I could talk for hours about Bethesdas’s 2012 stealth game Dishonored, not least that despite a setting obviously based on Victorian England, the title has been shamelessly Americanised. But today I want to talk about one thing in particular that this game did better than so many different works of fiction I’ve indulged in. World building.
And by that I don’t mean the way in which you do in Mojang’s Minecraft, or Maxis’ The Sims. I mean in the narrative sense. For those who haven’t played it, Dishonored is based in the fictional city of Dunwall (‘dun’ which is Celtic for ‘town’, and wall, which is English for, well, ‘wall’.) it’s around a time which you could, and should, attribute to Industrial England, but with an edge of occult mystery. Basically Dishonored is what happens when steam punk and magic get together for a bit of rough and tumble.
That’s all obvious from just looking at the game case. With only 9 levels including the tutorial, in terms of modern action games it has the potential to be a pretty short one. Now that’s if you take the ‘run through and stab everything that moves route’. Or you can lurk in the corners, read notes, books and eavesdrop on conversations between oblivious guards, taking your time to plan each mission flawlessly.
By the story’s end I really didn’t want to leave the city of Dunwall. It was so fleshed out, so full and strangely real. I kept thinking about how the creators had done this so well even before the fourth mission.
It’s not through the things that you’re told outright by the NPCs or get thrown at you on the loading screens that help create the world. It’s the subtle things; posters and graffiti you glance at as you skulk through the streets or conversations you glimpse as you leap over the rooftops.
It’s not just steam punk stealth based video games that do this, books do too. See with books you’re required to absolutely commit to the story before you gain any pay off from the world or its characters. Once you’re half a dozen chapters in you’ve invested enough time that you can’t back out. And if the world hasn’t been adequately fleshed out by that point you’re in for a long ride.
I grew up in the late 90’s and as such devoured Harry Potter. This was a world we were told is our own, except you know, it has wizards and owl post and what not. This is a great way to build a world. It’s a world we find familiar but at the same time, we know that there’s enough difference to hold our intrigue. To make us want to let the world build around us, block by magical block.
But what about when a book is set in a completely different world, or time to what an audience can relate to?
The Mistborn Saga, by Brandon Sanderson is an incredibly immersive series. What Sanderson does so well is interweave explanation, world building, plot development and character arcs so effortlessly that by the end of each book you’re astonished at how so many of his little strands came to such a smooth conclusion. This combination of every little enticing detail is slow and hard work, but it’s so very rewarding.
Filmmakers face a problem unlike book writers or game designers. They don’t have the huge scale of time investment from their audience. Film watching is, (though perhaps shouldn’t be) a far more passive pastime. This is why we get so many lazy, clunky expositional openings, with bland narration or stiff dialogue. It’s not a bad thing, it’s a necessary evil.
Due to the modern directing trend of fast cuts and short shots, film audiences shouldn’t be expected to be dropped into a situation where they have to pick up on every little thing about a character’s cleaning habits. They don’t have the paragraphs of explanation of a bedroom before the protagonist’s entrance, or the time to read every book on a rich man’s bookshelf five minutes away from the main mission
One good way world building can be done is through natural dialogue, something that some films do really well. This can be done through seemingly unlaboured character development, like in Gangs of New York, or throwaway lines that, given your attention, explain a whole lot, see anything from Joss Whedon for this.
So writers of any type, when it comes to building your fantasy world, take your sweet time. Be subtle and don’t treat your viewers like they’re idiots, they should be paying attention, and if they’re not it’s their loss. Writers need to have more faith in their audiences because with the risk of faith comes greater developed and more effective ideas.