The Effects of Environmental Storytelling
In storytelling, there is nothing more precious than belief.
Everyone can think of a narrative where something took them out of the experience they were previously enamored with. The moments where we question the truth behind fiction are important but when a work of fiction has no answer, we are forced to remember that fiction is a lie. However, when we find depth in a story, we are left satisfied and immersed.
This is the power of an emergent narrative. It loosely veils layers of depth, allowing consumers to believe in the story even when left to their own devices. When a setting like Rapture in Bioshock is explicit about details such as when everything went wrong, we accept those details and look for more. From moment to moment, we use that context to further understand the implicit aspects of the setting and deepen our immersion through the process. It is when designers try to avoid details that a world puts belief in jeopardy. However, a setting should only be used to answer the questions it would reasonably know.
In a game like Hollow Knight, the different levels often feel more informed by the setting than the other way around. For example, the City of Tears is plagued by constant rain despite being underground. When a player looks for an answer, they may discover the water is falling through the city from the Blue Lake above it. While this gives a nice sense of depth to the world of Hollow Knight, it is also important to realize that these types of questions reinforce the core gameplay theme of exploration. This kind of depth goes beyond lore and asks us as designers to remember the material it is hewn from.
At its best, an emergent narrative knows the game it is trying to support. It acts as a foundation, supporting the pillars a game rests on, and prompts the player to think of questions that the gameplay wants to answer.