Like our own world, believable virtual worlds consist of millions of seemingly insignificant details. Get it right and players will call it home.

Many of us spend our free time inhabiting other worlds. We escape to outer space or fantasy realms and marvel at these constructed realities and their combat-capable natives suspiciously willing to sleep with our digital selves. We immerse ourselves in these seductive landscapes and compelling vistas and only rarely stop and appreciate the fact that these worlds were purposely built for our enjoyment by people with pencils and machines.

On the face of it, ‘Worldbuilding’ sounds like it should take some effort. Most of us are acquainted with the world we currently inhabit, which has taken the cooperative efforts of several billion individuals over several thousands of years of post-cave development. A feat that can apparently be matched by a handful of self-styled ‘narrative designers’, who manage to simulate complex paradigm shifts, biological evolution and cultural development in about a year. Or less. Invariably resulting in cool-looking corridors inexplicably fit to shoot firearms in.

Toilets

So what makes a game world, or any sort of world believable? Well, worlds are quite large. We have just the one in what passes for real life, and this one alone is extremely difficult to grasp as a whole for anyone. Perhaps a more constructive approach is not to dream up an entire world, but to work in reverse. Start small. Start with a single location. Explore. Ask yourself questions. Consider the toilets. Where are the toilets? Why did the architect see fit to install them there? Who cleans the toilets? How? Is there a dedicated toilet-cleaner? Where does he live? Complex settings can be pulled from very trivial details.

Tolkien’s perfect world

Middle-Earth is almost unparalleled in detail and sophistication, with intricate histories and fleshed-out linguistics, but it is still very much the product of one biased mind. A strict Catholic belief prevented J.R.R. Tolkien from dreaming up an organised religion, as he was expected to have no other Gods before someone else, resulting in a world with existing, tangible deities, which curiously failed to affect the inhabitants of the world. His religious inflections also negated any mention or occurrence of sexual activity, later explained by the author as ‘none of the cultures having any interest in such things beyond procreation’. This resulted in a world of men with no discernible ambition apart from being platonic friends with other men and not being killed by Orcs. For all of its linguistic depth, Middle-Earth shows little indication of being inhabited by people.

Many of these questions might seem utterly useless. Unnecessarily detailed. Superfluous. They are. Consider our own reality. We’ve got spray-on cheese, Batmobiles, fireplace DVDs, and singing animatronic Christmas trees. All of these things are largely useless and don’t mean much in and of themselves. Yet they are all the direct result of thousands of years of cultural development, ecological influence and natural decay. Reasonable nonsense. A world is many small things pointing to a vague large thing, not a large thing with boxes in it, to provide cover from the people with the guns inexplicably coming at you. A world is amorphous, always developing, never standing still. As creators, we should not attempt to distill what little we think we understand of the whole, but rather, learn from the little things that make our world tangible, and use these to pencil in other worlds to escape to. A world does not have to be understood from the outset. To understand it means there is nothing left to learn.

Narrative layers

Some games manage this quite well. Portal 2’s story mainly concerned diabolical and/or clumsy robots trying to prevent you from escaping a large laboratory, but manages to interject several narrative layers that both complement and stand apart from your own progress. Audio logs give an insight in Aperture Science’s eccentric CEO, but a larger and more complete story about the company is told completely through level design. History can be read in the buildings and machines like geological layers, leaving every keen-eyed player with a detailed history of the world by the end of the game. Historical markers are used to denote time, allowing you to easily deduce that the room with the huge computers is probably older than the one with the small computers. After a few hours of play, these three narrative strands – direct interaction, audio logs, design – start to converge, connections can be made, and suddenly the setting and context are revealed to be far richer than they initially appeared.

In a Galaxy far away

A single author might make a world or setting overly specific and one-sided, a group of authors can pose problems of its own. ‘Many bakers spoil the crust’, as the saying goes, which is especially true of large franchises that have known the hands of hundreds of writers. The Star Wars-universe started as a well-executed but fairly run-of-the-mill epic saga. Thousands of novels, comic books, videogames and other tie-ins later, the entirety of that universe has become so large and unwieldy that its roots, that of the farm-boy destined for greater things, are more or less buried. Which, by the way, is about to be undone

Human threat

Perhaps more interesting is the question of how little world-building a developer should engage in. There is a special niche of games inhabited by EVE Online, DayZ, and, more recently Rust, where world and setting have been absorbed by the players themselves. In EVE, developer-written factions have made way for player-controlled corporations exercising pressure on the game’s economy, the slightest imbalance of which can result in player-instigated wars costing many of thousands of real-world money in damage. In DayZ, players were originally meant to survive by hoarding supplies and evading zombies, but active player interest has made humans the most dangerous predator of the game. Players have taken on the roles of kidnappers, slavers and worse, without the game or setting having been meant to. Lastly, Rust, a game similar to DayZ in many respects, has done away with zombies very quickly after opening Early Access – it was already clear that the players posed a far more interesting threat to each other than any NPC.

Discovery

Because film is the most prominent entertainment industry preceding video games, it’s easy to think of them in similar terms. Both have directors, artists, and, interestingly, writers. But it is important to remember that films tell stories. All information and all interaction is carefully presented to the viewer in the most stimulating and interesting way possible. Games, on the other hand, are at their core still interactive. Which means that discovery should ultimately be because a player wants to discover and acts to discover. And, once given the slightest bit of control, the player will want to change things. For a writer, in the traditional sense, this is terrifying. Every detail they so lovingly put into place will be waltzed over by clumsy, inattentive players. Yet this is what makes a game interesting, and should be allowed for by a designer. Ultimately, a player should be allowed to play, not played at. •