The Importance of World Building

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When it comes to writing a game, movie, TV show or book, there are certain elements you really need to nail, story, character, structure, tone and theme are chief among them, however even if you have these elements, you still need the setting to really sell everything, and this is where your world building shines.

What is World Building?

Put simply “World Building” is literally building a world, it’s the difference between having your work set in “San-Francisco like cityscape” or being set in “the gritty underbelly of San-Francisco circa the early 70’s”, to put it another way, where your story is like your framework, pushing things from point A to B, world building is the fancy outer shell you drape over it, adding in detail and elements that while not necessary to a finished structure certainly add a lot to it, in terms of aesthetics and even functionality.

San Francisco circa 1970

More in depth now, What is World Building?

To delve in a little further and break down some of the elements, World Building is more than simply creating a world, it’s creating everything on it too, the people, the creatures, the houses, the vehicles, whatever you need for the story you want to tell, but you also need to make the world lived in, merely placing objects and characters in as plot devices will not do this, your audience will likely see right through it and unless the story is incredibly engaging or the mechanics if it’s a game you are working on are incredibly well done, your audience will begin to notice that something it off.

Dropping further in Depth, A Lived in World?

This again goes back to the difference between a generic city and a specific location that is integral to your story, if you are making a fantasy or science fiction work, then you might be tempted to throw in some crazy ideas, talking animals, flying cars, fantastic weapons, invisible houses etc. these are all well and good, but a lived in world they do not make, in order to make your world feel lived in there needs to be some logic, if you decide to give your character a particular weapon then it either needs to be very effective or have some sort of personal meaning to the character, for instance if your character uses an abnormally large sword but is shown to be far more effective with a standard blade, then the viewer or player may begin to ponder why they would make that choice, if you reveal that the weapon belonged to an ancestor, then you have yourself some back story that you can draw from, or some lore that can be delved into, however if no such revelation occurs and the choice is purely because it seemed cool, then the world becomes a little less lived in, and a little more hollow.

Mutant Year Zero’s Post Apocalyptic Lived in World

A Lived in World Continued.

Sometimes A Lived in World needs to be impossible or virtually impossible to live in, this might sound like a contradictory statement, but what I mean is that the world is a dangerous place, and danger leads itself to adventure, action, tension and other things that keep people engaged, if your world is entirely made of bright skies, marshmallows and happiness, you can have it feel lived in, but it’s far easier to add some danger, for instance you could have a swamp that is toxic to all but the malformed creatures that live there, then have your character make the rational choice of avoiding it, only to have their other options cut off so they are forced through near certain death, this is more of a story beat than World Building though, but what you could do, is add the remains of previous adventurers, and making them as close to your heroes as possible both raises the stakes and immediately gives your world a history, this is a bad place, you are not the first to come here, and your journey may end, our world has bad places, yours can make them worse.

Back story and Lore.

Some other ways to add some simple World Building, are back story and lore, these are similar which is why I have grouped them both together, however they are different, back story is exactly as it sounds, story that takes place prior to the current story, mostly this would serve to show how your characters entered the situation they find themselves in, lore is also filling in the blanks of things prior to your adventure, however it is more based on the world as a whole, rather than your specific characters, with lore you would paint a picture of how a kingdom was founded and ruled, where backstory would tend to focus more on who the king was, both elements are helpful for story and world building when used correctly.

Does every game need World Building?

Short answer is no, there are plenty of games that need no world building and have none, however the addition of world building elements can help increase the popularity and extend the lifespan of a game, for instance Overwatch, at its core Overwatch is a team based FPS vs game, but Blizzard have packed their levels with all sorts of little touches that show their World’s have been very lived in, with signs of previous scuffles and references to all sorts of lore and backstory that can be found in media outside of the core game.

World Building in Overwatch
Overwatch, interesting characters in densely crafted worlds.

An Example of good World Building.

There are plenty of examples of great World Building, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc, let’s look at the movie Mad Max Fury Road, as another, Mad Max Fury Road is the fourth entry into the Mad Max franchise, however it does not fit in with the original trilogy, this puts it in a weird position as the World Building from the previous films can both be applied and ignored, the reason I picked it to use as an example though is because taken just by itself Fury Road contains a rich and vibrant world.

Story wise Fury Road is quite simple, Furiosa has stolen a War Rig secretly filled with Breeders in an attempt to smuggle them to the Green place while being pursued by Immortan Joe and his War Boys, this basic story contains a few elements of World Building already, a unique vehicle “The War Rig”, groups of people/creatures “Breeders” and “War Boys” and a location “The Green Place”, some of these are explained using expository dialogue, namely the War Boys and The Green Place, while others are never formally explained, and are left for the audience to make sense of, the War Rig and Breeders, however the film gives the viewer enough information to understand, the Breeders are a group of women that exist solely for Immortan Joe to Breed with, this is also extrapolated to explain where multiple other characters have come from and why they contain abnormalities, and all of this is done without a voice over breaking down every piece of minutiae.

World Building in Mad Max
Mad Max: Fury Road, an incredibly vivid world.

Tips on World Building.

Obviously there are many ways to effectively build a world for your work, and if everyone followed the same rules then things would start to feel very samey, but here are a few things to keep in mind as a base.

  • Don’t overload the viewer on new information. (It’s better to drip feed new terms and elements so that your audience are able to understand before more is introduced, like a game giving access to new mechanics throughout, instead of all at once).
  • Try to ground most elements in reality. (As per the first point, you want your audience to understand the world so they be immersed in it, if you can ground a few of the elements it will help streamline things because it requires less explanation and the viewer has a baseline so you can add more complex and weird things on top later).
  • Show don’t tell. (Avoid lengthy exposition when possible, a visual representation even over time can help the story move along while still drip feeding valuable information).
  • Explain important plot points. (While it is good to show rather than tell for the most part, if you have something pivotal to the plot, that you need the audience to understand, then you should have it explained, it might slow things down during the explanation but it will avoid confusion when it comes into play).
  • Include an audience surrogate. (An easy way to have exposition come across more naturally is when you include an outsider as an audience surrogate, someone that is unfamiliar with your world or at least the part of it you are in, so they can ask the questions on the audience’s behalf, rather than having someone who should know all the information re-learn it for no logical reason).

Ask for opinions.

A final note, but one that is very important, seek outside opinions, when you are creating a world you might be spending all your time on it so it makes perfect sense to you, but it’s always best to get a second opinion, try having someone look at, read or play your work in progress without any explanation and see what kind of questions they come up with, they might even have their own interpretations that lead to an idea you never would have come to alone.

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