Matthias Worch said something that really resonated a while back. With his permission, I repost it now:
Bioshock is a great recent example of visual storytelling done right. Bioshock also demonstrates how visual storytelling is a big part of creating the overall narrative of 3D action games.
On a low level, visual storytelling is about filling a space with history. The gamer plays detective: the designer has left clues about the history of a place, and those clues, once combined, give the player a better idea of what might have happened here long before he arrived. A bloodstain on the wall, a dead body slumped beneath it, a dropped gun on the opposite side of the room and footprints leading away from the scene – pretty easy clues to the events that transpired here. But that’s cool! I immediately feel like I’m playing in a living, breathing world.
On a higher level, visual storytelling is a great tool to create the game’s narrative. And for that to work, the levels’ individual storytelling moments need to be derived from the overarching premise of the game. If the game is about an infection that spreads like wildfire and creates quarantined cities, I expect to find lots of hints about what happened to the city as the infection started spreading. I expect to find hospitals that had been overrun with patients. Nobody is there anymore, of course – but there’s ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, waiting rooms that are filled with extra chairs etc. I expect to find school classrooms with half-completed formulas and ideas on the chalkboards. The chairs are all in disarray – everybody was evacuated in such a hurry that the place feels like it’s been frozen in time. I expect old newspapers on the street that show title stories about the evacuation. I expect to find homes with dead parakeets in the birdcage. The animals couldn’t be taken, so they starved to death. Starved dogs might be scouring the streets, trying to tear open the body bags. Fun stuff like that.
Bioshock does a good job at this kind of stuff. I can piece together how Rapture turned from the envisioned utopia into the broken down wreck that it is now. Yes, there’s audio logs which explain events in detail. There’s a bunch of scripted sequences. But there’s also countless silent storytelling moments that greatly add to the atmosphere. The music is still playing. There’s banners celebrating the New Year. Splicers are still wearing their costumes and masks.
This is so key to some of the stuff we’re working on now, related to the type of game I’m most passionate about. Good stuff, Matthias.