Worldbuilding is a craft, it’s a muscle that gets stronger the more you exercise it, and there are certain principles I’ve focused on as ways that help me solidify and evolve my practice of worldbuilding. These are not goals but are tangible practices I can work on and work into a world I am building in order to achieve a variety of worldbuilding outcomes.
These key principles are:
- Prioritize believability
- Be expansive/open
- Focus on tangibility
- Find inherent pressures
This principle comes from the premise that the game’s world should strive to be believable rather than realistic. This is a concept Joel Burgess spoke about often when discussing the world direction for Watch Dogs Legion (Ubisoft Toronto, 2020). Burgess, the world director on Watch Dogs Legion and with a long legacy leading level design practices at Bethesda on games such as Fallout 4 and Skyrim, explained that when he was providing direction for the team to recreate our near-future version of London the goal was to make our London believably feel like the real-world London versus being a faithful replication of it. Similarly, in a workshop about crafting secondary worlds, award-winning speculative fiction writer N.K. Jemisin points to the difference between science and plausibility, and the importance of striving for plausibility in our worldbuilding. (Jemisin, Growing Your Iceberg: Crafting a Secondary World That Feels Ancient in 60 Minutes).
Plausibility and believability as terms both get at the core of the same idea: namely that your world should function, and it should tick, and it should do so in a way that makes sense with all its parts working together. You can have a believable sci-fi world set centuries in the future because what makes it believable isn’t necessarily the setting, but the rules, the culture, the politics, and the way the characters interact with both the elements of the world and each other. Believable doesn’t mean it needs to obey all of the rules we understand for our world (that would be realistic)–it just means that the rules of this new world need to work together in a way that is coherent and consistent. Believability builds coherence and a seamless experience for players, rather than creating potential friction that can be cumbersome to explain and integrate seamlessly, because believability is about picking and choosing the right details to convey your world, rather than delineating every detail.
In addition to not overburdening an experience with too many details in the name of realism, believability strives for erasing narrative friction when your world is very, very weird. Bugsnax (Young Horses, 2020) is a game about a furry humanoid creature (a Grumpus) going to an island where eating a half-bug half-food creature transforms part of your body into that food. Bugsnax is a world rife with cute, body horror weirdness, but because the rules of Bugsnax are internally consistent, it’s believable that eating a Pinkle (whose torso is a jar with pickle legs) would turn part of a character’s body into a pickle. Or that a Ribblepede can turn an arm into a barbequed rib. Eating a bugsnax changes Grumpsus’s bodies and it changes them every time.
An engaging world isn’t strictly realistic nor is it so off-the-wall and inconsistent in its rules that it is difficult to have your audience buy into it. And if your audience doesn’t buy into the rules of your world, then it’s harder to build tension and expectations. Too much focus on making your world 100% realistic becomes cumbersome and heavy under its own weight. Too little realism means it’s impossible to set your expectations and build connections with the world and the characters because anything can happen without any internal consistency.
There’s only a certain level of suspension of disbelief that audiences are able to accommodate for, and believable worlds provide the baseline for weirdness to radiate out from. One avenue for making Bugsnax’s world believable is the internal consistency of this (feed any character a bug and Frankenstein their body into a half-sentient, half-food monstrosity). But it’s also in the character dynamics. The characters and their relationships are a grounding force for the body horror aspects of its worldbuilding. Characters are deeply human in their wants and needs, and it provides the perfect foundation for the game’s world. For example, Chandlo is a buff body builder who is overly preoccupied with being able to physically meet any challenge that comes his way. This desire for strength manifests in Chandlo wanting to consume bugsnax that he considers powerful for a variety of reasons. Chandlo’s desire is deeply human–he wants to be strong to protect his boyfriend and the people he cares about, and this desire becomes externalized on the consumption of bugsnax. But of course, just because Chandlo can have a watermelon arm, doesn’t mean he’s as big and strong as the extraordinarily large Mama Mewon. It’s a grounding contrast to the exuberance and weirdness of changing bodies by feeding them food-inspired bugs. It’s believable.
Worlds become believable when we experience the characters within it reacting in ways we understand or can relate to, or when the spaces and rules of a world holistically feel consistent and supportive of each other. Of course, characters aren’t the only way to achieve this, but they are a very effective method for doing so. Believability is about a world that is constructed in such a way as to feel realistic, even if it’s not, but it’s also about relatable reactions to the various components of your world from the people and creatures who live in it.
Worldbuilding shouldn’t be airtight. And by that I mean: it should be thoughtful and it should be intentional, but it doesn’t need to be dense with detail. Not every detail needs to be articulated and not every nook and cranny needs to be explored–yet. Engaging and compelling worlds don’t fill in all the details; they provide just enough to understand the world, but not too much where there’s no room to let the audience’s imagination run a little wild. Like using realism to generate believability, worlds need enough details to be coherent, but too much detail weighs them down and leaves no space for players to inject their own imagination into it.
Expansive worldbuilding invites players in for “co-authoring” the world and the story. “Co-authoring” means that you, as the game developer, are co-creating the story with your player (i.e. the player actions, decisions, and interpretations, whether in a branching narrative or not, are helping to determine the state of the story, character moments, and key bits about how the world functions). Certain games, because of the openness of their worldbuilding and the ambiguity of their storytelling, are extra rife for both co-authoring and fan theory-making. Final Fantasy VIII (Square Enix, 1999) in particular is rich with player-created theories on certain aspects of the world and the story. The popular “Squall is dead” theory revolves around the concept of whether or not the main character, Squall, died halfway through the game, resulting in the latter half occurring entirely as a sort of dream in the moments before he dies (an extremely prolonged death hallucination). Even the website dedicated to this fan theory (www.squalisdead.com) acknowledges that “that there is no real ‘proof’, merely suggestions and hints. However, we hope this analysis will add meaning to the game for all players”. The point of the theory isn’t whether or not it’s true–it’s that as a theory that isn’t easily refuted by the game’s worldbuilding and story, it’s a fun exercise and possibility space for players to play in. It adds meaning to the game because players are able to engage with the theory and examine different possible repercussions to the game’s events as so.
Of course, not all co-authoring is theory-making. Co-authoring allows for players’ experiences and playthroughs to dictate aspects of the world and character identities, as well. In Mass Effect 1-3 (BioWare, 2007-2012), players get to play Shepard as either paragon or renegade (or a mix of the two), creating a texture to Shepard’s personality that is determined by how the player interprets and guides Shepard’s actions. There’s enough expansiveness in the worldbuilding (and Shepard’s place in it) to allow for both versions of Shepard to exist, and to be made more fully realized based on player decisions and actions.
But even beyond creating intentional spaces for your audience to insert their own thoughts and ideas into the worldbuilding, expansive and open worldbuilding is just that: it’s expansive, meaning that it can grow. Your worldbuilding should be able to grow as your game grows, either naturally through development, sequels, live service updates, transmedia, or in becoming a franchise. Having an airtight world means there are only so many ways in which to grow–or that growing it will require breaking parts of your worldbuilding, retconning and reshuffling events, histories, dynamics, and so forth. Plan for growth at the start by baking expansiveness into your worldbuilding.
Focus on Tangibility
Most writers have, at one point or another, heard the adage “show, don’t tell.” It’s a common piece of writing advice centered around the idea that elements of your world and emotional states are more effective and resonant when your audience simply aren’t told about something, but rather are able to see the effects of it. This has origins in prose writing, meaning that even in entirely text-based formats, part of the craft of creating compelling worlds and stories is knowing how to show it in purely text formats. In traditional prose writing, this looks something like: don’t say a character is sad, show that they are sad in their actions, the way they speak, and so forth. Don’t just say a word is hostile, show it in how the world responds to its inhabitants, its punishment system, and mechanisms for survival.
And while this also applies to video games, text-based or not, games have other tools at their disposal for showing rather than telling. Aspects like art (environment and character), audio design and soundscapes, and mechanics are all ways that we can further show the effects of our world in video games. It’s for this reason that I like to focus on tangibility in my worldbuilding. Focusing on the concept of how concrete does this feel, how much does this feel like I can touch it and interact with, is a helpful guiding tool for determining what is the best way to represent certain aspects of the worldbuilding in the game.
Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Company, 2013) is a deeply surrealist point-and-click adventure game, about a delivery truck driver named Conway, who is trying to reach a destination for a delivery. The first scene of the game features Conway arriving at a horse-shaped gas station, where he needs to go into the basement to flip the breaker in order to power up a computer to find directions to the Zero. In the basement, Conway stumbles upon three people (Emily, Bob, Ben) playing a tabletop game. Visually, these characters are presented no different from Conway. Yet when Conway speaks to them, the game players respond oddly: Emily asks Bob if he heard something, and Bob tells Emily that no, he was studying the rules of the table-top game they are playing. Without directly saying that Conway and the three characters aren’t necessarily in the same realm of existence, the game is showing that there is already a bit of a slippage between realities in this world. The effectiveness of this short exchange is enriched by the visual language (they look the same) and mechanics (Conway interacts with them no different than other characters). And then the oddity of this world and this space is made even more explicit when the player flips the breaker, and the building is revealed to be a full horse, with half of it buried underground. The head of the horse is the gas station outside, whereas the basement the players are in is the torso, buried underground, creating a nice visual distinction of the duality of this world and ways in which the different realities slip toward and away from each other.
But, of course, what we can show in a video game is often determined not just by our worldbuilding, but by the development budget, timeline, and engine capabilities. Sometimes we want to show an effect of a magic system in our world, but we can’t for a variety of reasons. Telling isn’t the worst sin you can commit (in fact, sometimes telling is very useful and deliberate). Even aside from external factors like scope and budget, sometimes there is a need for just telling, especially in video games, where games writing often has to dual wield being flavorful with being functional and instructional. Telling can be tangible, as well. Showing is supremely effective, but that doesn’t mean telling can’t create a tangible touchpoint for players.
At the very start of Kentucky Route Zero, players are told that they are looking for the Zero, but that the Zero is a hard route to find. This text is instructional (find the Zero) and informative (the Zero is hard to find), and none of it is metaphorical or framed in any other literary device. It’s a state of the world and the player’s obstacle is plainly told. Yet it’s still effective in beginning to build the rules and logic for this world. The Zero is a difficult-to-find highway because of the surrealist slipstream of the world. Saying this plainly doesn’t take away from how strange the game’s world is, but rather begins to neatly stack up expectations for the game’s world and story.
This is why I focus on creating tangible touchpoints, rather than just saying “show, don’t tell.” Sometimes telling can be really effective (and necessary) and can be done in evocative ways. So what’s the golden rule for knowing when to show and when to tell? There isn’t really one, except other than learning when you need either tool. Ask yourself: Is there a reason to quickly tell this now instead of finding a way to integrate it into the visual language and gameplay mechanisms of your world? There could very well be, such as pacing, relative level of importance, need for comprehension, and so forth. So much of game development is knowing where to invest resources and where a lighter touch is needed. For me, part of this decision comes down to: how important is what you’re trying to communicate? The more crucial it is for coherence and world identity, the more likely I am to explore ways of showing the effects of it in the world. If it really matters, I want my audience to really feel it.
Find Inherent Pressures
The concept of worldbuilding as a story engine revolves around this idea that elements of your world should be exerting some sort of pressure on your characters and therefore on your players. This pressure often presents as conflict, or the obstacles that characters face in your world. An important distinction is necessary here for the word conflict. Conflict can be (and often is) a very important tool in storytelling, but its meaning often gets reduced down to violence or aggression-based gameplay and tensions. Conflict doesn’t always mean violence, but it often does always mean some kind of pressure that your characters are feeling, be it an obstacle, some sort of drama, or any other way conflict can manifest in a space.
So when determining the major aspects of your world, the prevailing systems and the key geographical features, consider what type of pressures these components are creating. In The Outer Worlds (Obsidian Entertainment, 2019), the sci-fi setting is constructed around the premise of corporations having created colonies in space built around the business in question. Planets do not belong to a civilization; they belong to a corporation. And this capitalism-as-rule is exerting a specific pressure on the characters in that world, namely in the variety of ways that they respond to and exist under the rule of their employer. One of the first major missions of the game is to speak to deserters in the Spacer’s Choice corporation-colony on Edgewater. Edgewater, a colony of Spacer’s Choice workers, requires more electrical power in order to support their life there. And the only way to do so is to redirect the power supply from a collective of deserters, who left Edgewater as a form of resistance to the horrific decisions that got made in the name of running an efficient business. Players are tasked with making the decision of whose power supply to cut off (as the player requires a power regulator from one of the colonies). The worldbuilding here creates the moral quandary that players must confront, in terms of recognizing the ways in which the systems of power (Spacer’s Choice controlling Edgewater) exert different pressures on the people there (both the workers of Edgewater and the deserters).
We can use the way we’ve built our world as a story engine to provide possible obstacles to our characters in really compelling ways. The Edgewater example from The Outer Worlds doesn’t exclude violence-based conflict, but it’s more focused on understanding the different pressures each group is experiencing and navigating the obstacles they both face. Worldbuilding is a way of setting up inherent pressures in the world that will then bear down on your characters to create meaningful character arcs and plot points that grow and evolve both your character and your world. But it will also set up missions, specific gameplay moments, as well as environment and character art and sound design. These pressures can also become the basis for specific mechanics, verbs, and interactions inherent to the gameplay of your world, what tools characters and players have for engaging with the pressures the worldbuilding is exerting is gameplay, and how characters respond to pressure and conflict is both worldbuilding texture and a basis for interactivity.
Kaitlin Tremblay (they/she) is a writer and game designer, as well as a former book editor and media critic. For over the past 10 years, Tremblay has worked across the video game industry, including on titles such as Watch Dogs Legion (Ubisoft), Grindstone (Capybara Games), and A Mortician’s Tale (Laundry Bear Games). Tremblay’s personal game development work has focused on making horror games about difficult subject matter, and they are a public speaker and community organizer, serving on the board of advisors for GDC’s Independent Games Summit. Tremblay is also a speculative fiction writer, with a focus on horror, and was the co-editor of the award-nominated anthology Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories (Exile Editions). They are also the author of the deep dive into the Borderlands franchise and its storytelling, Ain’t No Place for a Hero: Borderlands (ECW Press). Their full work can be found on their website: www.thatmonstergames.com