What is Environmental Storytelling?

Modern video games often focus heavily on traditional storytelling, characterized by long tutorials, drawn-out introduction sequences, and extensive cutscenes. This approach can sometimes exhaust and disengage players. In contrast, games that employ environmental storytelling, such as Hollow Knight, immediately draw players into the action, allowing them to piece together the narrative themselves. This method prioritizes gameplay and immersion over lengthy exposition, making it a superior approach.

What is Environmental Storytelling?

Environmental storytelling is the art of using a game’s environment to convey a narrative. This involves the strategic placement of objects, scenes, and visual cues that suggest a story without explicitly stating it. Players are encouraged to explore and interpret these elements to uncover the game’s lore and narrative on their own terms. This method makes the story discovery process more engaging and personal, as players connect the dots through observation and inference.

How Does Environmental Storytelling Differ from Direct Storytelling?

Direct storytelling in video games relies on cutscenes, dialogues, and text to convey the narrative. It is explicit and often linear, guiding players through a pre-determined storyline. Environmental storytelling, on the other hand, is indirect. It shows the outcomes of events rather than detailing the events themselves, inviting players to deduce what happened. This creates a more collaborative and immersive experience, as players actively engage in uncovering the story.

Why is Environmental Storytelling Valuable in Game Design?

Environmental storytelling significantly enhances player immersion. By allowing players to discover and interpret the story on their own, it fosters a deeper emotional engagement. The game world feels more alive and meaningful, as every detail can potentially hold narrative significance. This method of storytelling makes players feel like active participants in the game’s world, rather than passive recipients of information.

For developers interested in incorporating this technique, the Ultimate Guide to Game Design Documents provides essential insights on structuring your game’s narrative elements effectively.

In What Types of Game Worlds is Environmental Storytelling Particularly Effective?

Environmental storytelling shines in game worlds with few non-hostile NPCs, such as post-apocalyptic settings or worlds depicting lost civilizations. In these environments, it helps convey the histories and fates of individual characters through their surroundings. Players explore these desolate landscapes, uncovering remnants of past events and piecing together the stories of those who once inhabited the world. Games like Hollow Knight excel in this regard, offering rich narratives through minimal direct exposition.

How Does Environmental Storytelling Enhance the Player’s Experience?

Environmental storytelling adds layers of narrative that evoke emotions, create curiosity, and encourage exploration. Players enjoy piecing together stories from the environments they encounter, which adds depth and richness to the gaming experience. This method of storytelling not only makes the game more engaging but also leaves a lasting impression on players as they feel a sense of ownership over the stories they uncover.

Examples of Effective Environmental Storytelling

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight is a prime example of environmental storytelling done right. The game throws players into action with little explanation, allowing them to discover the story through exploration, interaction with NPCs, and environmental clues. The desolate landscapes and remnants of past civilizations tell a rich, immersive story without relying on lengthy cutscenes or dialogues.

Early Pokémon Games

The early Pokémon games also utilized environmental storytelling effectively. These games provided a simple narrative framework, allowing players to explore and uncover additional lore and stories at their own pace. The focus was on gameplay and exploration, with the environment providing subtle hints and clues about the broader world and its history.

Walking Simulators


Games like Amnesia and Layers of Fear employ environmental storytelling to great effect. These games create atmosphere and tension through their environments, encouraging players to piece together the story from visual and contextual clues. Although they have their own set of challenges, they demonstrate how environmental storytelling can create immersive and emotionally engaging experiences.


Environmental storytelling is a powerful tool in game design that enhances player immersion and engagement. By prioritizing gameplay and allowing players to discover the narrative through exploration, games can create rich, meaningful worlds that resonate with players. While traditional storytelling has its place, environmental storytelling offers a superior experience by making players active participants in the story. This approach not only makes the game world feel more alive but also provides a unique and personal narrative experience that leaves a lasting impression.

For more insights on game development, check out these resources:

Your Game. Our Insights.
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