When we talk about environmental storytelling, it’s typically within the context of video game design. It’s the collection of details in a set piece that lets you know what happened there. Tally marks left in a prisoner’s cell, a giant footprint of an unknown behemoth in the clearing of a field, downed power lines in a city, a single beam of light from the surface illuminating a single spot in an underwater grotto. These details are intentionally placed and are there, not to necessarily provide a specific narrative, but rather the implication of one. It creates a living world, that this place existed before and that it will persist after you.

However, sometimes environmental storytelling takes on a different meaning. Sometimes the setting isn’t just a place where things happen, but an active participant in the storytelling. There’s a common screenwriter joke about the “city being a character in and of itself,” but honestly, it’s not that much of a joke to begin with. One of my favorite panels in comics is from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Vol. 8: World’s End.

“So, if a city has a personality, maybe it also has a soul. Maybe it dreams.”

I started thinking about this “other” kind of environmental storytelling after watching Dune: Part 2, specifically after thinking about Paul’s siege on Shaddam’s forces in the final act (sorry for spoiling the third major adaptation of a movie based on a book that came out almost sixty years ago). With the help of the Freman, Paul was able to utilize the climate of Arrakis to completely decimate his foes. With its inhospitable desert conditions, the prized commodity of spice, and iconic sandworms, Arrakis is not only a setting, but a nexus point for intergalactic politics and an almost active participant in its own future. As the sandstorm rages against aberrant technologies, as the Freman ride sandworms to swallow legions of an empire in a moment, it’s hard not to see Arrakis as just a place. And it’s certainly not the only example in media.

One of the best shows you may or may not have watched last year was MAX’s Scavengers Reign, a gloriously animated series that I best described as Returnal meets Annihilation. The basic gist of it is that a space crew gets stranded on a truly alien planet where everything is seemingly living and merely being in that place changes you. Throughout the season, Vesta felt alien in a way that shook me to my core. The ecosystem was nigh inhospitable to the naturally occurring flora and fauna and the humans that crash landed into the planet managed to quickly change the calculus of the realm within days. And while there were individual entities that could be identified as “characters” in the traditional sense, Vesta itself felt similar to Arrakis. And given that almost every particle of planet could induce life and high intelligence, it’s not that far off to claim that the world as a whole was alive and had its own motives for some of the actions its avatars undertook.

And at this point, I could probably talk about James Cameron’s Avatar and how Pandora also fits this bill, but I am instead going to opt into pivoting into talking about the living world in video games. And appropriately, I’m going to go back to the two main examples that I used when talking about the traditional environmental storytelling of a real place.

Horizon Zero Dawn is probably the poster child for a world that consciously influences the place largely because (spoilers for a seven year old game) the entire world is the byproduct of the conflict of two artificial intelligences GAIA and HADES desperately trying to exert their influence onto the world resulting in roaming robotic lifeforms and combative terraforming. And yes, the AI entities could very much be considered individual characters rather than living worlds, but the fact remains that by far they are part of the environmental hazards, forces of nature that just so happen to be able to explain the rationale of their process. 

Finally, we’ll do a quick round discussing the handful of examples in Destiny 2, between the Realms of the Nine as seen in Prophecy, Savathun’s Throne World, and the upcoming Pale Heart of the Traveler. These are worlds shaped by their creators meant to provide insight into their existence. Whether it’s the dark matter dust constructs the Nine use to test us, the hidden secrets of Savathun preserved even in death, and the clashing ideologies of the Traveler and the Witness, these environments react. These environments revolt. These are not merely settings, but something much more grandiose in nature.

And not every story and medium is going to lend itself to such interpretation. Sometimes the setting will just be a setting, a place where action happens. But we can look back at a storied practice going back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, where Hell is a single room prison. A locked room whose only purpose is to keep three people in constant contact with each other, no rest, no relaxation. A world that has no lines of dialog but is undeniably more than just a set piece.

Want to get Black Nerd Problems updates sent directly to you? Sign up here! Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram!


  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *