“They do love having gnomes and teddy bears in funny position, it amuses them greatly at Bethesda”- Many A True Nerd.
In many ways, environemnts are a set piece to a game- the background of all the actions that take place there. It is also therefore important that they must contain a an information announcer, set pieces, and a background. A story cannot survive without its environment, and thus the crafting of the latter is often key to the story.
Normally, objects arranged around a world give a story; a ruin tells of glories past, or an old skeleton with blood next to it may tell us of and old forgotten crime. Arrangements in the environment are often just made of commonplace objects, along with unique scenes here and there. The aim of any environment is grounding the player, immersing them in the time, place and current events of all stories.
Object placement has always been secondary to the real story, carried out by a character, in any given story; objects obviously don’t tell a story themselves, but infact are more
For example, a good set up is the cazadore infested camp one comes up on in Fallout New Vegas. There are lots of bodies, Cazadores (an extremely dangerous predator) and a few measly notes. There are no ques
this whole set up leads to th question; can environmental storytelling do enough to stand in for actual stories and quests?
The answer is… no, not really; not by a long stretch.
A good example of environmental storytelling is always attached to an existing story system.
In Dark souls, a room full of sliced skeletons and broken shields tells the story of many battles lost. Increasing density of bones etc. tells that the killer may be nearby.
That particular story ends with an epic battle with some old demon or other things. The environmental set up is chiefly the background, a context for the ongoing story.
Other empty areas, such as a ransacked office in Resident Evil or a destroyed car in Fallout only serve to tell of a particular past. It doesn’t really integrate into the story. These kind of this feature as sets, as decorations, to give the world some more furnishings.
However, it does not make that world feel alive.
An alive world is done via dialogue, quests and exposition. Resident Evil’s world is alive and breathjing because of the dialogue, the exposition and the speeches. It is done with done with Jill yelling the line
“take the f***** hint!” as she destroys the Nemisis
The world of Resident Evil comes alive with the dying screams of some poor sap succumbing to zombies or Barry Burton telling Jill he cannot betray her as Wesker has his family hostage. The world comes alive with Leon’s quest and dialogue with Claire about how they must survive and meet again.
In all these instances, there are so, so many environments with carefully crafted wreckages and cgi dead bodies that tell a story. But it isn’t enough by itself.
Only forging ahead on a quest, a task, an urgent matter gives purpose to places, people and objects. By themselves, they do not develop a history.
The problem with environmental storytelling is that now, due to low quality standards, or maybe just sheer laziness//cutting corners, as a stand-in//replacement for actual stories.
This is the reason one finds so much object placement e.g. “bear with a magazine”, “Gnome on a toilet” or “three robotic dogs around a cards table” etc. All of these are set pieces, and while its nice to come upon them for the first few times, it does get quickly confusing.
Who sets all these things up in-universe? Who has that time and effort to arrange skeletons and one pristine bear with a cigar?
There isn’t an explanation, of course; the developer put it there. A ‘hand of god’ (so to speak) is not, however, a good replacement for the lack of story.
What ends up happening in the game, and by extension the gameplay experience, is that the world feels emptier.
Overall, while environmnets are useful for having a background for the story, they themselves cannot deliver a story. A set piece and/or stage does not tell a story- the characters, voice and writing does.