"Worldbuilding!" You read it all the time in reviews. "A triumph of worldbuilding." "A masterpiece of worldbuilding." "I'd like to see more of the worldbuilding."
I wish we didn't use the word. I've started to be suspicious of it, and I want to persuade you to be suspicious of it too. If you know anything about my work, that'll seem perverse, I know. Half the reviews of Sunless Sea and Fallen London praised the worldbuilding (even when the reviewer wasn't so keen on the game) and I'm off to work for BioWare next week. But my problem isn't with the concept. It's the word we've come to use for the activity of creating story settings. That word drags at the activity like a homicidal small child hanging on a steering wheel, until we swerve off the road into a snowbank.
You hear worldbuilding, you think big. You think physical. You think encyclopaedic. It implies the literary equivalent of reverse Vogons: huge architect-ships moving continents into place, until you've got a planet. Which, actually, sounds amazing! What's wrong with that?
Here's an exercise. Don't worry, it'll take less than ten seconds.
For nine seconds, think about the people you'd associate most with worldbuilding, the people who had the most influence on the whole discipline and approach in the twentieth century, the people you'd probably quote if you were going to give a lecture on the topic.
For most of us, a certain Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon is going to be pretty high on that list. Lord of the Rings is to worldbuilding what vertebrae are to mammals - in European culture, at least, and maybe globally. You don't need vertebrae to make a mammal, but that's what we ended up with, we've all got them, and now they're part of the whole mammal deal. Its influence filters into everything. And one of the things people know about Lord of the Rings is that it's got whole invented languages and 5000+ years of invented history.
"Having an invented language or thousands of years of history doesn't hurt the vitality or appeal of a fictional world. But they're rather beside the point"
Having an invented language or thousands of years of history doesn't hurt the vitality or appeal of a fictional world. But they're rather beside the point. And that's my problem with the idea of 'worldbuilding'. You can find any number of well-intended world-building guides which say, menacingly, something like 'Start with a map and a timeline'.
This is possibly Tolkien's fault, but it isn't what Tolkien would have wanted. His attitude to worldbuilding - which he sometimes called 'sub-creation', or 'secondary creation' - was summarised in a piece called 'On Fairy Stories'. It's really good. Google it. It's so good that I think we can honestly forgive him for going completely over the top with spelling: not just 'faery' (which I rather like), not even 'faerie', but actually 'Faërie'. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Lord of the Metal Umlauts.
(Parenthetically: I'm not just talking about fantasy in the strict sense. All this applies to mass-media SF. It doesn't to Stanislaw Lem or Greg Egan being cerebral, but Mass Effect or No Man's Sky or Elite: Dangerous are fairy stories. Which is fine! I only mean that they're a particular kind of delicious escapism that riffs off people's expectations, and though Tolkien might have been a cantankerous old technophobe, everything he says applies to SF fairy stories too.)
Here's what Tolkien has to say.
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost." [my emphasis]
"One way to make these things hang together is dates, king lists, invented languages, and lots of maps. But these things aren't the core of secondary creation. They're plumbing."
Tolkien didn't build a language or make a timeline because it would create 'joy or sorrow as sharp as swords'. He built a language because he was a philology nerd who loved languages, and then he put it in his invented world, which we remember because of that world was full of memorable sights and thematically aligned stories and teasing hints about something greater. He made a timeline (and revised it I don't know how many times), but only because later on he wanted to make all the things he'd written to hang together.
And we all need all these things to hang together! Especially if we're building franchises that might end up with legions of fans and Internet continuity arguments and wikis. And one way to make these things hang together is dates, king lists, invented languages, and lots of maps. But these things aren't the core of secondary creation. They're plumbing.
I wouldn't want to live in a building without plumbing. But I wouldn't want to visit a building where the architect had sat down at his desk and said "Okay, this building is all about the plumbing." And invented worlds - even MMOs, even EVE Online - are worlds that we visit, not worlds where we live. We never need to visit the toilet in an invented world. (If you want to read more about toilets in games - and who doesn't? - there's a column on that topic right here.)
This does not mean that invented worlds don't need to feel consistent. Let me say that again, without the double negative, because it's important: invented worlds should feel consistent! But an invented world can be consistent and detailed and very very dull.
Game developers are not the only ones to get hung up on the importance of plumbing. But in my experience, we get more hung up on it than most. I think one reason is that we increasingly expect our audience to engage. I think another is that we simulate our worlds, and when you simulate a world you tend to think about concrete details.
"Game developers are not the only ones to get hung up on the importance of plumbing. But in my experience, we get more hung up on it than most"
But whatever the reason, the result of this is that again and again I start up a promising game and as it opens I have to sit through an info-dump cut-scene about Basically Sauron being defeated by Basically the Last Alliance, or an info dump on three different quasi-Renaissance city-states and their rivalries. I can't easily express the sense of despair I feel when I realise I have to absorb all this and worry about whether there's going to be a test on it in a dialogue tree somewhere later.
This is not a complaint about lack of innovation. It's basically impossible for everyone to innovate interestingly. When we call a setting innovative, we mean 'it's more different than the others', so by definition most settings won't be innovative. If anything, it's the reverse. Distinctiveness, poignancy, emotional power, consistent art direction, faithfulness to theme - these are important. Innovation, per se, isn't. Tolkien again:
"Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. [...]It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."
I just invented a world. It's run by a nation that has eleven emperors. The nation's under attack by a race of four-armed red-skinned bipeds who have electricity powers. Travel through the empire is exclusively by canal, with narrowboats drawn by steam horses. The culture is vaguely Russian. Magic only works when it's raining. Food is traditionally eaten raw.
That's nothing like anything else out there, but I doubt you'll remember any of it tomorrow. It doesn't connect to anything, and it doesn't connect to itself. I've chosen a deliberately jarring set of ideas, but the effect is the same when a game is set in Not Vienna (because it's got ice magicians!) under attack by Not The Turks (because they ride zebras!). If it's Basically the Turks and Basically Vienna, riff off them directly: or, hell, just set it in Vienna. If it's something else, work out what the something else is, and put it front and centre.
If your world is no more complicated than 'these are the enemy, this is why you care' then you don't need to invent centuries of detailed history. If the world is more complicated, then great! You sure as hell need to focus on the reasons why the player should negotiate the complexities. It's easy to write a timeline. It's hard to make a timeline interesting.
We're stuck with 'worldbuilding' as a term. It's bedded in, and one grumpy column by one mid-ranking games writer isn't going to start a revolution. But next time you hear it, remember that the quality of a story's setting is measured not on its expansiveness, but its distinctiveness. Tolkien, as usual, has the best words (and don't you admire how he finds a way out of all those commas when the sentence really should pile up at the end like a drugged centipede?)
"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the "turn" comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."
Think for a moment about the worlds you've loved in games. Every one of them will have a moment with that quality. It might be scavengers playing acoustic guitar around a fire; it might be the way backstory clicks into place; it might be the emotional undertone of an invented proverb; it might be the tilt of a ringed planet against the night. But it won't be a timeline.