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Understanding world-building in games

I’ve watched Inception once a year ever since its, er, inception. While no film ages perfectly once you can quote it in real-time and have pored over every little flaw and inconsistency, I think Nolan’s heist movie about breaking into people’s dreams still holds up as a piece of work that’s simultaneously amazing and absolutely terrible at world-building.

Viewers and critics frequently like to joke about how for large stretches of screen time in Inception, characters only speak in exposition, with one person asking questions and the other launching into a lengthy explanation. There are so many bits of exposition necessary just to follow the plot of the film that world-building seems to get left behind entirely. How was the system for lucid dreaming devised? How widespread is its use? Was it just used for industry espionage or are there any cyberpunk-esque commercial applications?

Inception has no time for these questions, unconcerned with the wider world. It has no way to hint at the world that made dream heists possible in the first place, and while I understand why, I think it’s a shame. Lore deep dives can be tricky for films to do due to time constraints, but Star Wars and Mad Max are examples of films that presented us with completely realised worlds even before sequels and other media padded out their universes.

By comparison, games have time, right? Yet for all the time they have, world-building is rarely done overtly, which can have the effect of it seeming optional. The thing I enjoyed most about Control, for example, was finding correspondence from Bureau employees, not only because it helped an otherwise mostly deserted place come back to life, but also because it was crucial in helping me figure out what the Bureau even was. It made me realise how often games resort to codex entries for lore simply because there aren’t any other humans to tell you their story. Still I think I prefer audio logs for that human touch – think BioShock or Deadspace.

This makes me think that world-building works best for games that tell the story of a journey. The Outer Wilds, our game of the year, makes you part of the world-building process as a space archaeologist – that world may be gone, but what you learn about it influences your own. My favourite example is Final Fantasy X. When Tidus arrives in Spira, he has no clue about this new world he’s found himself in. So people have to explain everything to him, and by extension you as the player. My favourite character to do so is Maechen, a historian whom you meet near certain landmarks. Sure, talking to him is optional, but he isn’t a history book or a codex entry someone conveniently left lying around. He tells a story in his own words, which makes matters much less dry than, say, Dragon Age Inquisition’s treatises on Orlesian theatre. I’m sure they are fun to write, and as vital to this society as a tube map is to mine, but let’s be honest, how often do you actually read all codex entries? How often do you even pick them up, when world-building seems this optional?

Control’s equivalent to codex entries worked because there was literally nothing else that could have answered your questions. It feels like a natural thing to do due to the situation you’re in, unlike reading a library book or picking up papers unprompted while on a fantasy journey. You still get enough sense of the politics in Dragon Age without reading extra material, and if you didn’t, sitting down to read could feel like a punishment, something that saps your gaming experience of momentum much like an overly long cut-scene. Perhaps to those who get impatient with Inception, watching it feels just like waiting for a game to get to the action. But if we let go of genre conventions, we don’t have to think of action as the meat of a medium – not in films, and perhaps not even in games.

Inception sure needed a way to explain the ways of its world, but I’m not sure just talking about it helped. I know enough people who got terribly frustrated by everything being explained in lengthy conversations, rather than visually. Inception looks great, but without an explanation of its rules, you don’t understand how great scenes like the hallway fight are possible. Maybe that’s why the Persona games take so much time explaining their alternate worlds – the Dark Hour, the TV world, the palaces. They aren’t difficult concepts to grasp, but you’re witnessing your protagonists wrangle with these supernatural occurrences the same way Ariadne does, simply by asking lots of questions.

Sometimes the setup is simple enough to work without exposition. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a good example for this. After a catastrophe, people have had to start over, and different clans emerged with the formation of a completely new society. My position as an outsider made it necessary for others to explain certain concepts to me, and while I still wished a large portion of content showing this new society in action hadn’t been relegated to side missions, you do quickly gain an understanding of the clans, their culture and relationship to each other.

Another interesting thing about world-building in games is how often they tell their stories through factions. It’s a mode that’s inherently preoccupied with conflict, giving you potential enemies and allies to focus on. The first thing Fire Emblem: Three Houses tells you about are the three kingdoms the country is divided into, and you understand that this divide, and the ways in which you try to bridge it, are important in the war later on. The factions in Mass Effect are the different species, and in the Yakuza franchise the different clans fulfil that role. You often enter at the point of conflict or are the cause of conflict, making it clear that your actions are a focal point of a historical event. The periods of calm before the storm are those that lend themselves to world-building. You learn who’s going up against who, whose side you’re on and then it’s go-time. That period of peace is important for world-building, because it’s generally more emotionally affecting to see what a confrontation does to the established world order.

In the end, conflict is an active factor in world-building. When you watch those TV programmes and Youtube videos of even just a year in retrospective, we’re never talking about how our world works, but what’s changed, and it’s only then I realise that even for the real world, I don’t exactly know how everything works. In the end, your active part in matters is always more important than knowing all the details. The world is a big place, after all.

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