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Story Design Tips: Basing World Design on a World that Works

The real world is your best resource for creating imaginary worlds.

This is the fourth Story Design Tips column that talks about the principles of world design.

Infinite Complexity

In the last two articles, I set some high standards that, if you followed them, you would create a world the complexity of which mirrors the seemingly infinite complexity of our world: Everything must have a past, everything must have a future, everything is made of something smaller, everything makes up something bigger, and each such level of reality works to slightly different rules. That's how our world works. That's how our minds identify a world. That's what we need to design in order to fool our minds into believing that the world on the screen is a real one.


The problem with designing infinite complexity is that you don't have an infinite amount of time or imagination to build something that truly fits the harsh criteria of world design. Today we're going to talk about a shortcut that will help give your world an illusion of infinite complexity.

The Shortcut

The shortcut is simple: Base your world on this one. Our real world is the best imaginary world you'll find, certainly the most believable one. Whenever the player looks at people in the street, houses, animals, clouds, wind, politicians, telephones, human dynamics, animal dynamics, rock structure, or anything else, his mind automatically checks and approves all criteria for 'world'.


You shouldn't base your imaginary world on this world by copying it. That would be silly. Whenever you want to design an aspect in your world, find an equivalent in this one that the player wouldn’t automatically expect. Here are a few examples:


Your annoying mother-in-law came to live with the player's character and his wife? You can decide to look at it as a power struggle and base the momentary results of that struggle on a real horse-race. Sometimes one side wins, sometimes another, sometimes two are really behind, sometimes a horse falls and never recovers, and so on. You can find events in the imaginary scenario to fit any horse-race you choose.


Say you want to create a special world. The background: there is a massive and endless space war between two human empires for one piece of space. There is a lot of wreckage falling out from space to many meteors. On one meteor is a human society, based on the few humans that survived the wrecks. The meteor is dead and can support no life. The humans' only way to survive is to cannibalize the falling wreckage. You can base that society on the behavior of flies in our world. Or you can base it on the behavior of rats, and copy their behavior as they approach new food that drops in their surroundings. Do it well, and you'll have borrowed this world's infinite complexity to create a believable imaginary world.


Now let's go crazy. Say we wanted to base the behavior of a spaceship on the behavior of Microsoft's Windows. (Windows, though a man-made program, is still part of this world and familiar to most players, and therefore when we see something that behaves like it, it will carry the whiffs of complexity of this world.) So: On that spaceship is a coffee-making machine, that for some reason is too complex for the ship's computer. Therefore, every time someone starts to make coffee, the engines and ship computer freeze. The captain has to shut down the engines, turn off everything, wait a couple of seconds, then upload everything. Sure, you'll have to put this scenario in a humorous game, but it will still feel real to the player, even if he doesn't recognize what it's based on.


You can also base an NPC's behavior on the behavior of an active volcano. You can have a ruler of a world, thousands of years old, that sits silently on his throne and apparently does nothing. People stop fearing him, walk up close, call him names, and so on, and he does nothing. But then, randomly, every two hundred years, he explodes with such rage and death, that everyone fears him again. Now he will sit silently for another two hundred years, and the dynamic will return.


You can base anything on anything, if you're imaginative enough. The trick is to find the right 'thing' in our world that will fit the object/dynamics/characters you're building in yours.


The advantage of basing something in your imaginary world on the real one is that any event, person, object, or dynamic are based on billions of years of previous events. You can base the geography of a village on the visual map seen in a broken, colorful rock. The colors in the broken rock are based on millions of years of geological events, which are based on the laws of physics and the core structure of the planet.


You can use the dynamics of people or animals, which are based on hundreds of millions of years of evolution; or you can base it on the physical conditions of this world; on the way this galaxy was formed; on the behavior of snails; on the behavior of Denny's attendants; on the way a building collapses (what if you based the fall of the empire on the slow motion behavior of a collapsing building?), etc. Anything in this world has infinite complexity built into it. Borrow it – and you get infinite complexity in seconds.


Tolkien and Lucas as Examples 


When Tolkien invented the elves' language, he, being well-versed in languages, borrowed many small things from many real languages. What he created couldn't be understood by us, but it sure sounded believable as a language, and something in it rang true. He created a language that borrowed from tens of thousands of years of human development.


Whenever George Lucas created a new human societies on planets far far away, he took great care to base all the architecture on an amalgamation of real, ancient human societies and their architecture. And so the cities we see in the Star Wars movies all borrowed from tens of thousands of years of human development. When we saw the movies, we felt it. That is a major reason that his worlds feel so rich.


Lastly, borrowing from reality means that the likelihood that you'll miss some kind of layer of reality or a complexity is almost eliminated. Reality has complexity built into it.


In Conclusion


Reality is your best resource when building a false one. Everything that surrounds you carries with it millions of years of history, the laws of physics, evolution, psychology, sociology, and everything else we know of in the world. Reality is a resource you'll never run out of. You just have to be imaginative in its use.


Next week we're going to have our fifth and last world design column, covering the last unturned stone in the basics of world design. 

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