The layer in a story that is expressed by the setting, the landscape. In video games, from where the term originated; all the information in a game that the player can extract from the designed environment, as opposed to direct storytelling, where the information is given, in writing or spoken by a character or narrator.
EXAMPLES & PERSPECTIVE FOR NARRATIVES
An example of a video game relying almost entirely on environmental storytelling is Gone Home where a young woman returns home to an empty, mysterious mansion and reconstructs her sister’s story reassembling fragments she encounters in the environment of the castle.
As a storytelling tool for visual stories, apart from providing information, environmental storytelling can add an extra level of psychological depth in a subtle, non-explicit way. A character placed in a rugged, deserted desert, will evoke a different feeling in the viewer, than a character depicted on a busy, metropole square.
The setting, the atmosphere, the choice of colour and the feel to a location/background can be used as a visual reflection on a character’s internal landscape or the subtext of a scene/dialogue. Depending on the intended effect, the environment can match, question, add to or contrast the other content.
Take the famous ‘Orgasm-scene’ in the film ‘When Harry met Sally’, where Meg Ryan convincingly fakes an orgasm while sitting in a public diner. The same scene in a private setting, like a bedroom, would probably not have had the same effect, although the content would be more or less the same. The setting, or environment, adds a layer, telling us that the character Sally is not afraid to break conventions and to make a fool of herself in order to prove her point.
Another example to illustrate the use of environmental storytelling in film could be “Gravity” by Afonso Cuaron, where empty space can be seen as a visual metaphor of the emotional emptiness of the main character. Unable to relate in a normal way to other people after the loss of her young daughter, the main character is flung alone into cold, monochromatic space where she will have to save herself in order to return to a living, colourful earth in the end.
In VR/360 Videos
This layer of storytelling, to a certain degree already present in traditional film, might become even more important when the viewer is immersed in a 360 degrees video or virtual reality. In VR or 360 videos, the story could even be seen as an emotional landscape in which you submerge, allowing yourself to be “coloured” and influenced by the “architecture” of the story, much like in a dream. The environmental storytelling is a layer that is felt intuitively, more so than understood on a conscious level, and can be highly subjective.
Cecilie Levy. Dec. 1, 2017