Videogame art and object-based storytelling

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Objects tell stories. We can understand this from multiple disciplinary perspectives. In design, Onkar Kular curated the Crafting Narrative exhibition for the Crafts Council (2014). This work highlighted how creators incorporate thematic statements into the design of objects, demonstrating that objects in isolation have the potential for storytelling. In history, Neil MacGregor (2011) sought to encapsulate the story of human civilisation through the curation of 100 objects. In film, mise-en-scène (Martin 2014) describes the totality of the image captured by the camera, and how these elements combine to convey visual narrative. Set design is a key property of mise-en-scène, and prop selection, positioning, and use can impact on atmosphere, emotion, or theme. Henry Jenkins (2006) offers one of the most well-known discussions of the spatial storytelling of videogames, which in turn evidences the value of the object as a storytelling device within game narratives.

This paper seeks to build on the existing literature on environmental storytelling, by taking as its subject the individual game art objects (or props) that are incorporated into game worlds. Where dynamic object-oriented storytelling is taken as an approach to describing and developing videogame narratives at the level of the programming language (Merabti et al. 2008), we propose object-based storytelling as a term to describe the storytelling potential of videogame art assets. Concept artists/designers generate initial designs of game objects by applying arbitrary processes such as visual research and iterative design to expand on established narrative themes. Game prop artists (encompassing 3D modellers, sculptors, texture artists) play an important role in crafting videogame stories. Spatial storytelling implies a focus on the bigger picture (the mise-en-scène captured by the videogame camera): we suggest object-based storytelling as an approach to isolating individual game props and analysing their visual and interactive properties in order to determine the stories they tell.

The pleasure of interacting with virtual objects can be experienced across a range of videogame modes, both in terms of modes of play (e.g. the hidden object game, the immersive sim, the first-person shooter, the RPG etc.) and narrative modes (e.g. science fiction, horror, crime etc.) Objects are arguably of most interest when they serve both play and story: in other words, when the object can be understood in terms of its interactivity within a particular game genre, and its symbolism or meaning within a particular narrative genre. We can trace the dual application of videogame props as devices within gameplay and storytelling back to the earliest digital games, with key examples of object-based storytelling emerging in the 1980s in point-and-click adventures.

To constrain our analysis, we have chosen to compare two science fiction videogames that incorporate retro-tech objects into gameplay. These videogames are: Arkane’s retrofuturistic immersive sim Prey (2017), and No Code’s experimental take on the short story compilation, the 1980s retro-styled Stories Untold (2017). Not only do both videogames make explicit use of interactive retro-tech objects as storytelling devices, but they also represent very different scales of videogame production: Prey is a AAA reboot developed by a large studio that has been creating videogames since 1999, while Stories Untold is one of the first releases from a recently-established indie.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 9 May 2018
EventGaming and the Arts of Storytelling Symposium - Abertay University, Dundee, United Kingdom
Duration: 9 May 20189 May 2018


ConferenceGaming and the Arts of Storytelling Symposium
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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