There’s a building I can see outside my window that’s under construction. I’m not sure what it’s going to be or where exactly it is, but it looks to be somewhere in TriBeCa. The basic structure of it is there, there’s a crane going up the side, and it looks like the skeleton of a monolith as there aren’t any external walls up yet. There are tiny lights on each floor that glint in the daylight.
To my sci-fi-addled mind it looks like something you’d see in the background of Destiny, or maybe a new spaceship being built in Star Trek. It looks cool, almost otherworldly.
In other words, it’s something that could help tell a story. Visual storytelling (comics, movies, television, video games; anything that requires you to look at images) depends heavily on details to give life to the scene. Filling the background of the scene with details lends credibility and reality to the world.
This can be done in very subtle ways. In early seasons of How I Met Your Mother there were a pair of swords hanging on the wall of Ted and Marshall’s apartment. They were referenced on occasion, used once, but for the most part were sort of just there. That said, these two friends who met in college having swords on their wall added a sense of history to them, more so, than, say, a wreath would have (needless to say, Chekhov was probably very happy when they finally used them in a duel).
For all its epic-ness and grandeur, The Lord of The Rings films are filled with smaller, tiny details. Carved on helmets are runes which, should you have the bother to translate them from Tolkien’s appendices, say stuff actually relevant to the world. One of the buildings in the background of Minas Tirith is a ratcatcher, for example. Another one of these details is found in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, where Sam rescues Frodo from the orcs. There’s a lamp in the uppermost room which, if you look closely, was made from the helmets of Soldiers of Gondor. It’s a tiny detail, one that most people won’t notice, but it adds to the overall feel of the film. As I’ve said before, it’s these little details make a world seem real.
Which brings me back to Destiny and the spaceship-under-construction building out my window. Much of the game’s storytelling is done through environmental details. You’re not necessarily shown the story or the game’s background lore, but it’s there. When you enter Old Russia’s Cosmodrome you can see ruined buildings all about and, rising over the horizon, a huge spaceship with what look like futuristic space shuttles attached around the side. You’ve heard details about a Golden Age, expansion, and colonyships, but seeing that massive spaceship decaying in the distance adds a reality to it.
For a game so sparse on explicit storytelling, it does wonders with the little things. Item descriptions mention how the Titans raised the Wall or the exploits of some Saint-14. We’re not told more details than that, but, again, it adds to the feeling of depth and bigness of the world. Even things like seeing the crest of the Vanguards on a wall add further reality to it. The world feels like it’s breathing. These details make it seem alive.