Mailbag: Environmental Storytelling

This is actually a reprint of a comment exchange that appeared earlier on this blog, but it’s the kind of question that I typically mailbag, so I’m reproducing it here for visibility.

A question, if I may: I’m not much of a story-writer (as in coming up with the ‘adventure’ part of the equation), but I’m working on a densely interactive VR diorama ( and a story/plot is starting to emerge from all the incidental detail popping up everywhere, taking shape in my head. It’s more of a situation/slice-of-life thing than a story per se. What would you (or any other reader!) say is a good way to come up with narrative cues to divulge this to the visitor?

I guess I’m mainly struggling with process – how to come up with just the right bits of information to relate to the listener, and how to make that matter.

Start by identifying the bare minimum. What are the 3-7 most important events or beats the player must know about in order to understand your story? What traces might those events have left on the world?

Recordings of from eyewitnesses (meaning artifacts such as diary entries, ship logs, etc) are less powerful than actual evidence of the event itself having marked the environment, but sometimes one must fall back on a bit of exposition from the past in order to make clear what has happened.

Whatever you pick, make these traces notable and place them where the player cannot avoid encountering them in the process of traversing your world. And by “notable”, I mean ideally things the player must actually interact with in order to proceed through the space; or, failing that, environmental set pieces large enough that it’s very difficult to miss them by looking the wrong way.

Now, what are the attitudes of the characters who participated in the story? What were their motives? Why did they do what they did? These can be even harder to communicate without expository elements in the characters’ own voices, but it’s possible to work with clues — foreclosure bills, discarded wedding ring, prescription medication for a chronic illness.

As a general rule, place the clues for these motives where they will be found after the player has found the event they motivated, so they have had a chance to wonder why something happened before discovering a reason.

If you must include diary entries or logs or similar things, make those elements do as much work as possible: have them speak in a character’s voice, have them communicate personality and side detail; have the character who is writing the diary entry be perhaps focused on something quite different from what the player is trying to find out by reading it, and reveal the truth only as an incidental.

Some additional resources:

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