Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

2 April, 2012

Ramblings on How to Play God

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

So, one thing I think the Myst series does very well is world building.

No, don’t go away! I’m not really making this into a Myst blog. This post is about world building in general, I’m just using Myst as a starting point, since that’s where my train of thought started in the first place.

When it comes to fiction, regardless of medium, my preferences tend to run towards what is nicely called speculative fiction, or more commonly science fiction and fantasy, or maybe even more commonly nerd stuff. A pretty common feature for this type of fiction is that it is set in a world which differs from our own. Sometimes it is an entirely different one, like in Narnia or A Song of Ice and Fire, sometimes it’s in a hidden one within our own, like in Harry Potter or The Dresden Files, but in either case it is something new and unknown. Since it is something the audience is unfamiliar with, the manner in which it is explained is important. My own fiction writing has languished lately, but when I do brush the dust of it I will end up writing in the same genre, and so I occasionally spend some time thinking of the best way to build and convey a fantasy world.

In fiction set in our own world, the writer can proceed on the assumption that everyone knows at the very least the basics of it. People will know what China is, and where Canada lies relative to Mexico, and roughly how much a dollar is worth, and how the Cold War caused international tension that still exists. No explanation is necessary, and so the writer can simply mention whatever he choses and move on. I think one of the most interesting approaches in fantasy writing is to proceed in the same way, as if the world was indeed familiar to the reader.

Since I started with Myst as an example, let me continue with that for a moment. As I’ve mentioned before, Myst is all about dropping you into its world and then refusing to explain anything, leaving you to figure it out for yourself. It is the epitome of showing, not telling. Have a look at the intro to Myst itself, it’s only about forty seconds long.

That’s all the context the game gives you. A figure fall through a crack, with a book. The figure disappears, and the book keeps falling through a star field, while a voice narrates that he realised the book would survive, contrary to his expectation. The book lands. That’s it. Next, it opens, the player falls through it, and finds him- or herself on a wooden dock on a weird island, with no clear objective.

But even though nothing is explained, everything has an explanation. This is the key bit, in my opinion. You don’t need to, as a player, understand exactly what happens in this intro. Indeed, Myst gives no explanation of it even at the end; to fully understand what happened in that sequence you must also play through Riven and read The Book of Atrus.  Further light on the event is shed in Uru, but even now it remains one of the central mysteries of the series – and one which will probably never really be explained.

Of course, this is a game series. It is one thing to drop an unexplained ruin in an interactive game, another thing entirely to convey it in prose. In prose, the imagined assumption of shared knowledge can get a bit much at times. If handled poorly, you just get a bunch of names with no reference point and it’s just off-putting. Sometimes it’s worth it to soldier through those dense sections until you do orient yourself – Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth-series of books spring to mind as an example of this – but more often than not I’ll not have the patience.

I think the key is to have a large knowledge of the world you’ve built, and then dole it out very gradually. Not with explanation, but with gradual exposure. I think you could make up a world as you go along, but the coherence and plausibility of it increases when it is all consistent and thought-through. In the work itself, the larger world should be implicit, but behind the scenes it should be explicit. None of this is revolutionary, I think; it is merely my stance in this. Of course, taken too far, you end up with hopeless perfectionism, and an inability to proceed without excessive details. That’s where I tend to end up.

1 Comment »

  1. I’ve not read this Commonwealth-series (a pitch, perchance?), but that sounds a lot like the approach in the Malazan Book of the Fallen-series. I’m seven volumes in, and I still have trouble keeping it all straight sans clear explanations – but I still feel completely immersed in the world because of it. And it’s as it should be – the characters don’t have handily accessible Wikipedia entries to confirm the rumours, the half-remembered ancient histories, and the general practical knowledge that makes up their information pools, so why should I?

    That said, it’s very demanding, and I find it a lot more entertaining when the information is sprinkled in and explained organically rather than just being alluded to and leaving it to the reader to piece it together. The lack of continuous effort and intense concentration on figuring out what is going on leaves me with a much improved ability to simply enjoy what is taking place. But as always, I suppose, the middle-ground is where the ideal lies.

    Comment by Loki — 3 April, 2012 @ 11:13

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