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Storytelling Tips: 2 Fallacies in World-Building

Creating new worlds means there are things you need to avoid doing.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

May 23, 2011

5 Min Read

This is the second storytelling tips column that talks about the principles of world-building. Specifically, we're talking about the principles that allow us to fool the player's subconscious mind into 'buying' the reality of the world.

Our brains, oddly enough, have criteria for a 'world', which they constantly check and recheck against. Even this world is constantly being rechecked in our minds for answering the criteria of 'world'. In these world-building columns, we're listing these characteristics one by one, so as to be able to make sure the world we're designing answers all of them. If we answer all them, and do it well, the players' subconscious minds will believe they're playing in a realistic world. If not, they won't.

Last week, we covered how our minds need closed doors in order to recognize the authenticity of the world. This week, we're going to talk about the past and the present of each event in the world you're designing, and about the two fallacies many of us easily fall into.

Fallacy #1: There is a beginning.

When creating a new world with its own history and perhaps even its own universe, it's tempting to create a beginning, a true beginning. Take, for example, the fact that the Bible begins with the statement that in the beginning God created the world and the heavens, and then everything started rolling from there.

The problem with that is that even though we humans desire to know what happened in the beginning, our subconscious minds are built to seek out causality: if something happened, something must have caused it. So nitpicking children, for thousands of years, have asked "Well, who created God, then?" We're built to seek out a beginning, but we're also built to believe that any event is preceded by another event. When creating a new world, you have to make sure to cater to that human trait.

This is true not only for genesis stories, but for any event we see. Something can't come from nothing. People have histories, objects have histories, gods have histories, aliens have histories, weapons have histories, mysteries have histories, and so on and so on for anything we see, hear, touch, read about, or experience in the game.

You don’t have to show the player the history you've constructed for each object/person/event in the game. You just have to make sure that a history for that object/person/event exists in your mind and is plausible in the world you've created. If you do that, the player will feel it in the details of the game and in the way you've constructed the world. It will also ensure the lack of the fallacy: there will be no characters with no history, no objects that couldn’t have been there, no events that were a true beginning of anything, etc.

Worldbuilding Principle: There was always something earlier. Put another way, any event is never the first event of anything. No. Matter. What.

Fallacy #2: There can be an end to history.

In the same way we're built to somehow seek out a 'before' to any event, we're also built to seek out an 'after' to everything.

It's not that we don't fall into the fallacy all the time.

When the cold war ended, some intellectuals (you know who) wrote about and seriously discussed "the end of history". Human history, for them, although thousands of years old, was defined by one decades-old battle of two empires. They bought their own war hype. And when the Soviet side came down, it felt to them like there would never be another crisis or anything as important as what had occurred. Of course we know that history didn’t end. Other crises arose. Atrocities happened. Peace broke out occasionally. History continued as if nothing had happened.

In the same way, if we blow up the world with thousands of nukes, it won't be the end of the world. Man may die (slowly in some places) and so will other species, but just the way it happened before, another species will replace us.

Earth will survive. It's a big, strong rock. So big wars, global warming, nuclear annihilation – none of these are really an end of events. In fact, if Earth explodes, the solar system will continue. If the galaxy explodes, the universe will continue. If the universe dies, perhaps there will be another universe exploding into being in a multiverse near you.  

That's how our minds work. To believe a world is real, we cannot limit it with a total-end event. You may make the planet explode. You may have the player avert a crisis that may destroy the universe. But you have to build into your world hints of what will become after. For example, the terrorist is using some kind of stone to destroy the world – then he has a way to skip into that next universe and survive. Something must happen afterwards.

However, this rule shouldn't stop you from creating a crisis that claims to be the end of everything. On the contrary. People love to fall into that trap. People were sure the end was coming in 2,000 (seems stupid now, but many people believed it), people believed the end of history would come in 1984, others believe that global warming will end Earth, and many have feared a nuclear war that will do the same. It is also our nature to find a crisis, and to believe momentarily that it may end everything. Sometimes it's your job to get the player to believe that that is the reality of the game and that his purpose in it is to avert the awful disaster.

That’s fine. You can use that, and you should it. But you will also have to design the world knowing your hype is false and that the crisis will not end everything. Again: You don't have to show it, you just have to build it that way. If you do it well, the player will get it through something much akin to osmosis.

That little thing will make sure that your world passes one of the criteria for a believable world. And that's worth a lot.

We're not done with world-building. There are a few more basic principles to cover, and next week we're going to cover three more of them.

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