Characterization is a very important step in game design, even for the simplest of characters. Simple characters like the Wigglers from Mario have a lot of thought and effort put into how they look, move and act, even though in their first appearance they only appeared in a couple of levels. But we always should take a step back and look at the world our games are based in.
A worlds characterization is just as important as its inhabitants, and making a world is not as hard as it sounds. A good world can make a game, even without a lot of characters in it. Well designed worlds can encourage exploration, as well as being good at conveying story elements. Some world are just fun to explore because they are filled with interesting things like animals, contraptions, history, and playthings.
A good example of world creation is the classic series Myst. Myst is a game series that not only has one world, but several per game, many of which have different elements about them which make them unique and interesting. A good example is the second game in the series, Riven. Riven is primarily based in one large central world which the player only gets to leave twice throughout the game, and only to get a small glimpse of the other two ages. That being said the age of Riven is spectacularly fleshed out with unique physics, language, social structure, and natural phenomena. One of my personal favorites is how minute lifeforms in the waters of Riven push themselves away from heat. This is used in the world to make underwater tunnels only with heating element and tram rails. Another example from the Myst series is from their MMO (massively multiplayer online game), Myst URU where you get to visit a world where the Dunni people make food for the florescent Algi in the Dunni cavern, a large cave city where there is no sunlight. Better yet, this wasn't even compulsory for the main story of URU, it was just a extra puzzle to expand the world and explain how the Dunni had a day night cycle.
Another game which has a massively intricate world is the fantastic puzzle platformer FEZ. Fez is a game which has a lot of bad press for all the wrong reasons, but i will have to come back to why in a later post. Fez itself has a strange concept about what happens when a 2D character gets to see the world in 3D (to an extent). This concept isn't that unique by this point, with even Nentendo having a crack at it with its Paper Mario series. However its the world that truly makes this game stand out. Each screen of this game has interesting mechanics, structures, animals and puzzles. Even the environments play into just how exciting it is to travel through this game and enjoy its world. Fez even has its own language and number system that plays into a number of the puzzles throughout the game, and a lot of effort has been put into the game to give some sense of story even when you can't read the text.
Some other games I love the world of are the Monkey Island series, Within a Deep Forest, Grim Fandango, The longest Journey, Shadowrun, the Oddworld series, The Fallout series, The Deponia Trilogy, The King of Dragon Pass, the Souls series. I could go on but you might start to see a pattern of sorts. All the games I have listed ether are role-play games, or have puzzle elements. This isn't true for all games, but its generally the case for a few different reasons. Role-play games are easy to explain, as they are basically an opportunity to interact in situations that we don't usually get into in real life. A interesting world can add options for us to interact in different ways, but it also asks us to imagine life in that situation. Games like this ask us what might change our choices in game based on what we know about the world. King of Dragon Pass specifically asks us to reset our morals and thoughts about our world, and accept the status quo of the game world while we are playing it. We are no longer us, we are now our character, and a good role-play game should emphasis that.
Puzzle games have a bit longer an explanation, but they come down to the same basic concept. We are not us when playing games in other worlds. In our world pirates are known savage and bloodthirsty lawbreakers, but in a game like monkey island, pirating is just another profession in life with rules and regulations. Pirates are seen as friendlier towards our goody two shoes protagonist, by just putting up with him instead of outright killing him as we would expect from real pirates. Puzzle creation also gets easier the more abstract the world is, mainly just because there is more the designer can play with in a situation to create a puzzle. Something we don't expect can happen when playing in the world, which can give us a clue about what we need to do to progress. Next puzzles that have an odd solution feel better to accomplish, just because we had to learn about the situation before solving the puzzle. A puzzle Deponia has you get rid of a guard dog with a stick, but not quite in the way you expect. Instead of throwing the stick you have to electrocute yourself with it instead. It may not make the most sense but in a game world anything goes as long as its possible create the connections needed to solve the puzzle. Finally Designers spend a lot of time thinking about puzzles when making a puzzle game, and also about how to give the player clues about what they have to do. This also means that the designer puts the player in awkward situations, and hence the player will start to think what could be happening in the world to cause the situation.
One last point about some platformers, as some of them have really intricate worlds. The main thing about platformers is that the ones with interesting worlds usually have some sort of puzzle elements, and the puzzle are sometimes just as easy as find the appropriate key for the appropriate door. An example of this is the Metroid series, where most of the puzzles are just like this. Don't get me wrong I really like this design method too, its just that some other types of games could have more expansive worlds without needing an puzzle element to explain why the world is so in depth, or a story reason to explore.
I have explained why certain genres usually have more expansive worlds than others, but I said at the beginning that world creation is easy, so here is why I believe that.
A lot of games use a basic world that are already established mainly just because people already expect certain things, so the game doesn't have to explain the basics to them. Its basically like a giant shortcut to the player understanding, but at the same time (going back to my post about unique experience) we want to new things to play with as players, so using this shortcut means we need more from the mechanics, story and gameplay to get the same feeling of enjoyment.
Unique world in games are usually created just by starting with a simple twist on something we already understand. For example the main twist of Myst is that books, when written in a certain way, are actually portals to the worlds written within. The main twist of Shadowrun is what would it be like if a western fantasy world was brought a couple of thousand years into the future. The main twist of grim fandango is if there is a purgatory, what would it be like to live in if there are as few regulations as there are in the real world.
So what we start with is a twist, something that would be different than what we are used to. It can be as simple as what if light and darkness are reversed so the sun emits darkness to a floodlit planet, or what if planets and space are reversed so we live in a hallow in the midst of masses of rock and mineral. From that first twist if you start to ask more questions of yourself then you have a good start. So for example if we live in a hollow where do we get light from? Maybe there is a large sunorb suspended just above everyone's head which magnetically pushes itself from the rock. Then how do we have a night day cycle? Maybe the sun decays and the inhabitants of our planet feed it with mined resources. Is there stars? Technically no, but you can see a million house lights at night time that fill the sky. Do we have space travel? Yes but its more digging tunnels than flying. Who feeds the sunorb? There could be a company that is charging everyone for the light they bring to the world and has a monopoly on the business. How do we dig through so much rock? Maybe we have a type of psychic that can fuse areas of the earth with different types of essence which magnetically pushes tunnels in the rock. It doesn't matter how strange the world you come up with is, its yours and as long as you can explain what is happening in the world it will be interesting to a decently sized group people out there. As long as you can snowball your ideas then you should never run out of stuff to add to the world. This works when creating groups and religions too, they can also intertwine to create a world that feels alive with activity.
In summery, making a unique world for your game can capture players imagination, and building it can start with a single question. So why not leave fantasy behind for a bit, or give the zombie apocalypse to someone else for a while. Its your chance to make a world designed to fit with your game instead of cramming it into an old cookie cutter. Try starting those high concepts with "Imagine a world" once again, or not. Just don't forget its a tool in your development arsenal and you should dust it off and use it once and a while.
If your interested in giving world creation a go with a few friends you should try this. Its a set of rules for group creation of role play worlds, but its good for making a developed history of a game world too.
This weeks readers challenge is to find a good twist for a world, a question that snowballs your ideas in making a place all of your own. Give it a try and post it below in the comments, I would love to see them.
Alas, this is the end for this week, but check back next Monday for "A Horrific Theory". See you next week.