Games

To Build a World or to Tell a Story?

Rapture, the World of Bioshock (2K, 2007)

Plot just provides us with a win condition, it is not necessary for the act of play. I can enjoy a game without plot, but I can’t enjoy a game without world building because that is a game without rules.

There’s a constant tension that exists in video game narratives between world building and plot. Since games take place in a virtual world, that world must have rules that govern it, and players must know those rules in order to interact with that world. However, a game also needs a plot, a conflict that forces us into action and provides us with a win condition.

Of course, this is not a universal issue. Some games don’t set out to tell a story. The Sims, Minecraft, and other games like these are more concerned with facilitating players in the creation of their own story. These games are all about world building. Plot is irrelevant because the player provides the plot. It’s only when a game starts to tell its own story that this balance becomes an issue.

What makes things even more awkward is that the proper balance between world building and plot is not a proper balance. World building and plot should not exist in equal amounts. World building is far more important. Period. Even for games that are highly plot driven, it’s always the world that provides the most memorable moments.

The plot twist in Portal that sends the player "behind the scenes" is exciting because of what it means for the world, not because of what it means for the plot. In fact, there’s not much of a plot to Portal at all. It is a game that is mostly driven by our desire to explore and learn about the weird and funny world of Aperture Science. The same goes for Portal 2. The plot of Bioshock is a generic “stop the bad guy” plot with a twist. The real star of the game is the world of Rapture. There’s an entire Greek tragedy lurking just within the world itself: the rise and fall of Andrew Ryan. The generic plot just can’t compete with that story. And that famous twist in Bioshock isn’t memorable because of how it affects the plot -- Gasp! You were being manipulated all along! -- it is memorable because of how it forces ourselves as players to reevaluate our relationship with the game world, hell, with all game worlds. The importance of world building even applies to the Uncharted series, which is incredibly plot driven.

The real draw of all of these games are the characters and their evolving relationships, and I’d argue that these relationships are more an element of world building than plot, since they carry over from game to game.

That’s what world building is all about at its core: something that carries over from game to game, a consistent internal logic. Strip away narrative, setting, characters, and this is what is left of any game. This consistent internal logic naturally guides any gameplay mechanics since those mechanics must adhere to this logic. Any plot is just an extension of this logic into a win condition for the player, and any narrative is just a means of explaining this internal logic.

All games have some basic element of world building because they all have an internal logic. Limbo is plotless. There is no justification for the world other than the game's title, but as we play, we do learn more about the world. Not about its history or society or culture, but we learn the dream logic that guides it.

The Aperture Science Labs, the World of Portal 2 (Valve, 2011)

When a game focuses on plot over world building, it stumbles because it must make leaps in logic. Events in the plot don’t make sense, and mechanics are introduced from out of nowhere and then quickly forgotten. AMY is good example of this.

AMY is a game that is relentlessly plot driven: You’re trying to navigate a post-apocalyptic world to get to a hospital, guiding a little girl along the way. However, nothing about the world is explained. Why did Lana break Amy out of some other hospital? Why does Amy have special powers? How does Lana know about these special powers? Was that a meteor that caused the zombie infection? Are those even zombies? Amy’s previous doctor makes vague, threatening, and grand predictions, and there’s some religious leader on TV talking about shelter and who appears at the end dual wielding assault rifles. By the end, I’d given up on following along.

Games that take place in the modern world often use the setting as shortcut. They assume that there’s no need to focus on world building, since everything takes place in a world that we recognize. However, this shortcut always fails to justify the mechanics or plot in some way. Heavy Rain turns from a gritty crime story into a near future sci-fi story whenever Norman puts on ARI -- his holographic, augmented reality crime fighting sunglasses. Any modern military shooter often extrapolates current political unease into an armed conflict without first explaining what those current politics are, so I end up fighting in a war that I don’t understand and that I don’t care about the outcome to, other than winning means that I beat the game.

It is important for the world to justify the mechanics because we have to know how the world works in order to interact with it (also, a world that doesn’t justify its mechanics is ripe for ridicule and hard to take seriously). As a result, games often mix world building with tutorials: We can interact with the world this way because the world works that way. I’m in a wacky science lab. Therefore, I find a portal gun. My enemies are nightmarish alien monsters. Therefore, I must dismember them instead of just shooting them. I’m an Assassin fighting a secret war. Therefore. I must hide in crowds and haystacks.

From there, the plot tells us what to do with that mechanic. I’m trying to escape that lab, and I use the portal gun to do so. I’m trying to escape a mining ship, so I must dismember the monsters to survive. I’m trying to win that secret war, so I hide in crowds in order to assassinate important targets.

Plot just provides us with a win condition, it is not necessary for the act of play. The aforementioned games, like Mincraft and The Sims, are proof of that. Skyrim can exist without its plot, but the world building is integral to the experience. I can enjoy a game without plot, without a stated win condition, but I can’t enjoy a game without world building because that is a game without rules.

That’s what makes games like AMY so frustrating. It has a very simple plot, but because of poor world building, its lack of consistent internal logic ends up turning a simple plot into a confusing mess. Before a game can even begin to tell a story, the world has to make sense on its own. The world should always come first.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image