Gaming As Research - Creating A Believable World

If I had to pick one aspect of my life to define myself, I'd tell people that I was a writer. For a long time now, I've wanted nothing more than to become a published author. Not a popular author, mind - I have no interest in attaining the same status as people like Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling. The appeal lies more in the creation of something that other people can pick up and enjoy. The thought of putting something real and physical out there into shops and onto shelves is really appealing to me. Probably because it carries the notion that, even when I'm no longer a part of this world, I'll live on through the words I've written, and in the minds of people who've read those words. 
 
Over the last few years, I've been building up the backstory to what will most likely be my first attempt at a proper fantasy novel. I've been toying with the concept for quite some time now, and I finally think things are beginning to reach a point where they constitute a full plan for a book. Things have changed considerably since the initial idea began to take root in the back of my mind. Old plot ties have been severed to make way for new ones. New characters have emerged to take the place of their older counterparts. Locations have been built from the ground up, demolished and rebuilt in a completely different fashion. This constant evolution has formed the basis of my creative thought process over the last few years, often to the point where I start to eat, sleep and breathe the fruits of my own invention. What I'm doing is, by my understanding, not too dissimilar to the process of creating a story-driven video game. Just like a novel, a game that intends to spin an interesting yarn will rely on realising its characters and its setting, as well as conveying the plot itself.
 
As I near the end of this preliminary stage and begin to think about the transition from concept into product, one thing in particular has been bothering me. I can only describe it as a by-product of being the over-protective parent of such a piece of work - a worry that I might send the result of my labour out into the world unprepared. The way I see it, with fantasy writing in particular, the success of what one writes is determined by its believability relative to our own world. The world that a fantasy writer creates has to be cohesive, and compliant with its own laws. Suspension of disbelief is a necessary aspect of fantasy, but it can only be relied on up to a point. To put it in simpler terms, it's ok to create a world where lemonade is a fuel source, as long as you back it up by adapting your world to fit - it's not going to be quite as plausible if your world doesn't have any means of sustainable lemon production. My biggest concern is that the world I've created around the story I want to tell might not be cohesive enough.
 

Why is Rapture such an enthralling place? 
So, over the last year or so I've been looking at the books I've read as a reference point. I've gone back to writers like Philip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien, writers who've created worlds that I've been both lost in and inspired by. I've also taken great care when reading new books to see how authors succeed in creating a believable, working reality different from our own. But, it's not just books that have to do this (here comes that video gamey relevance again!). Game developers also have to ensure that the worlds they create are believable - maybe even more so, considering we are not just a spectator of their reality, but an inhabitant and participant in it.With the release of games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4, we're starting to see more and more games succeed in portraying believable worlds with their own mechanics, politics and history.
 
Final Fantasy VII - proof that games can tell awesome, believable stories 
Story-telling in games has had a profound effect on me. Arguably more so than the vast majority of people who play games, I'd go as far as to say. The big one, however controversial it may prove, was Final Fantasy VII. To this day, FFVII remains one of my favourite games, and that's predominantly due to the influence it had on me when I first played it nine years ago. Before being exposed to FFVII, my experiences in the world of video games had been limited to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. These games featured slivers of narratives, but their stories were essentially only there to validate the actual gameplay. By contrast, FFVII's story and characters were the focus of the game. It completely changed my perspective on games in general, showing me the potential of the medium as a storyteller. What impressed me most, though, was the canon and history surrounding the game's main story that diligent players could unearth as they played through the game. It's the presence of this parerga within the game that really gave the world of FFVII a sense of credibility and made the events that unfolded throughout the story's progression even more believable (for me, anyway).

If you keep up with what I've been playing recently, you'll notice that the list is currently dominated by three sizeable RPGs - namely Fallout 3, Lost Odyssey, and Pok émon Crystal. Each of these three games contains a multitude of auxiliary content that helps to flesh out their world and make it more cohesive, and thus more believable. Fallout 3's backstory is arguably more interesting than the plot of its main quest, giving an insight into life before the bombs fell. Fabricated brands like Nuka Cola and the Ford Nucleon-inspired car skeletons littered around the Capital Wasteland convey the history of a world that was heavily reliant on nuclear power before it was destroyed by it. Lost Odyssey's world can be drawn on a parallel with our own thanks to the comparative energy crisis it experiences, and this is all thanks to the careful attention writers must have paid to the concept of Magic Energy. The fantasy world of the Pok émon games is made more plausible by the inclusion of related paraphernalia such as Poké Balls, not to mention the presence of fictional authority systems like the Pokémon League. It's the attention to detail in each of these examples that makes the game worlds feel "complete".  
 
To take one final example, let's have a look at a recent promotional video for the new Grand Theft Auto IV downloadable content, The Ballad of Gay Tony.  

 
The ad makes liberal use of an in-game brand, which in itself is a parody of a real world brand. The 'Sprunk' name is a tiny part of what makes GTAIV's Liberty City so believable as a parody of the real-world New York City. I think it's pretty safe to say that if Rockstar didn't build up all this supporting content in the form of consumer brands, television programmes and radio shows (to name just a few examples), GTAIV as a game would feel like a very hollow experience.

The last year and a half has been a truly enlightening experience from an authorial perspective. Playing games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Dead Space, and the first two Oddworld titles has provided me with an insight into how to make my world more believable by creating supporting content and integrating it into the world. In tandem, reading books like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Thomas More's Utopia has given me a great insight into how to integrate that supporting content into the narrative I'll be writing. I've reached a point where I'm feeling more comfortable with the way my concept is shaping up than I've ever done before, and I think that I'll be ready to actually start working on the novel itself in the very near future.
 
I think that's all I've got to say at this moment in time. For anybody who might be interested, I'm setting up a separate blog where I intend to pour out all my more authorial ramblings as I get well and truly stuck into the writing process which can be found here. I know it's devoid of content right now, but I expect it to get pretty active as we head into 2010 and the writing gets underway proper. For those of you who read my Giant Bomb blog, fear not - I won't be leaving the GB Blogosphere, and you'll still be able to find regular games-related updates here. Those of you who couldn't care less probably stopped reading about halfway into the second chapter, so I shan't offer you any parting words. To all you others, thanks a lot for taking the time to read this pretty sizeable (and probably largely nonsensical) blog post. If you have any recommendations regarding games that go a great job of realising their worlds, let me know - I'd love to investigate more of them. Take care, and I'll see you around. 
 
 
DanK 
 
--- 
 
Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
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Posted by dankempster

If I had to pick one aspect of my life to define myself, I'd tell people that I was a writer. For a long time now, I've wanted nothing more than to become a published author. Not a popular author, mind - I have no interest in attaining the same status as people like Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling. The appeal lies more in the creation of something that other people can pick up and enjoy. The thought of putting something real and physical out there into shops and onto shelves is really appealing to me. Probably because it carries the notion that, even when I'm no longer a part of this world, I'll live on through the words I've written, and in the minds of people who've read those words. 
 
Over the last few years, I've been building up the backstory to what will most likely be my first attempt at a proper fantasy novel. I've been toying with the concept for quite some time now, and I finally think things are beginning to reach a point where they constitute a full plan for a book. Things have changed considerably since the initial idea began to take root in the back of my mind. Old plot ties have been severed to make way for new ones. New characters have emerged to take the place of their older counterparts. Locations have been built from the ground up, demolished and rebuilt in a completely different fashion. This constant evolution has formed the basis of my creative thought process over the last few years, often to the point where I start to eat, sleep and breathe the fruits of my own invention. What I'm doing is, by my understanding, not too dissimilar to the process of creating a story-driven video game. Just like a novel, a game that intends to spin an interesting yarn will rely on realising its characters and its setting, as well as conveying the plot itself.
 
As I near the end of this preliminary stage and begin to think about the transition from concept into product, one thing in particular has been bothering me. I can only describe it as a by-product of being the over-protective parent of such a piece of work - a worry that I might send the result of my labour out into the world unprepared. The way I see it, with fantasy writing in particular, the success of what one writes is determined by its believability relative to our own world. The world that a fantasy writer creates has to be cohesive, and compliant with its own laws. Suspension of disbelief is a necessary aspect of fantasy, but it can only be relied on up to a point. To put it in simpler terms, it's ok to create a world where lemonade is a fuel source, as long as you back it up by adapting your world to fit - it's not going to be quite as plausible if your world doesn't have any means of sustainable lemon production. My biggest concern is that the world I've created around the story I want to tell might not be cohesive enough.
 

Why is Rapture such an enthralling place? 
So, over the last year or so I've been looking at the books I've read as a reference point. I've gone back to writers like Philip Pullman and J.R.R. Tolkien, writers who've created worlds that I've been both lost in and inspired by. I've also taken great care when reading new books to see how authors succeed in creating a believable, working reality different from our own. But, it's not just books that have to do this (here comes that video gamey relevance again!). Game developers also have to ensure that the worlds they create are believable - maybe even more so, considering we are not just a spectator of their reality, but an inhabitant and participant in it.With the release of games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4, we're starting to see more and more games succeed in portraying believable worlds with their own mechanics, politics and history.
 
Final Fantasy VII - proof that games can tell awesome, believable stories 
Story-telling in games has had a profound effect on me. Arguably more so than the vast majority of people who play games, I'd go as far as to say. The big one, however controversial it may prove, was Final Fantasy VII. To this day, FFVII remains one of my favourite games, and that's predominantly due to the influence it had on me when I first played it nine years ago. Before being exposed to FFVII, my experiences in the world of video games had been limited to the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog and Crash Bandicoot. These games featured slivers of narratives, but their stories were essentially only there to validate the actual gameplay. By contrast, FFVII's story and characters were the focus of the game. It completely changed my perspective on games in general, showing me the potential of the medium as a storyteller. What impressed me most, though, was the canon and history surrounding the game's main story that diligent players could unearth as they played through the game. It's the presence of this parerga within the game that really gave the world of FFVII a sense of credibility and made the events that unfolded throughout the story's progression even more believable (for me, anyway).

If you keep up with what I've been playing recently, you'll notice that the list is currently dominated by three sizeable RPGs - namely Fallout 3, Lost Odyssey, and Pok émon Crystal. Each of these three games contains a multitude of auxiliary content that helps to flesh out their world and make it more cohesive, and thus more believable. Fallout 3's backstory is arguably more interesting than the plot of its main quest, giving an insight into life before the bombs fell. Fabricated brands like Nuka Cola and the Ford Nucleon-inspired car skeletons littered around the Capital Wasteland convey the history of a world that was heavily reliant on nuclear power before it was destroyed by it. Lost Odyssey's world can be drawn on a parallel with our own thanks to the comparative energy crisis it experiences, and this is all thanks to the careful attention writers must have paid to the concept of Magic Energy. The fantasy world of the Pok émon games is made more plausible by the inclusion of related paraphernalia such as Poké Balls, not to mention the presence of fictional authority systems like the Pokémon League. It's the attention to detail in each of these examples that makes the game worlds feel "complete".  
 
To take one final example, let's have a look at a recent promotional video for the new Grand Theft Auto IV downloadable content, The Ballad of Gay Tony.  

 
The ad makes liberal use of an in-game brand, which in itself is a parody of a real world brand. The 'Sprunk' name is a tiny part of what makes GTAIV's Liberty City so believable as a parody of the real-world New York City. I think it's pretty safe to say that if Rockstar didn't build up all this supporting content in the form of consumer brands, television programmes and radio shows (to name just a few examples), GTAIV as a game would feel like a very hollow experience.

The last year and a half has been a truly enlightening experience from an authorial perspective. Playing games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Dead Space, and the first two Oddworld titles has provided me with an insight into how to make my world more believable by creating supporting content and integrating it into the world. In tandem, reading books like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and Thomas More's Utopia has given me a great insight into how to integrate that supporting content into the narrative I'll be writing. I've reached a point where I'm feeling more comfortable with the way my concept is shaping up than I've ever done before, and I think that I'll be ready to actually start working on the novel itself in the very near future.
 
I think that's all I've got to say at this moment in time. For anybody who might be interested, I'm setting up a separate blog where I intend to pour out all my more authorial ramblings as I get well and truly stuck into the writing process which can be found here. I know it's devoid of content right now, but I expect it to get pretty active as we head into 2010 and the writing gets underway proper. For those of you who read my Giant Bomb blog, fear not - I won't be leaving the GB Blogosphere, and you'll still be able to find regular games-related updates here. Those of you who couldn't care less probably stopped reading about halfway into the second chapter, so I shan't offer you any parting words. To all you others, thanks a lot for taking the time to read this pretty sizeable (and probably largely nonsensical) blog post. If you have any recommendations regarding games that go a great job of realising their worlds, let me know - I'd love to investigate more of them. Take care, and I'll see you around. 
 
 
DanK 
 
--- 
 
Currently playing - Fallout 3 (X360)
Edited by ElectricHaggis

You could argue that Tolkien's world is too well realised.  I know a lot of people who just couldn't get into the trilogy because of the enormous amounts of back-story and exposition.  It also doesn't help that he created several languages.  Don't get me wrong though, I am a big fan of the books.
 
If you haven't already, you should check out Mass Effect.  Through the side-quests and optional dialogue, it builds an incredibly interesting world.  Most Bioware games do.

Posted by natetodamax
@ElectricHaggis said:
If you haven't already, you should check out Mass Effect.  Through the side-quests and optional dialogue, it builds an incredibly interesting world.  Most Bioware games do. "
This. Playing through Mass Effect should be a requirement for everyone.
Posted by RagingLion

I agree with the Mass Effect comments - one of my favourite games from the last couple of years and does pretty well at creating a sense of place.
 
Just generally wanted to say really interesting read.  A novel is a huge undertaking so good luck with that.  I don't know what you're like as a person, but I always find with big projects that I love the conceptualising and thinking around the ideas part but running with the project and finishing it is a lot of hard work.  So just be aware, if you aren't all ready, that I reckon you'll have to rely on a different part of your character to finish the novel than the internal part of you that's currently excited about the project.  I could be wrong, but it might be that the initial enthusiasm runs out after a while and then you might have to rely on disciplining yourself to keep making progress at that stage.  Good luck with that though.
 
I feel like I know what you mean with eating, sleeping and breathing the characters and universe you're creating - it's like you're incubating them in your mind and you get used to the world and characters and gradually understand them better by effectively 'spending time' with them.  I'm thinking of creating a small game atm and it feels the same with the story ideas running in the back of my mind constantly as a background mental process.