Writing in games – PART 1 – World Building

Believe or not, I’m not always angry and I don’t have innate desire to have psychotic breaks each time something even remotely displeases me. In reality, I’m just an average guy with murderous tendencies – key word being ‘tendencies’ – as it only occurs on occasion when I’m pissed off beyond belief. Today’s not that day though. Today, and a few days henceforth, I’ll be writing somewhat educational posts – all tied down to the title itself – well, at least its first part – Writing in games. The reason I decided to start with world building over anything else is rather simple actually – it’s one that takes the least time to explain. When it comes to characters and story, there are many underlying elements to look at separately, that I simply need more time to think them over. Yes, believe it or not, again, I, on a rather rare occasion, stop and think before writing something for my blog. Odd, I know, but I digress – let us begin with today’s topic.

I like to think that most people consider world building as important as characters, story and gameplay itself, but unfortunately that is not the case. Most people, in reality, simply gloss over whatever world building there is, mainly because they lack the knowledge to actually notice it and understand it properly. For most people, world building relates to either level designs, open world areas, or backstories of certain places within the game world – not to say those aren’t important, only that they aren’t everything. World building is a rather strange topic, even outside the writing in games – just writing in general. A large number of books rely on proper world building in order to either deliver twists or satisfying storytelling. If you think of any dystopian or post-apocalyptic movie/book, you should notice world building at its foremost. World building entails a large spectrum of small things that eventually narrow themselves into a single layer – the world itself. As perplexing as it may seem, I consider world building to be far more important than the story. Bland and uninspiring worlds tend to bore us, especially if the game in question is open world one. It desecrates one of the largest aspects of those games – exploration. But what about the games that are not open world? How do they build their own world?

The answers are plentiful, and it’s rather surprising whenever I see a game fail its world building, considering they have the best ways to implement it properly. Book writer needs to rely on reader’s imagination and ability to comprehend certain details when building up worlds; movie writers have the visual aid, but it’s still restrictive because it needs to collide with the story and work together. In games, not only do you have visual aid, but the ability of interactive freedom. That amount of freedom and opportunity can be frightening, but you’d be a fool if you don’t use its full potential. Games with amazing world building immediately pop into our mind, but why? It’s rather simple, really.

Nearly all games have intro sequences before thrusting you into the world and story. Those first few minutes are dedicated to establishing the tone, visuals, and oftentimes the world itself. Take a look at Skyrim; its first few minutes, while quite boring in subsequent viewings, and even rather uninspiring in the visual department as the game has way more beautiful and alluring locations spread about, we’re going to look at it purely from the world-building perspective. While, yes, a whole plethora of unknown things are thrown at you rather immediately and, unless you’ve played previous installments, you’ll have felt lost by the time you saw your dragon, it establishes 3 far more important things:

  1. It establishes what kind of a world the story will unfold in
  2. It establishes major factions within the said world
  3. It establishes imminent change within the world

While Skyrim’s first 10 minutes aren’t the best intro sequence ever, it does succeed in the three things mentioned beforehand. So, by the time you are done with intro (basically, by the time you enter the Keep, or once you leave the Keep), you know the overall state of the world, its relative scale and your immediate choices of said world. From then on, Skyrim’s world-building is nearly masterful, and is only complimented by its opening sequence. The game uses its visual flair as aid, and its vast landscapes merely as means for you to understand the scope, story and history of the world.

I’ll avoid trying to use examples because this shouldn’t be a documentary piece you can quote; you should be able to imagine games that fit into certain descriptions I lay out, so let’s go with that.

Here are the key things, those you absolutely need, that accompany good or great world-building:

  1. Presenting the scale

Even if your world is a set of linear corridors, within the world’s story, there are things occurring elsewhere. For those very reasons, you need to establish the scale. If games use real-life locations, they’ll often print out country and city on the screen, and if the world is completely fictional, they’ll either have it established by the intro sequence or shortly after the one. The player should know just how big this world is within first 10 minutes of starting a new game. You can, of course, bend this rule if your story relies on the fact that so little is known about the world (Metro games do this masterfully, just to give you a right idea of what I mean), but in general you’ll have informed your players of world’s scale rather quickly.

  1. Setting

Oddly, this one should not even be mentioned, but low and behold. What do I mean by this? It simply means this: is your world a fictional replica of reality, is it low or high or dark fantasy, is it futuristic, dystopian, etc. There are insurmountable ways to present this but the easiest and most effective one is visual. If I need to explain how and how to recognize it, then you cannot be helped anymore. Sorry.

  1. Backstory

This is only prevalent in the fully fictional worlds. The world didn’t come into existence with the creation of your character – it has its history, events you had no hand in unfolding and many other things. Sadly, as simple as it seems, I’ve played very few games that have done this properly. Either the history is shoved down your throat via expositional dialogue, or is put into random, monotone books spread across the world, radio tapes and whatnot. No, actually, I do not consider these to be proper way of doing things. It showcases that the importance of world itself is rather low on the list of priorities. Most important events are always, always given to you in one of two ways:

  1. As previously mentioned, painful exposition
  2. Via the emotional backstory of a certain character that took part in said event/had someone close to him take part

Say, as an example, if there was a huge war fifty years ago within the world you created. This war is of great importance and you need to get players to know about it. How do you do it? Obviously, fifty years ago wasn’t such a long time. You’d create an older NPC and have him tell stories. And for juicer details, you’d have player ask around. How about having a graveyard near each major city where casualties of the war were buried, and inscription on the entrance just stating a few facts – like who was war led by, how long it lasted, number of dead people etc. Of course, not all information can be relayed in creative ways, but very little is.

  1. Present conflicts

Another obvious one, really, and it’s quite hard to go wrong with this one. Simply, what this entails is that your player needs to know who’s a friend/foe rather quickly. Again, you can bend this if you wish to keep your player in dark because it’s the part of the story, and this one isn’t as important as others.

 

And finally, what I consider to be the most important thing while building the world: a player’s place in the world. Now, many people will think this ties in far more into the story, and to a certain degree it is true, but I believe a lot can be understood about the world if you understand your character’s place in it. Are you the chosen one? Why? For what? How? When were you chosen? As the answers to these questions do relay to the story, they also open up another spectrum into understanding the world, and are a good way to kind of mask the expositional part of delivering the state of the world and relaying it to the player.

World can be a powerful thing in games; you can build your entire game, really, around it. You can use it either as a character, as a plot element, or simply as a pillar of support to everything else. All of the great stories rely on world building, however small the world within the story is, because it expands the stories as well as helping us understand the story within the context. So, whether your entire game is set within a single building, or within the large, continent-wide world, your job as a writer is, first and foremost, to understand that world to the very last detail, that last speck in the corner that most-likely no one notices.

World building may not be as hard as creating fresh, unique and interesting characters and plot-lines that eventually intertwine into the overall story, but it is no less important. As I said, world itself can be anything, and you should treat it not as a part of the bigger picture, but as the literal foundation for everything else that comes after – because that’s exactly what the world is. Once you understand what kind of world you wish to create, you’ll have half the rules already written with it. Small or large, open or enclosed, world to writing is what engine is to gameplay – essence without which nothing else would be possible.

 

NOTE: I realized I forgot to point out something obvious, but hey, someone might have misunderstood me: this is only relevant to the games that have worlds. So, platformers that rely on its gameplay and level-design do not fit into this post, and anything like those games.

Thank you guys for reading; I hope to release parts 2 and 3 by the end of the next week. They’ll be far longer than this part, so let’s hope I can somehow condense them down to reasonable word count. Until next time.

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