Through a Writer's Eyes - Part 2 (World Building Part 1)

Too Much or Not Enough?

If we look at all the games that we believe to have good stories, they all have something in common: they have a strong, believable world acting as the very foundation of the story we're experiencing. Even if everything that happens in the game is utterly from the realm of fantasy, and we know, deep down, that nothing like it will ever be remotely possible, the world behind the story is still the glue that holds it all together.

Let's take Bioshock for example. Here is a game that does more than just thrust you into the main plot and hope for the best. Through clever use of audio logs, the world and its characters are fleshed out, even though your interaction with them is severely limited. By letting the player delve deeper into the history of this fantastical world, they start to see things through different eyes. No longer are those splicers seen as mere obstacles on your path, but as actual human beings whose minds have been severely damaged. And while you know that you have no other choice but to kill them, your knowledge of their history is an effective way of garnering sympathy for these lost souls.

Sorry, but it's you or me

Does this mean writers should strive to answer every question, and explain every minute detail? The answer to that is a resolute no. Life itself is full of mystery and unanswered questions. One could say that not knowing is just as vital to our lives as knowing. And so it needs to be with a good story. By explaining every little thing you will eventually lose the attention of your audience, either because you're boring them with insignificant details they don't care to know, or because you are overwhelming them with knowledge of which the human brain can retain only so much.

In essence, by putting entirely too much detail into a story, you're no longer writing a story to be experienced, but college material to be studied.

The goal, therefore, is to find the right balance between not enough, and too much information. Stray too far to either side, and you will lose the captivation of your audience. But find that perfect balance, and you will have them hanging onto your every word, no matter how ludicrous your story might be.

Be Your World's God!

As a writer you must have an explanation for everything. And before you think I've lost my marbles and have started contradicting my earlier statement, let me clarify with a simple question:

If you do not fully understand the world which you have created, who will?

Ok, perhaps that just confuses the matter further, so let's see if I can explain it a little better.

As we all know, every action has a reaction. But one of the key things that we often tend to overlook is that every action has a motivation and a reason. Nothing we do is ever "just because". We might pretend we did something just because we could, but the truth is that something always motivates us to do something. Even our very basic instinct is a form of motivation that drives us to do what we do.

And it's not just us that logic and reason applies to. Just take a look around you, and you will come to understand that nothing exists simply because it does. Everything has a story, and nothing is without explanation.

And so it must be with the world you're building as a writer. While you might never explain exactly why certain things are the way they are in your story, you, the writer, must know. If you don't--if you lose sight of the logic behind your world--your story will begin to unravel. Details the would be believable otherwise will no longer make sense to the reader. By not having complete knowledge of the world you, as the writer, created, mistakes and inconsistencies will creep into your story. And while certain things might seem entirely trivial at first, even the smallest inconsistency can cause your carefully crafted story to collapse like a house of cards.

To bring this back into games a little, just think about all those moments where something happened in a game that made no sense to you whatsoever. I'm not talking about glitches, but about things that happened as intended, yet was completely inconsistent with your understanding of the world in which said game took place.

One good--and recent--example of this would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Without beating around the bush, the boss fights do not make any logical sense compared to what the game is portraying everywhere else in its world. All the potential of choice is suddenly stripped away, and the only option that remains is to unload on this single adversary until he or she falls. And while some will suffer through this contradiction in logic, others will not be able to look past this obvious flaw, and put the game down, never to pick it up again.

And you think this is weird? HA!

Okay! I think I've rambled on long enough. Originally all this was planned as a small precursor to explaining the act of building the world, but I got a bit carried away. So rather than add another wall of text, I'm going cut it off here, and pick it up again in the third part. Until then, I hope you all enjoy this little read, and I'm looking forward to writing the next part in which I explain the different ways one can go about creating their world.

14 Comments
15 Comments
Posted by Kazona

Too Much or Not Enough?

If we look at all the games that we believe to have good stories, they all have something in common: they have a strong, believable world acting as the very foundation of the story we're experiencing. Even if everything that happens in the game is utterly from the realm of fantasy, and we know, deep down, that nothing like it will ever be remotely possible, the world behind the story is still the glue that holds it all together.

Let's take Bioshock for example. Here is a game that does more than just thrust you into the main plot and hope for the best. Through clever use of audio logs, the world and its characters are fleshed out, even though your interaction with them is severely limited. By letting the player delve deeper into the history of this fantastical world, they start to see things through different eyes. No longer are those splicers seen as mere obstacles on your path, but as actual human beings whose minds have been severely damaged. And while you know that you have no other choice but to kill them, your knowledge of their history is an effective way of garnering sympathy for these lost souls.

Sorry, but it's you or me

Does this mean writers should strive to answer every question, and explain every minute detail? The answer to that is a resolute no. Life itself is full of mystery and unanswered questions. One could say that not knowing is just as vital to our lives as knowing. And so it needs to be with a good story. By explaining every little thing you will eventually lose the attention of your audience, either because you're boring them with insignificant details they don't care to know, or because you are overwhelming them with knowledge of which the human brain can retain only so much.

In essence, by putting entirely too much detail into a story, you're no longer writing a story to be experienced, but college material to be studied.

The goal, therefore, is to find the right balance between not enough, and too much information. Stray too far to either side, and you will lose the captivation of your audience. But find that perfect balance, and you will have them hanging onto your every word, no matter how ludicrous your story might be.

Be Your World's God!

As a writer you must have an explanation for everything. And before you think I've lost my marbles and have started contradicting my earlier statement, let me clarify with a simple question:

If you do not fully understand the world which you have created, who will?

Ok, perhaps that just confuses the matter further, so let's see if I can explain it a little better.

As we all know, every action has a reaction. But one of the key things that we often tend to overlook is that every action has a motivation and a reason. Nothing we do is ever "just because". We might pretend we did something just because we could, but the truth is that something always motivates us to do something. Even our very basic instinct is a form of motivation that drives us to do what we do.

And it's not just us that logic and reason applies to. Just take a look around you, and you will come to understand that nothing exists simply because it does. Everything has a story, and nothing is without explanation.

And so it must be with the world you're building as a writer. While you might never explain exactly why certain things are the way they are in your story, you, the writer, must know. If you don't--if you lose sight of the logic behind your world--your story will begin to unravel. Details the would be believable otherwise will no longer make sense to the reader. By not having complete knowledge of the world you, as the writer, created, mistakes and inconsistencies will creep into your story. And while certain things might seem entirely trivial at first, even the smallest inconsistency can cause your carefully crafted story to collapse like a house of cards.

To bring this back into games a little, just think about all those moments where something happened in a game that made no sense to you whatsoever. I'm not talking about glitches, but about things that happened as intended, yet was completely inconsistent with your understanding of the world in which said game took place.

One good--and recent--example of this would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Without beating around the bush, the boss fights do not make any logical sense compared to what the game is portraying everywhere else in its world. All the potential of choice is suddenly stripped away, and the only option that remains is to unload on this single adversary until he or she falls. And while some will suffer through this contradiction in logic, others will not be able to look past this obvious flaw, and put the game down, never to pick it up again.

And you think this is weird? HA!

Okay! I think I've rambled on long enough. Originally all this was planned as a small precursor to explaining the act of building the world, but I got a bit carried away. So rather than add another wall of text, I'm going cut it off here, and pick it up again in the third part. Until then, I hope you all enjoy this little read, and I'm looking forward to writing the next part in which I explain the different ways one can go about creating their world.

Posted by MikeGosot

That was awesome. Seriously, one of the best blog posts i've read. Can't wait for Part 3...

Posted by DiscoGobbo

This blog post is the exact same idea I was kicking around in my head but didn't put to text. As someone who's knee-deep in editing a novel with a world built from scratch, both points are dead-on. The fine line between clarity and mystery is harder to tread than many realize, and makes games like Bioshock and Portal all the more brilliant. Hammering out inconsistencies and causation in your world has the added bonus of momentum. When you've internalized all those rules and background events of your world, suddenly characters figure out their problems almost on their own because 'of course that's how this works!'. You don't have to puzzle out an aspect of the story because the weight of your groundwork pushes you towards an answer. As a result, the player or reader or viewer believes it just as much as the characters.

Great blog series, looking forward to future entries.

Posted by Ravenlight

Those boss fights man...

On the other hand, how about little moments of narrative that aren't ever really explained in-game but let you make up the story on your own.

Two examples I can think of off the top of my head:

Oblivion: In some random cave there's a locked door behind which is a goblin corpse surrounded by bottles of booze. No explanation.

Fallout 3: There's a super mutant in the sewer, past a hallway littered with traps, who happens to be wearing a party hat. WTF?

I love this sort of stuff.

Posted by Commisar123

I guess my question would be how much fantasy is too much? How do you make people care about aliens and strange planets that are so unlike anything they have seen or experienced in real life? To me this is what made things like District 9 and Mass Effect so special, and what it really means to make a good video game world.

Posted by TaliciaDragonsong

I don't need everything explained on the get go.
But checking a wiki or reading books about a game is a guilty pleasure of mine.
And on the wiki I can control what I want to learn, no need for a million ingame codex entries, books or audiologs.
 
Part 3 plx.

Posted by Still_I_Cry

I agree.

Sometimes it is hard when creating a world to know what exactly you're trying to achieve so you have to take a step back, maybe re-read what you have already and decide whether or not you can actually work with that material or if you're going nowhere with it. That's my experience with it at least.

Then again, what I write generally doesn't include world's being created in the sense that you're talking about.

Nice blog regardless.

Posted by Kazona

@MikeGosot: Glad you liked it!

@DiscoGobbo: Exactly. If the world you created makes sense, everything else falls into place almost by itself.

@Ravenlight: Random things like that can be fun, provided it's not something entirely beyond the realm of possibilities within that setting.

@Commisar123: As soon as you lose track of your fantasy, and you can no longer fully comprehend what you conjure up, then it's become too much. Wanting to be original and unlike anything done before is fine, but what's really important is ensuring everything you do can be rationalized in some way.

@TaliciaDragonsong: Having everything explained can be counter productive to your enjoyment of a story. But what remains a mystery to the player, reader or viewer is something the writer must fully understand. Just think of it this way. If someone asks you a question about a "mysterious" part in your story, you must be able to provide them with an answer.

@Still_I_Cry: Truth be told, that's how I do it. I shape my world as I write, but I always try to make sure that there's a form of logic behind it. In a way this does make it more challenging to write a (good) story, but I've never been able to do it any other way.

Thanks to all for reading!

Posted by TaliciaDragonsong
@Kazona
I agree, and that's where outside sources like novels or wiki's can come in.
Or else you'd risk clobbering the player to death with information as you wrote.
Posted by miva2

Too short!

Bioshock really is a great example of an interesting world. I use it myself too.

Unfortunately i only played it a few hours but it is clear that the world itself is the main character.

Adam Sessler also has interesting talk about this topic, as he clearly puts much importance in the world in a game.

http://www.g4tv.com/videos/51777/sesslers-soapbox-give-me-a-world-i-want-to-save/

http://www.g4tv.com/videos/48104/sesslers-soapbox-the-world-makes-the-game/

Imo, the world is much more important than the characters that inhabit it. There are always unlogical people around, but at least the world we live in is always logical.

The player itself is also a character. A crucial character that has to feel home in the world it is in in order for the game to be enjoyable.

Posted by TEHMAXXORZ

Awesome. Some good advice. I've found it very difficult to try and explain everything in something I'm writing, so much so I've even gone to actually researching the smallest least important bits of information for it to make sense. But I like (maybe even love?) getting lost in the detail. Sometimes I get lost in a world I've created. Some top quality blogging!

Posted by Noccee

As I said before, I really enjoy reading this. Looking forward the coming parts!

Posted by Kazona

@TaliciaDragonsong: But then at least you could say "it's CLOBBERING TIME!"

...Ok, maybe not.

@miva2: Too short? Now there is a reaction I didn't see coming! Just for you, I'll make the next blog post extra long. And then if people bitch about it, I'll blame it all on you :P

@TEHMAXXORZ: Getting lost in detail as the writer is--to some extent--a good thing. What you don't want, though, is to force details on your audience they're very unlikely to care about.

@Noccee: Thanks! If all goes well, the next part should be written and posted sometime this weekend.

Posted by colinjw

I see where you are coming from in regards to story and I understand that as a writer it is the first thing that you will look at and critic. I agree with you and think that may games lose the plot in more ways than one. What I want to know is does game play affect your enjoyment of a good story? Would you slog through a game with bad controls and systems but a fantastic story?

Posted by Kazona

@colinjw: To a certain extent I do, yes. It's hard to quantify exactly, but I would say that even the gameplay should, in part, be in service of the story. In the way that the text in a book should be laid out in such a way that it makes sense and the reader can enjoy the story without having to always re-read parts to understand it, a game should offer good and balanced gameplay that challenges the player, but does not frustrate them to the point that they can no longer enjoy the story.