GAME DESIGNER'S MANIFESTO: PART FIVE (SHAPING YOUR WORLD)
In which we discuss how to build a suitable world for a fantasy or science fiction game.
- 02/02/2013 03:18 AM
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Before I start on this, I want to just put out a little description of the term "plausibility".
Plausibility is the believability of your story - the means for it to connect with the reader because it is something that can happen in the world it is set in, whether it just be a story about a boy wanting to pass a test or speculative science fiction about a corrupt government or whatever. With respect to world building, the created world does not have to match the real factual world we live in but it must be believable.
Most adventure games deal with two types of genres: science fiction and fantasy. These two genres offer a multitude of settings, e.g. cyber-punk, steam-punk, medieval fantasy, cartoony fantasy, etc.
Science fiction and fantasy can do whatever they want, honestly, but the designer should not only work with what the readers of these genres want and expect (but this is not saying they can't go gung-ho on the genre!), but try to do more than that. The players of these genres already expect elements such as giant robots and flying dragons and a pantheon of other elements, and nothing is wrong with putting these things in, even though the designer needs not force himself to.
Or you can just overload your game with bats and slimes...
But why not surpass that? Why not let your imagination run free and create your own creatures and technology? Yes, you do want to give the player what he expects, but if you want to stand out, you have to be innovative and creative. The player also wants something out of your game that has not been implemented in others. Or else it'd just be another "dime-a-dozen" games.
Be creative. Be imaginative. Don't just borrow and regurgitate what other people have done and rehashed themselves over and over. Add something new and fresh to the mix, even if it's outlandish.
A BRIEF NOTE ON SCIENCE FICTION WORLD PLAUSIBILITY
Science fiction can recreate a past and shape its present with that past, along with the future. Speculative science fiction likes to time travel us into the future. Why? The future is unwritten and we can make up something believable to run with it. The key to doing this is making sure your intended player stays connected with the story by placing references (not name-dropping) or connections to the present real world so the reader can easily place a contrast or compare both and think, "Wow, I wonder if that can ever happen. It doesn't seem that far." And it wouldn't seem that far because the player can connect the 'present in your fictional world' to the present in the real world.
Also, what I meant by referencing and not NAME-DROPPING or anything is to reference actual human emotions from the present, or extrapolate from that and put it into your story. I didn't mean like reference a specific year or anything - just the human condition. Remember you're trying your best to connect with the player and as much as you want them to be absorbed in your world, they still live in theirs and there has to be some sort of human connection, no matter what world you're creating.
/!\ What science fiction game designers should stay away from are writing MANUALS /!\ describing every bit of machinery or technology in their world - things like what horsepower this super bicycle runs on, how many gallons per mile, how many RAM does this supercomputer robot have, et cetera. If you have to do it, make it optional. Make some sort of electronic library where reading it is optional but don't expect the player to know every little thing about everything.
Though it makes the story more plausible, the average player may get turned off by it so know your limits. Only do this if you think your intended player would really be interested in reading through all of that and it applies to your story. They should try to stay with simple descriptions... but use words and terms to accurately describe what they are trying to describe. Doesn't make sense? Don't get overcomplicated with elaborating how many spikes are on your robot's neck, for example, unless they actually mean something later in the story or they give the robot some sort of characteristic that will affect a character (e.g. fear).
Stay away from a lot of jargon in the beginning until you are sure when the player can pick up all the jargon. Remember, your players have to believe all of this can happen in the future but don't deluge them with technical terms. Avoid events that will require 50 dialogue boxes of explanation and then don't have much to do with the story. Sci-fi designers like to throw these in just to show their prowess with technological knowledge and engineering. But it means nothing unless that engineering amounts to something totally bad-ass. As I said before, don't write a manual!
A BRIEF NOTE ON FANTASY WORLD PLAUSIBILITY
Now for fantasy. Writing fantasy is like writing science fiction but players will expect something different in a fantasy world. Sometimes people want realism in their fantasy, like fantastical events occurring in modern day society. Sometimes people just want to delve into a whole new world, like Tolkien's Middle Earth, where the world has its own history, its own cultures, its own different types of people, the behaviours and customs of these people, the landscapes, the clothing, the cuisine, everything. Some people like totally outlandish cartoony type of fantasy that is wacky at its roots.
Or sometimes.... a different type of "fantasy"...
It depends on what audience you're looking at.
But there are two principles that I think could help you make your world better and make it stand out:
1. Your world has to be detailed. Things have to be shown or described 'clearly' and 'vividly'. Even if it's just a barren wasteland or even if your entire game is set aboard a train, the world has to have character, preferably rich character. This does not mean describe and explain every single little piece of history and culture about a world. But fully fleshing out your world, its peoples, its cultures shows that the designer believes in this world he is setting his game and story in, and it makes it easier for the player to get absorbed in it.
2. And this world has to be consistent. Deviation from it may frustrate your player. Also, players still want a connection to their human emotion and the present world, so the law and conduct of most of the states and characters in your fantasy game will usually match up with the world we know, where murder is wrong, stealing is frowned upon, people get married and divorced (they do!) and war is... hell. You understand what I mean? Players still need that connection and they need that coherence. It makes this new world plausible to the player, together with all of the invented history and places that go along with it.
And by writing a fantasy, you can let your imagination have free rein and make up anything about your world. But it has to be consistent. The key word is consistent. Your world, though unreal and imaginative, has to be plausible. Events that take place in this world have to be plausible to the player. Fantasy designers are NOT excused from that contract.
So what do you take into consideration when planning a world?
General setting. Well, I already discussed the two main genres of modern adventure games. You have to decide what you want to do. You can borrow a setting from previous games or you can make your own. Each choice has its own charms and audience.
The scope of the world. How much of this world, first of all, is going to be explored in your game? You might have an entire world but your game might just take place in a very small part of it, or maybe half of it, I don't know. I understand you have to make the apple pie before you can cut the slice but you have to know your appetite as well. How much are you planning to slice off? How much work are you willing to put into it? How much do you want to focus on?
General history of your world. Every place, world, kingdom, whatever has a history. It would not hurt to simply write a general outline of what might have happened in your world for the past X amount of years, things that could have affected it most. I'm not just talking about The War of Hoohoohaahaa that occurred in 8,000,000 B.C. but interesting public figures, idols, traditional celebrations and rituals, anything that could have helped shape what the present is for your world. But try to be a little more creative than just showing cut-scenes of sprites fighting wars. You can do better than that.
A study of the general population. Who dwells in this world? I don't mean just stating that werewolves live in Lycania and snow people live in Tundra Land, but the fleshing out of the cultures of these people and the treaties they might have with each other. Is there any clash? Are there any rival states? What are their economies like? Do they have sociological problems? And do these things have anything to do with your main plot and crisis?
A geographical study. This concentrates mainly on the physical structure of your world. What kind of places are there going to be in your world? Is it a desert land? Is it snowed in? Is it like in that shit movie Waterworld? How many oceans are there? How many countries? Is it prone to natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes? What are the different climates? Do these climates prove to be any problems for any of its peoples? Integrate this point with the previous point and study how people, the general population, behaves in response to the physical structure of the world.
Detailed cultural characteristics. Already mentioned the study of the general populations. This point deals with the study of the individual populaces within that population. They are going to be different. They are going to have different architecture, fashion styles, languages or dialects, raise their children differently, public temperament will be different, their leaders will be of different personalities, perhaps even law systems. They could be Orwellian if you want. Different ways of life. But you must know the scope you are going into to know how much to delve into these things. Don't over-expose, but don't under-expose either.
How would I go about exactly showing this world for what it is?
This is where a lot of designers go wrong when it comes to world-building. They like to show lengthy introduction scenes that describe the world in heavy detail before the player can even get into the world and start moving around in it. My contention is that players should be kept curious about a world at first, but not for too long. If they are kept curious, they will want to find out more. If they are willing to find out more by themselves, instead of having it forced on them, they get more absorbed in a world, actually exploring it than watching a slideshow about it.
The details of this world should be unveiled and integrated as the plot and crisis carries along and unfolds. You just have to know the pacing at which to go doing this. My contention is that if you are going to have an introduction, at least make it playable, so the player can get immediately reeled in and absorbed through the action. The introduction should not be a slideshow or a history lesson or even a lengthy monologue. It should be a situation or a scenario, of some sort of foreshadowing nature, that sets up the premise of the game and introduces your main character, as well as the world he lives in.
In other words, show, don't tell. This is a piece of advice resonated throughout many workshops and guides. Show, don't tell. It is the superior way as it connects the player to the actual event involving the main character in his surroundings than a series of sentences describing the actual event involving the main character in his surroundings. For example, if a protagonist lives in a dystopia where the poor are forced to live in hunger and suffering in the slums, and he is one of the poor. Don't tell the story. Show it. Show everyday situations he has to go through as the game goes along. This has a bigger impact on the player and a bigger emotional reaction. Not forgetting to mention it's simply more interesting than just reading text.
Unless you think you can write a Phoenix Wright case...
I mentioned previously that you have to know the scope of the story and the how many slices of the world you are planning to design in. This is crucial, as you have to know the amount of information you are dealing with so you don't underexpose or overexpose. Do not underexpose critical world characteristics that enhance plot points (unless you're setting up for a twist). Do not overexpose unnecessary, trivial information, such as giving lectures about machinery and history lessons about wars that couldn't possibly matter to the player. They don't want to hear it, no matter how intricate you want to make it. It will detach them from your game. The only time they want to hear about these things is if they have a direct effect on the character's emotions or disposition. Otherwise, keep it to the very minimum. It is overdone and just plain tiresome and boring.
But this does not mean you have to toss it all out. Sometimes players get so absorbed in a world, they want to know more about it, even if the information is trivial. Make it optional. Create a library, a scholar, some giver of information that could spew all of this for you if desired. But once again, make it voluntary. Don't make it compulsory.
So just to recap, these are some Do's and Don't's coming to World Building and exposing your world to your player:
DO: Know what your setting is, whether you are borrowing or making one up, and know what your player is expecting when you are creating this setting but do not let that limit your creativity. You can do anything you want, once you maintain that connection between the player and your setting.
DON'T: Don't be sparse with your world, unless intentionally for plot purposes. Don't make the player fill in important blanks, unless it's intentional for plot purposes.
DO: Be consistent with your world and the setting you have created and what the player will be accustomed to in the beginning of the game. If you plan to deviate, at least foreshadow it.
DON'T: Don't be afraid to mix genres and settings but not halfway through the game. Make sure to foreshadow or let your player that this is something to be expected, however. You have to be careful.
DO: Introduce your world through the eyes of a character or a group of characters, not through lectures and history lessons. This helps your player be more connected and absorbed to both your world and your character. Show, don't tell.
DON'T: Don't give random history lessons and make dialogue as much as reading an instruction manual on how to work a microwave. The player does not enjoy this. If you wish to put in supplementary information, be free to make it optional, not mandatory.
DO: Know how much to expose depending on the scope of your story and the nature of your plot and crisis. Do know what is relevant and what is not.
DON'T: Don't name-drop too much unless you are absolutely sure the player will be able to realize what the terms and jargon mean. The designer should also put some care into what he names his people and his places. Not every Mountain is going to be called Mount Doom. Not every underwater place is going to be called Atlantis. Not every city is going to be called Figaro. Come up with original names for your characters and places. It would help to explore the etymology of the words you are using as well, to give them a deeper meaning.
- Do I prefer cinematic introductions or playable introductions?
- Should extra information be mandatory or optional?
= How detailed and consistent should a world be?
- Would I prefer be "shown" and not "told" a story when it comes to playing a game?
- How important would cultural and historical information be in my game's world?
- If history is mostly irrelevant to my game's plot, should a lot of it still be included in the game?
- Would it be okay to have a fantasy setting without dragons and knights? Or a sci-fi setting without androids?