To Build a World or to Tell a Story?

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.