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Story Design Tips: New Worlds Need Dust and Rust

If you're designing a new world, don't make the mistake of making it shiny and perfect.

This is the fifth and last Story Design Tips column that talks about the most basic principles of world design.

By 'basic principles' I mean that our minds have subconscious categories by which they test this world and every other one they come across (in movies, books, and games). We've covered almost all the categories. Some are hard to design, some are easy. This last one is certainly one of the easiest.

Here's the basic principle: A world needs dust and rust. 'Dust and rust' is metaphorical. A world needs signs of wear and tear, signs of old things as well as new things. In our world, dust indicates age, as does rust.

Nothing indicates a false world faster than a shiny white one with no flaws, no dust, and no rust. When a player sees a spanking new world, his subconscious mind immediately rejects it and marks it as artificial.

The real world has rusty pipes behind buildings, floors that creak, buildings that are falling over, trees that have been hollowed with time, yellow leaves, dirty paths, unclean areas, stinking swamps, cesspools, and countless other things that indicate imperfection and old age.

Our world is old and imperfect, and our minds have been getting this message subliminally from the time we were born. Anything that reeks of 'new' or 'perfection' is marked by us as false. Even an artificial world that is build in the real world will have imperfections.

Take a look again at the original Star Wars, for example, (Episode IV). R2D2 and C3PO, which appear right from the beginning, are rusty and old.

The creatures that kidnap them in order to sell are driving a futuristic machine that's obviously rickety and should have been scrapped long ago. The Death Star, though artificial, is still imperfect. Han Solo's ship has taken shots and looks like it. Etc. 

Each of these, separately and together, tells the viewers' subconscious mind that this is a real world with a real history. Contrariwise, a world with none of these would seem contrived.

George Lucas is a brilliant world designer, and he took care to make his worlds seem believable by filling them with dust and rust, age and imperfection. We should all do the same.

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