Filling in the Details in Video Game Worlds

by L.B. Jeffries

21 September 2010

When an author constructs an entire world, they tend to want to show it off as much as possible and provide explanations to game players. That's when games get stuck, especially if borrowing from sci-fi or fantasy literature.

Every video game is fundamentally about creating a world. Sometimes it’s a very small, linear world that’s a series of paths with nice scenery. Other times it’s a broad, open landscape that leaves you free to roam. What makes these things represent a world is that there is always a rule system or logic guiding everything. In the same way that Harry Potter’s magical world has a series of principles that guides the character’s conduct, any game has rules that govern the player’s conduct. To fill in the details and perceptions of those rules, video games tend to borrow from a wide variety of mediums. Books, with their wide selection of science fiction and fantasy novels, are very adept at creating fictional worlds. What ideas can be borrowed from them?

An article at Wikipedia explains that for most writers you either start at the top or work from the bottom. That is, you plan the entire world out on paper, or you just create as much room as you need for the story. The space can be expanded as your characters move on to new areas and you have to think up new stuff for them to do. You can generally tell which one an author is doing by how much extraneous crap they shovel into the plot. When an author constructs an entire world, they tend to want to show it off as much as possible. An article by Heather Massey listing off unnecessary details in science fiction stories mostly consists of authors insisting on rattling off all of the technical details of the world. How does the ship deal with gravity, flight, the vacuum of space, pew effects, etc.? All of these are details that people don’t really need explained to them. Readers are familiar with the concepts and don’t require explanation to maintain a suspension of disbelief (“7 Unnecessary Science Fiction Details”, The Galaxy Express, 10 May 2009). It’s when figuring out these ways to plausibly have elements of the world discussed (without becoming tedious) that games get stuck, especially when borrowing from sci-fi or fantasy literature.

Consider something like 1984, which is about a dystopian fascist society. To get the ball rolling narratively Orwell puts us in the perspective of someone who is resisting the government. Winston is relatable for this reason and his experiences define the world nicely because Orwell is trying to show how absolute government power is in this world. He goes out on a secret date, works at the information control department, and tries to get involved with the resistance. These activities make it plausible for Orwell to discuss how society is shaped. Yet despite the book being one of the pinnacles of dystopian fiction, it still has several long expositional scenes. There’s a 14 page section where Winston is just reading a history book. O’Brien has long expositional exchanges with a person he is about to brainwash into submission. One of the best parts of the book is an appendix where Orwell explains all the intricacies of Double-Speak because there was no way anyone using the language would even be capable of discussing it. The issue is that people don’t really sit around and talk about the world that often.

A video game isn’t really stuck with this problem because they can distribute the history lesson into a variety of characters. One of the best examples is the game Monkey Island and how they handle introducing the world to the player. The SCUMM Bar acts like a kind of information hub where each pirate knows a tiny piece of the legend behind LeChuck and the Governor. One tells you the story of LeChuck becoming a ghost, another talks about how none of them will sail while he’s around, and then others give lectures about Grog. There is no long section where one pirate gives Guybrush an elaborate tour of the bar or we’re forced to sit through a twenty minute cutscene. The information about the world is simply there, waiting for us to stumble upon it.

It’s not even really a phenomenon confined to literature. Comics also have issues with explaining world details in large chunks instead of letting people experience it. In Alan Moore’s interesting Writing for Comics, he points out that in the 60s, when comics were young, they would present an environment by having a big block of text next to a generic looking futuristic city. Moore uses the top down approach and cautions writers to not worry about making sure that the reader knows every detail. He writes, “We don’t necessarily understand everything about the culture straight away, but gradually as we pick up on the details surrounding us we get a complete sense of the whole environment, its unique atmosphere and the social elements which shape it. When a writer handles the environment in this way we don’t get a sense of having a wealth of extraneous detail forced upon just because the writer wants to let us know how thorough he’s been in thinking it through. Instead we get a sense of a completely realized and credibly detailed world where things are still going on off-panel, even if the story isn’t focusing upon them” (22). To this end Moore points out that books like V for Vendetta required mountains of details that he’d planned out but never used because there wasn’t ever a reason to do so. He comments, “The plot is there as something more to move the reader’s interest through this world, taking in the sights, and to provide an illustration of the way events seem to work in this harsh and treacherous landscape.”

Another sci-fi book that really encapsulates this issue is the Kollin Brother’s The Unincorporated Man. The book is fairly typical Avatar-stuff about a man being thawed out of a 300-year hibernation to discover a society that revolves around self-interest. I can’t really imagine anyone finding the book entertaining except a lawyer or economist because it has to stop the action numerous times to explain what’s going on. Sometimes it’s a lawyer discussing legal theory, other times it’s a person going on an elaborate diatribe just to explain why there are no taxes. A prime example would be when the characters go to visit a pawn shop, and then they stop mid-sale to discuss why a privatized money system would be more effective than allowing governments to print money. The plot device is that the lead character doesn’t understand how money works. It’s impossible to read the scene and not wonder why they don’t just tell him to buy a particular brand of money, then worry about the details later.

Consider how a video game handles a similar detail dilemma. In Mass Effect there is no ammo, you just pick up guns, and they start shooting. To find out how they work, you have to go to the Items menu, bring up the gun, and read the elaborate paragraph explaining how the weapon works. The gun is shaving off atoms from a volatile material and accelerating them or something along those lines, I didn’t totally understand it. The point is that there is never a moment where someone like Sheppard would narratively need that explained to him or her. More importantly, there is no guarantee that the player actually cares. The information is instead there for those who are interested in knowing more about the world around them.

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