Things are often funny out of its original context.
Contextual Reference is a set of techniques where you provide the tools to the player in the inmediate context of the game, in order to leave them the duty of discovering the means of a particular situation.
Ok, that was kinda confusing, let’s try again: when you discover the meaning of a word in a book by the paragraph it belongs, that’s contextual reference; when you discover that your little son (brother, nephew, whatever) is crying and you realize why because you see a broken toy nearby, that’s contextual reference; and so on.
So, you are actually deducing a statement given some clues (which isn’t impressive as a concept), but the idea behind the definition is why or how you deduced that statement. You could derive by deduction the meaning of a word because you have knwoledge about linguistic; you also could derive why your little son is crying because of his behaviour (beyond the act of crying). Those sort of things aren’t contextual.
Contextual reference, as defined, is quite general. It relies heavily on, well, the context where you are applying it. But the general idea is still there: you have to use whatever is taking part of your design and stablish a frame where the players can derive anything they need in order to beat the game.
When well contextualized, games should drop written instructions or any other intrusive ways of comunication with the player.
As I said yesterday (and following the line of examples I’m giving today) crosswords can be solved by contextual reference: gradually completing it gives player tools to discover (or remember) an specific word without using the hint given by the game.
Environmental storytelling is another (and not that simple) instance of contextual reference. By using level design and art direction, designers can tell pieces of the background story of a game, and not only the story but even the mechanics of the game.
There is no way you can deduce that a murder happened in the first picture of this post. Actually, there is no way you can deduce something happened at all in that picture. And is not that a murder couldn’t happen and leave the room as it looks (a poisoned person or whatever), the thing is the context is giving you nothing to even think about it.
Hitler could have been in that room deciding the future of the jews and there is no way whatsoever for you to know it.
Of course, those are extreme examples (both Hitler and the picture), but the idea is pretty clear.
Environmental storytelling is a form of contextual reference that saves a lot of work for designers an developers in general. But that said, is not easy to design.
In Dark Recon there are two major ways contextual reference is being used (but have to say, not playtested yet): in the pattern search puzzle and as environmental storytelling.
The first of them is the crucial part righ now. We need to test or designs in the very core of the gameplay. Contextualizing it is very similar to what happens in crosswords. And again, is not easy to define.
More on that in further posts.