storytelling and referred not only to gaming, but also to documentary photography, narrative journalism and a treatise on comic books.

It’s hard to imagine news organizations spending the kind of resources on game design that commercial developers do, but in efforts such as Nonny de la Peña’s “Gone Gitmo” and Wired’s “Cutthroat Capitalism,” storytellers are already exploring how game experiences can intersect with journalism. And the Online News Association’s Interactive Narratives site includes hundreds of projects that give the audience a hand in events (though some are simply multimedia).

All of which makes Smith and Worch’s presentation to their commercial-designer audience relevant. Their distinctions between what film does and what games do, their thoughts on players’ relationship to the game environment, and their ideas on enriching interactive narrative deserve some pondering.

I decided to call Harvey Smith with some questions. What follows is a summary of the notes from their conference presentation, followed by comments from Smith related to the idea of nonfiction or reality-based games. It’s heady stuff, but worth a look for anyone thinking about how stories work in different media.

Smith and Worch contrast gaming with fictional exposition, arguing that gaming requires the player to take a role in interpreting information, building a story of “what happened here.” While a lot of stellar narrative nonfiction also leaves room for readers or viewers to interpret events, they suggest that gaming takes it to another level entirely.

Surroundings help create and reinforce the identity of the player. Signs of violence and looting may suggest to a player that future violence will happen, or that the player will be called on to perform similar behaviors. Lab-rat-type mazes will probably make the player feel, well … like a lab rat.

At root, Worch and Smith suggest that environmental storytelling involves the player making connections: “What we’re talking about here is subtext, which transforms simple scenes into something with a deeper meaning.” While all stories have subtext, Smith and Worch say that in games, subtext emerges differently. While print and film direct the audience’s gaze and focus its attention, Smith says, “In games, we explore.”

The pair illustrate their point with photos from a book by Robert Polidori. The first image is two goldfish that almost seem to float in the air, but on close examination look to be stuck to a screen door or window. Each subsequent image pulls back on the view and examines other perspectives – a muddied room with furniture topsy-turvy, a damaged house, a devastated neighborhood, and then a wide-angle overhead picture that shows a flooded, pulverized landscape. The series of photographs are taken from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and their accumulation into meaning mimics the kind of narrative experience that games offer, in which player exploration both yields and shapes a narrative. According to Smith and Worch, environmental storytelling “fundamentally integrates player perception and active problem solving, which builds investment.”

So a central question of the narrative is to create a desire in the player to find out “What happened here?” But all players may not answer the question the same way – clues left in game environments can be interpreted differently. Why is interpretation more compelling than exposition? Smith asks then answers the question:

What that really comes down to is the fact that environmental storytelling is active. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed that play, discovery and interaction are key to learning. This active approach to learning creates participation, which breeds investment. Students and players alike bring their own experiences, so the act of interpretation gains personal meaning.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player’s throat – quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is pulling the narrative. This leads to a familiar world, which is self-reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

The concept behind this is the Law of Closure. As humans we have an innate need to categorize and fit visual elements into a larger framework. To do so, we draw conclusions. Scott McCloud applied this concept to visual storytelling in “Understanding Comics”: “What’s important is what happens between the panels.”

Smith and Worch urge developers who are creating a setting to “think about how the elements connect. A single prop can transform the scene … In good environmental storytelling the elements combine to a larger picture, but have individual significance as well.” To keep the story coherent, they suggest having environmental elements draw from the main premise and echo the larger setting. The premise generates the events of the story, and the events remind players of the premise. “Every anonymous environmental storytelling moment wastes the opportunity to say something about the game.”

Talking with Smith by phone, I asked him about challenges and ideas particular to nonfiction settings. I mentioned a few examples, including “Peacemaker,” a game that allows users to play as Israeli or Palestinian leaders, requiring them to manage an escalating crisis. Smith was not familiar with the game but said that factional setups might be ideal for generating powerful narratives: “That strikes me as a really great way to give them an implicit understanding of why the conflict exists and what the motives are. It’s sort of a stealth way of putting a player in the shoes of another faction that they normally might pass judgment on and not understand at all.”

He repeatedly noted the difference between a “push narrative” and a “pull narrative” – both of which are embedded in a story but unfold very differently.

If you walk into a room and a character pops up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your ally, and I’m at the edge of this ruined city, and I’ve been trading with these people. If you take this gem over to the edge of the city, I’ll give you some gold,” that’s an embedded narrative.

But you can also embed narrative not in a push way, but in a pull way. If I leave a body in a cave and put some monsters in the cave wandering around, some rocks on the ground near the body, and a  hole in the ceiling with a shaft of light coming down, and the body has prospector gear, things that you might find on a miner, the player might look at that and say, “Oh, this guy was mining, and he fell through the hole and they killed him. I might need that equipment.” That’s still embedded narrative; the designer still places those elements. But instead of the designer pushing it to you through a conversation, you pull it from the environment yourself.  You walk past it, you observe the scene, and you infer what happened. Or you might miss it. That’s the thing.

Discussing the temptation to prioritize newsworthy elements in a nonfiction game and force viewers to encounter them in a certain way, Smith noted that there’s a tradeoff. You may want to herd players through certain experiences, but it often works best if you let them get there themselves. He explains:

That’s the classic insecurity of interactivity: Things might go badly. If you set up some systems where the player can’t fail, and everything is very protected, it’s not a game anymore. It’s boring, in fact. It has to be possible to make bad decisions in order to make the good decisions meaningful. It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful. You have to trust your players. Depending on execution, you can be successful at providing those details to the player while making it likely that they’ll find them.

Sid Meier is one of my heroes, and he says, “A game is a series of interesting decisions,” or something to that effect. I would add to that: a game is a series of interesting decisions in an emotionally meaningful context or situation. You can do a lot with a little. You don’t have to simultaneously make the most elegant artful, state-of-the-art game ever and also get your point across. The main reason for trying to adhere to some of this is that the experience is more powerful. The more it feels interactive, that the player authored it based on the outcome, the more powerful and memorable it is.

For more, see the full presentation, which includes images from games such as “Doom” and “Bioshock.” It’s not particularly graphic but might not be ideal for the tenderhearted.

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