The Importance of Worldbuilding in Video Games

This is the first of several articles regarding building an immersive world for your games, books, and other media. Many seasoned game developers will already be familiar with worldbuilding, but hopefully this series will provide some value to new developers and writers, and serve as a refresher for others.

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the process of creating a fictional world. In the context of game development, worldbuilding can be used to flesh out the world of your characters, or as a tool to draw inspiration for a new game concept or mechanic. If you are planning for your game to have any amount of story, worldbuilding is an important thing to have.

Great writers spend a huge amount of time building the world in which the characters live. J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin, aside from having matching middle initials, are famous world builders, often spending more time building worlds than actually writing their stories. Some say Tolkien fathered the modern vision of high fantasy, with his variation on the cultures of elves, dwarves, halflings, humans, and orcs. Many stories are based on his works. While high fantasy seems like such a simple thing now, with the archetypes recycled to the point of tedium, few fantasy stories are as fleshed out as The Lord of the Rings.

In a similar vein, the creators of The Elder Scrolls have spent years building the land of Tamriel, fleshing out the history of the land, the various races, cultures, struggles, and wars. This gives the game developers a solid foundation to build the game’s design and story on. Much of the world’s history and intricacies won’t be seen by most players, but the information is there in the form of optional dialogs, books, and out-of-game literature. The detailed and thoughtful world that the folks at Bethesda have crafted are a huge part of what have allowed The Elder Scrolls series to have such strong success, and allow them to have a slew of highly anticipated sequels.

When is worldbuilding actually relevant?

So far, the only examples I’ve given are of fantasy games. While the act of crafting a relatable world is especially important in a fantasy game, worldbuilding is still necessary in just about every other game and story. Let’s take the recent Doom 2016 title. One of the highest praises that this game has received is that the story doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay. That is to say, the vast majority of the story is entirely optional, and can be found in the form of voice logs and written logs.

For the sake of gameplay, this is the best possible thing the developers could have done. The fast-paced action-filled game mechanics would have been bogged down if there was more than a small amount of story fed to the player. However, that does not mean the developers have abandoned fleshing out the world in which the few main characters exist. In fact, the world and lore of Doom is essential to the gameplay.

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The backstory of Doom is that the player character, known as the Doom Slayer, is a bona fide badass whose only goal in life is to kill demons. He is respected by humanity and feared by all living in Hell.

But why are there demons to kill in the first place? Because humanity is suffering from an energy crisis, and corporations have decided to create perfect renewable energy by combining technology with the natural energy that emanates from Hell.

That last sentence just established two things about the world of Doom:

  1. The setting is a dystopian future in which technology is highly advanced.
  2. Hell exists in a literal way.

In the gameplay, those two major points put an advanced futuristic weapon in the Doom Slayer’s hands, and gives him demons to shoot at. In this scenario, the worldbuilding served as a tool to give context to the player’s actions. While the actual plot of the game is thin, the world serves the gameplay, and gives the player a more sensical and powerful experience than if you were just a guy in hell.

So, as a “too long; didn’t read” of what I’m trying to get across, worldbuilding is always important, even when you wouldn’t expect it to be. You can use worldbuilding as a tool to make the player experience more immersive and engaging.

Having a well fleshed-out world can add a huge amount of value to your game’s story and mechanics. Worldbuilding can also be inherently fun, and if you create a world that is fun to immerse yourself in, the players will enjoy immersing themselves as well. If you’ve ever played a game where everything just feels “generic” or “thin”, that means the designers of the game haven’t spent enough time building the world around the player.

If you ever intend to make sequels to your games, having a backlog of interesting histories and topics for the world in which the game takes place will make fleshing out a story and new mechanics much easier.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be releasing articles on picking a theme, creating races / cultures, fleshing out history, mapmaking, and more. Be sure to stay tuned!

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