Environmental Storytelling

With spoilers for the game Tunic

I normally talk about books – or, when I indulge, anime – but today I’d like to explore an incredible piece of videogame storytelling. Tunic is a game in which you play a little (anthropomorphised) red fox. It starts with the fox waking up on a beach, with no indication of how you got there. You quickly gather a sword, a shield, and get your quest started. It doesn’t look like much: it seems to be one of those numerous Zelda-like adventures. And yet, it is the best thing I’ve played in a long while, and much more original than it lets on at first.

The first thing Tunic does well is play with our expectations. It doesn’t have a tutorial, but by running around and clicking on buttons which usually do stuff in games, the player quickly picks up how to use a weapon, roll to dodge a hit, etc. Similarly, we recognise some of the story elements straightaway. Because of this, we assume it’s a certain sort of story. We see a tall, female-presenting fox (I never thought I’d type those words one day) trapped in three magic circles of different colours. So, of course we gather three gems of the corresponding colours to unlock the prison – we believe she’s a princess locked away by an evil force, and behave in consequence. We think we know what we’re in for, because the tropes are so obvious.

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Then the twist happens: the first thing the fox princess does when she gets out is kill us. We realise we haven’t freed the princess, but some great evil.

That’s the second thing Tunic does skilfully: it makes us reconsider what we already know, and study it under a different light.

We see things we don’t know how to use before uncovering their meaning later on. We keep revisiting the same spaces but understanding them differently. Those thin rods of metal I bashed with my sword to produce melodious rings are actually hooks I can use my grapple on! Those squares of gold on the floor aren’t decorative, they’re passages to the spirit world if I pray in front of them! As players, we engage with the same environment differently each time – which is smart game design.

The environment, and the way we engage with it, also tells us a story. We see purple, glowing magic obelisks. We don’t think much of them as we walk past, or activate them to reach new levels. But then, we find a broken purple bridge, and we see the gooey matter which spills out. We find an abandoned mine with purple stones, and we realise that the magic was actually extracted from mines – and is polluting. In its raw form, it damages us and the environment. We realise the world is suspiciously devoid of foxes.

We fight monsters which seem to be old machines of stone – not unlike the creatures from Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky – which are still fighting although there are no more enemies, still guarding places with nothing to guard. We start suspecting that the fox civilisation did something terrible, and crumbled, leaving these ruins behind. We piece together the tale from what we expect and what’s missing. Without being told anything, by observing our surroundings, we get told a story.

And then we get to see the obelisk factory, and find out what the magical items are actually made out of. The first time I walked into a room to see a splayed, fox-like creature agonising in a pool of purple pollution, I had a shock. All these magical objects I’d been carelessly using, they hurt people, people were being tortured and sacrificed to them, all along. When I walked past the obelisks, I viewed them in a new light.

As the game progresses, we learn more and more. The princess is actually the Heir, to some civilisation which destroyed itself, and which we realise she led to ruin; the foxes destroyed their world by feeding themselves to this polluting, destructive power which enabled them to conquer death; we resurrect when we die thanks to the sacrifice of countless others; there is a golden path, magical and secret, to be found to break away from the cycle.

This is the third skilful piece of writing in Tunic: the story serves the gameplay, and vice versa.

By the time we realise this exploration and fighting game has transformed into a puzzle game (from finding traces on long-lost walls and drawing them as spells on our touchpad, to starting to decode the invented in-game language which is, frustratingly to the codebreaker in me, encoded as a phonetic alphabet) we are ready for it. The story has always told us to dig deeper, to not settle for what’s obvious, to try to uncover the truth – and so it’s prepped us, in effect, for the gameplay to change from combat to puzzles.

Tunic is beautifully crafted. The question is, for me at least: can I replicate this storytelling experience in a novel?

I believe so, and have sometimes seen it done. I’ve recently finished Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, which uses a similar trick. When we first visit Dolingo, a magical city hanging in a giant tree, with doors which open by magic and pulleys that pull themselves, we’re tempted to think the Dolingo people have discovered how to harness steam, or electricity, or some powerful magic. Then we learn what actually moves their beautiful houses and, horrified, we view the whole city differently. The same place goes from dreamlike to horrific.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer also uses some elements of environmental storytelling – we visit, we wonder at the place’s strangeness, we try to guess at its meaning. But, crucially, its creepiness doesn’t give us answers, which I found frustrating. I wanted a solution.

This type of writing is very useful for either horror or mystery. It gets the reader to study the story closely, looking for clues – it trains the reader to read in a certain way, picking at inconsistencies and small details which seem to fit together. In horror, especially existential horror, it gives us this dreaded feeling that things that seem familiar hide something else, something more, something so sinister the writer cannot bring themselves to say, so they only hint at it.

Gamewriting, like any writing, can teach us about stories, subvert expectations, make us want to challenge ourselves and ask ourselves how to create better work.

Bearing this in mind, can I play Tunic and call it research?

14 June 22

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