Environmental Storytelling and Gone Home

In Gone Home the player is Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman who has returned to the United States after a year in Europe. While she was away, her family moved to a new house, and the game starts with the player at the front door, facing a note from Kaitlin’s younger sister, Samantha. No one is home, and the game leaves the player to explore the house and piece together clues from the environment to discover what has happened during Kaitlin’s year away.

Gone Home reveals its story through audio diaries and the environment itself. The former, which come from Sam’s journal, are able to describe what the environment cannot: events that leave no evidence, or events outside the house. The audio diaries also require little interpretation from the player, since they are already Sam’s interpretation of events and details. Instead, they function as a supportive structure for what the player observes in the environment. Some details, like letters or notes passed in class, are as revealing as the audio diaries. Others, like a letter Kaitlin’s dad conveniently saved from twenty years before the story’s events, allow for exposition. These may be necessary to present the player with a coherent story, and they are mostly believable, but the moments where Gone Home’s environmental storytelling works best are more subtle.

There is a long history to environmental storytelling in games, but Gone Home is one of the first to dedicate so much attention to it. In older games, most of the objects in an environment were those that served some function. With limits on computer power, rendering and calculating the physics for many useless objects was cost prohibitive. Because most of these games were first person shooters, this limited environmental storytelling to dead bodies, weapons, and ammo. In some games, like Thief and System Shock 2, there might be evidence of a tripped trap, a note beside the body, or bullet holes in the wall to help the player piece together what happened in the moments before death. The number of unique objects in Gone Home wasn’t feasible until recently, and this is why most environmental storytelling has only been about dead bodies.

Sprung TrapA dead adventurer, some loot, and a trap panel (From Thief 1)

The best definition I’ve found for environmental storytelling comes from the talk, “What Happened Here?” that Matthias Worch and Harvey Smith gave at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. (I recommend listening to the recording and reading the slides if you haven’t already.) Worch and Smith define environmental storytelling as “Staging player-space with environmental properties that can be interpreted as a meaningful whole, furthering the narrative of the game.” This definition fits the examples Worch and Smith give in their talk, and it also fits with most of Gone Home, but their emphasis in the talk—especially their practical tips for environmental storytelling—is on creating chains of events where the player is trying to solve the puzzle of what happened. This is the forensic approach, which has its uses, but it doesn’t explain how some of the stronger moments in Gone Home work.

Terrence OfficeTerrence’s Office (Note the whiskey on the bookshelf)

For example, one of the first rooms the player enters in Gone Home is an office where Kaitlin’s dad, Terrence works. Instead of depicting a single sequence of events like a puzzle to solve, the objects in the room reflect a range of actions. The chair is pushed away from the desk, and a book is on the seat, suggesting that Terrence read the book at his desk and then left it on the seat instead of returning it to the shelf when he was finished. There is also a bottle of cheap whiskey hidden above the book shelf. Crumpled pages in a waste basket show attempts at the opening paragraph of a novel, and each page has more typos than the page before it. A cork board is covered with sticky notes outlining ideas for the novel. There is also an incomplete product review of a CD player in the typewriter. More than an exposition-heavy letter or an audio diary, these details tell the player who Terrence is.

It also doesn’t matter if the crumpled pages in the waste basket are from the same night that Terrence read the book at his desk or started writing the product review. The mess of notes on the cork board suggest even longer periods spent working in this room. The combination of details in the office tells us about Terrence’s ambitions and frustrations. Instead of having the environment tell a story, the environment depicts the patterns of behavior that let us imagine the character living in the space. We can see Terrence going for the whiskey to relieve his writer’s block on not just one night, but many; we can see more than the few crumpled pages in the waste basket, but the reams he has thrown away. Instead of “What happened here?” the questions become “Who lives here?” and “What kind of person are they?” It becomes about the living present instead of a dead past.

Sam RoomSam’s Room

This is also visible in Sam’s room. Where Terrence’s office reflects a certain focus on his occupation and interests, Sam’s room lacks this; it is a teenager’s room. It has an eclecticism from so many interests and ideas built up over years of her life. there is a dinosaur stuffed animal on the bed, a small basketball hoop on the back of a door, and some SNES game cartridges. Sam’s bookshelf has the collection of the kind of classic literature that a teenager reads. Magazines beside the bed and a collage on a locker show Sam’s interests in pop culture. In the closet, there’s the collar of their old cat, Mittens, and a colorful Lisa Frank esque binder from Sam’s elementary school years.

There is a greater sense of sequence here than in Terrence’s office, but it is not the sequence of a single event. The variety of objects show years of Sam’s life building on each other, and the room hints at the process by which Sam has discovered who she is and what she cares about. A discernible chain of events doesn’t really matter here.

Sam DeskSam’s Desk

Showing who a person is and not just how they appear is a struggle in games. A model may capture a person’s appearance and it may show their mood, but the appearance alone doesn’t show who that person is. Early Buddhist artists faced a similar problem with depicting Buddha. Instead of making a sculpture of the man, they created footprints, empty sandals, and empty chairs. They implied his presence without showing him, and this gave the emptiness a sense of space and life that statues depicting Buddha lack. The strongest environments in Gone Home achieve the same effect. When we walk through these rooms, and see the how their occupants have shaped them, they come to life, not as single events, but as months and years played out at once.

On Thief’s Level Design: Maps and Territories

There is a short story by Jorge Luis Borge’s called “On Exactitude in Science” where he describes an impossible map:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

These same ideas—maps and territories, degrees of abstraction—are at the heart of the Thief series. They are what give life to its level design, and distinguish the series from all of the stealth games that have followed.

Each Thief game presents a series of missions where the player usually has to break into buildings, avoid detection, and steal valuables. In setting, the games are a kind of steampunk medieval city, and the protagonist, Garrett, is a kind of film noir hero fit to face the city’s darkness. It’s weird, but kind of works in a pulp fiction way.

The levels themselves are big and spatially nonlinear, requiring the player to explore and gather information before completing the objective. Combined with the tension of hiding from guards—or sprinting through mazes of rooms to avoid capture—and the hours it can take to complete one mission, it is easy to become lost. Because of this, where other stealth games are about gadgets or waiting for gaps to phase in to guards’ patrols, the Thief series is about its level design. Each mission gives the player a hand drawn map of the level they are exploring, but the detail and accuracy of the map varies between missions.

The map has also changed between the games. With Thief 1, the map highlighted the player’s current room. In Thief 2, the map also marked the rooms the player had visited and let the player write notes on the map. Thief 3 stepped back, made its maps less detailed and no longer highlighted the player’s progression through the level. It’s an improvement Thief 3 made on the series that almost makes up for the removal of rope arrows.

In Thief 1’s third mission, a tomb named “Bonehoard,” the map doesn’t reflect the labyrinthine tunnels monsters have burrowed. If the player checks the map, instead of highlighting a room, the highlight appears over the text “Where am I?” Instead of relying on the map, the player must follow the notes left by the dead adventurers who came before and hope the markings they left are reliable. The limits of the map become part of the level’s history and the player’s story.

constantine mapConstantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

In the seventh mission in the gold edition of Thief (the sixth mission in the original version), the player is tasked with sneaking into an eccentric’s mansion to steal his magical sword, and here the map only shows the exterior of the mansion, and the first few rooms beyond, which is about as much information as the player can gather in 5 minutes of wandering. Where a more detailed map allows the player to plan a course of action and then quickly execute it, as in Rainbow Six where a player can spend more time on the map screen than in the mission, an incomplete map forces the player to slow down, pay attention, and create a mental map in lieu of a drawn one. “Constantine’s Sword” pushes further in this direction by including traps, secrets, and disorienting architecture. The player who treats this mission the way they treated the less complicated manor missions won’t make it far.

When the player checks their map at the start of Thief 2’s third mission, a police station where the player must frame a lieutenant, they will find 5 detailed pages. The map’s rooms are labeled, and important areas are annotated. Instead of aiding the player, the map overwhelms and disorients. However, through the process of playing the level and checking the progress on the map, the map’s abstraction and the level merge, and the player leaves the level with a feeling of mastery.

police stationOne of the five pages of the police station map (from Thief 2)

Because Thief 3 doesn’t mark the player’s position or progress, and because the maps are less detailed than those in the previous games, the player has to rely on the way the rooms on the map are labeled and the way the rooms in the level are decorated. If the player is hiding in a room with few furnishings except paintings and statues, then this may be a gallery, and by checking the map and notes for mention of a gallery, the player can reorient.

Even the details in Thief’s levels are overloaded with meanings like this. In other games, a texture may be a designer or artist’s arbitrary choice, but here the floor material tells the player how slowly they must move to remain silent, how far away they will hear a guard’s approach, and how visible they will be. It also tells the player about the room, whether it is public or private, how many guards and servants they should expect, and where the room lies on the map. All of these details matter as the player determines whether this route is safe. And that’s merely the information expressed by the floor material.

overlook mansionOverlook Mansion is bigger and more complicated than this map suggests (from Thief 3)

With all of this information to process, a map is useful as an abstraction. It culls the trivial or redundant and preserves the essence. It gives us a literal big picture. Instead of marking the furnishings of a room and requiring the player to infer the room’s function, a map labels the room at a loss of detail: bedroom, study, library, atrium. A detailed map requires the player to infer upward (if the room is furnished with a bed, it is a bedroom), but an abstract map requires the player to infer downward (will there be valuable loot or information in the bedroom? Maybe the key you need? What about guards?). What we call the levels in the Thief series exist somewhere between the physical obstacles and its abstracted representation; they come to live in the mind.

This matter of map versus territory invites other questions. What makes a building a house instead of an office or a factory? What makes a room a library, or a study, or a bedroom, if they all have bookshelves? Do these labels describe or prescribe the behavior within them? How is privacy encoded into these spaces (why does sneaking through a bedroom feel like more of a violation than sneaking through the main hall)? Thievery becomes not just a matter of mastering the physical obstacles, but understanding the social values that are attached to architecture: class, power, secrecy, the divisions between public and private spaces. Of course, this deeper exploration of a level is only true in recognizable structures, like houses, cities, factories, and cathedrals. The more unusual levels—tombs, caves, labyrinths, and ruins—are often too alien, forcing Thief back on its fundamentals as a stealth game.

constantine mansionA corridor from Constantine’s Mansion (from Thief 1)

Of course, many other games have maps, but these are often perfect replicas or pulled directly from the game’s level editor. The map in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, like Rainbow Six before it, is basically a wireframe view of the level’s geometry, even when the fiction shouldn’t allow for such detailed information. Because these maps lack bias, error, and are often too complete, they offer none of the mystery and delight of exploring a level in the Thief games. It is through the discrepancies of map and territory that we learn about the person or people who created the map, what they valued, and what they chose to ignore.

Thanks for reading

Untold Process

Between classes I’m a writing tutor. Sometimes my students don’t show up. When this happens, I pull out my sketch book. That’s how the design for my latest level came to me.


I started by drawing several pillar figures (visible on the right page of the image above). I was thinking about the geometry style in Halo’s multiplayer levels. I started sketching ideas around it, and then hastily drew the general layout at the bottom of the page before I lost the thought. (The left page was from another day when another student forgot to show.)


The second page reiterated the idea with some variation. Rather than having all of the beams lead to the center, like the ramps in the Halo’s Wizard, some rose and others fell (more like the ramps in DM-Deck). The third page added complexity to the layout. There’s very little difference between this and the final level. Even the funiculars (written as inclinators) are noted. Next to this layout is a height analysis. I also started guessing color tones and texture styles that might work.


The fourth page cuts away from the wall to expose its depth, but there’s little here I hadn’t drawn before. I drew the fifth page later, once I had toyed with the brushes in the editor and remembered how bad Unreal’s curve collision is, so I redesigned the level as an octagon instead of a circle. The rest of the final page is nonsense doodling.

I’m frankly surprised at how well the level came together. Usually my levels see several iterations, and the transition from a 2D idea to a 3D space seldom goes so well.

Another Level

I’m almost finished with this level. I still have two CTF levels in the works, and a third that I’m co-authoring with Nova (he’s doing the visuals, and so far they’re amazing). LevelIGuess5I’m also planning to write an article on multiplayer level design in the next few days. So hopefully that will turn out.LevelIGuess4

Whole Lotta Design

“Babe, I’m gonna leave you”

“Leave you when the summer comes along”

“I can hear it callin’ me back home”

“You make me happy every single day”

“But now, I’ve got to go away!”
[guitar solo]

Note: the first two images are from the same level. The other two are separate levels.