Game Worlds

Do you want to be in this world?

Why is it that sometimes when we play a game, we immediately love being in that world? This is a question I’ve tried to answer, and partially have answered, but I still don’t know completely. The best I’ve been able to come up with, is that we want world that are consistent, dynamic, have ambiance, and both plausible and interesting logic. I’ve been putting this one off for longer than I ought to have. The long list of things above are evidence that I don’t fully understand the topic. However, I don’t need to fully understand the topic to understand it well enough to have a useful understanding.

Just because I have an excuse, I’m going to be placing Destiny concept art throughout this post.




When I say consistency, I’m very much not referring to an unchanging world, far from it. What I’m referring to is the idea that the world, at any one time, works in specific and understandable ways. An even better definition is that consistency is when a games world has all the parts working with each other. If we took a medieval fantasy game, and we had lots of people wandering around in full metal armour, but we had no blacksmiths, then we have a game without any consistency. In that game, things just exist in the game world, and it does not feel like there really is one world at all. A game with consistency is a game that has an entire world feel like one world.


I previously wrote in the Feel post, that if you have a player run across a beach, then they should leave footprints. This is because letting the player shape the world is a good thing. The same is true for the world itself. Imagine a rock sitting precariously on the top of a hill. If the wind picks up, we would expect this rock to go tumbling down. On its way, we would expect that anything small, such as young saplings, would get destroyed, and other things may knock the course of the rock of its original path. At the end of the rocks journey, if it rolls through the beach and into the water, we would expect to find a large trail in the sand, and we would expect to see and hear a large splash as the rock hits the water. If we are playing a game that doesn’t have wind physics, we won’t see the rock fall, which is disappointing. If we are playing a game with poor/nonexistent object physics, then we would expect weird behaviour, such as a tiny sapling stopping the rock completely. I could go on, but I don’t want to distract by talking so much about physics.

The same disappointment is felt in an RPG when “Oh my god the base is being overrun by evil demons,” and yet everyone still has time to play cards, and no one is taking any real emergency action. Hilarious point by Noah Antwiler from his Final Fantasy 8 critique (the third part) “But I just find it hilarious that everyone is perfectly willing to play cards with you anywhere at anytime, on a mission, in the middle of a timewarp, in the middle of an attack by fucking Modoch. ‘Everyone fall back and regroup on all sides, we need to form a barrier between us and the snakes – what cards? Sure I got a minute.'” It really is impossible for me to believe that people are willing to play cards with me and simultaneously getting worked up over the supposedly urgent situation we all find ourselves in.

Hell, we can back up and point out how little any of the quests in Skyrim actually affect the world. At one point we have goddamn dragons start spawning all over the world, and while individuals in an area with a dragon respond interestingly, the world itself is totally unchanged. Merchants still use the same routes and bring the same goods while saying the same things. Getting ahead of myself here, but any game with dynamism is also a game with consistency. In Skyrim, we don’t have the game respond (it does a little, but not at all in a macro sense) to dragons suddenly appearing, which is bad dynamism, but since they don’t respond to dragons, yet everyone talks about how horrible they are, we have poor consistency as well.

Like most things that are going to be in this post, dynamism is something that should exist on all scales, from very small to very large. When it’s very windy, the rock falls. Then the townsfolk say things like “I told you that damn rock was going to fall.” The cult that lives under the town thinks that the town was trying to attack them, and soon an all out battle emerges. That’s one example, but really, just think about the dragons in Skyrim, and how some trading routes should be too “hot” for practical use, or that goods become more expensive because fewer merchants attempt the trip, or need to hire expensive guards. Individual citizens have stories about dragons they’ve seen. Some small villages get razed. There starts to be a shortage of food because dragons keep eating all the livestock. As a result, tensions start to mount in cities and people become noticeably leaner. All that, or things like that, ought to be in the game. This is why it frustrates me when designers decide to make stories for their games, if we just had dynamic worlds, with simple systems, we wouldn’t need to write any stories, the games would generate them for us.


Take a look at this picture:


This is, yet again, from Destiny concept sketches. What stands out to me is how much I want to be in that world. There are multiple reasons for this, the first being my interest in the science fiction aspects, such as the ships in the top right, and the unknown structure in the front. It’s a world where things exist that do not in ours, and that’s interesting. What really stands out to me is the sky, and how naturally it’s been drawn. This is not an image that is trying its hardest to be dramatic, it almost feels real. I feel like I can hear what this world sounds like, distant low throb of the airships engines, quiet whisper of a light wind, the sound of grass under my feet. The occasional bird song. I can feel the sense of distance the three travelers must feel from the events here, and how quiet and big the space feels to them. What I’m so thrilled about is the combination of ambiance and supernaturality. Ambiance is the “feel” of a certain place in the world, is something that can be achieved in a few ways.

The first, and absolutely most important, is through ambient noise. A gamer who is playing your game is playing the game in a physical location that has its own ambient noise, which may be quite loud. If you don’t have any ambient noise in your world, not only is that logically nonsensical, but the user is going to be pulled back constantly into his own world because of the noises that his house is making, the hum of the fridge, people talking, among other things. I consider filling the silence to be the absolutely most important thing to do for the sake of World/Place. For my first game, I just had some Chopin playing in the background, but for my next game, I am creating a quiet, and tasteful, hum that fits the tone of the game, and fills the noise properly. Filling the sound is one of the things that AAA games all do at least reasonably well, and even most indie games I’ve played do this. Halo:CE, way back in 2001, has both near constant ambient noise, as well as an ambient music track. On top of that, actual music occasionally plays, and sound effects occur for most things, and sound appropriate.

Video I made quickly in Halo:CE, level “Halo”.

The ambiance of a world can be thought of as the “hum” of the world, combined with the tone. That hum can be achieved visually, as well as through sound. The elder scrolls games have the grass swaying slowly back and forth as if with the wind. The Witcher series does the exact same thing. Other games can do this with the flicker of firelight against a wall, or the scurry of animals through the woods, or people moving about in a city. The separation between ambiance and logic becomes slight, but any regular movement in the world is ambiance. Walking down a road in Skyrim the player might encounter a merchant caravan. Or in Mount and Blade, there’s nary a place to go without seeing some caravan, or lord, or raiding party, or even just farmers moving from the outskirts to a town and back.

Secondly, there is the tone of the world. Enjoy this masterful sketch on tone:


Once again I feel as though I can hear the almost silence of this image. Early in the morning, no wind, the faint rustle of leaves as this soldier steps. The low, almost imperceptible hum of the world. In a few minutes birds will start chirping, but not quite now. I love how this world manages to feel real as well as storied.

Tone is something that intersects quite strongly with World Logic. If you put the player in a forest full of man-eating spiders that world is going to have a different tone than a world where the forests are full of cute lovable fluffy animals. Those worlds are also going to have different World Logic, where I defined that as the civilization of the world, or the Human World (doesn’t necessarily need to be humans), and the Nature of the world, and the way those two things work. More and more I think that I can and should combine these all under something else.


After some thinking I believe I have figured this out. I can’t believe I couldn’t think of this before, but a huge component to making a setting good, is the possibility and likelihood of interesting things to happen. For example, a child’s birthday party, or a spaceport full of criminals with a repressive government, or a mall on Black Friday. All of those are settings that can support a wide variety of interesting things happening. For games, what we want is high quantity and quality of interesting things happening, both the to the player and in the world at large.

This is yet another reason that I love Mount and Blade:Warband so much. The setting, medieval-ish mishmash of different cultures, warring lords, a kingless land, claimants to each throne, people trying to make their fortune (okay, mostly just the player), oppressed farmers, peasants wanting to get rich through war, evil gold greedy ransom brokers, and wandering adventurers with their specific personalities and skills. Doesn’t that just sound like a setting you want to go to? A big reason that Warband is such a great game is simply the amount of possibilities that the setting provides. I can’t think of another game quite like it. Skyrim has a huge number of things to do, but a smaller number of things that are actually interesting to do, mainly because nothing you do actually matters to the world (poor Dynamism). So what makes a setting have interesting possibilities? Well exactly what I put under World Logic.

The Civilization, or Human World, can make for interesting stories, as can the Nature of a world. The Civilization is the term for the Politics and Society, which determines the attitudes of the people, the Science and Technology, which determines the possible, and the History of the world, at least from a human standpoint, which can be interesting storytelling in and of itself, as well as setting the seeds for drama in the future. A spaceport that has attracted a number of desperate people through broken promises of gold, coupled with a disliked, corrupt, and weak government is a recipe for interesting things to happen. There are plenty of systems we can make in such a world, such as favour between the player and various gangs, religious groups, and the government, tension, which controls the amount of fighting between the people and the government, gang territory, which determines how powerful each gang is and where in the spaceport their influence extends to, as well as others such as equipment. There are many potential systems I haven’t touched on, nor have I considered what technology would enable in this world, but it’s not hard to understand the potential of this world.

The Nature of a world is the term for the Geography/Climatology of the world, as well as the Flora and Fauna, all of which contributes to the overall Hospitality of the world. Start a game where the player is crawling out of a crashed spaceship on a downed planet. If that planet has a toxic atmosphere, deadly creatures, little food, and rugged, almost impassable terrain, then we have a setting that is ripe for interesting things. What systems might we use to create these interesting things? Oxygen, necessary for breathing in this atmosphere, and a limited resource. Electrical power, spend it wisely, we need that to purify air, heat the shelter, create items, and other things. Hunger, the player absolutely needs to venture out into the world to forage for food, not to mention cooking and preparing that food. Animal Hunger, the animals get hungry out in the world, and will hunt the player near constantly. Storms, the world can get awfully nasty awfully quickly, don’t get caught outside. We could also have the player hunt certain animal types to extinction in a certain area. We could also have the player build safe points of shelter, that they could go to in dangerous areas. And what about other things, such as loneliness, or entertainment. Through systems alone we could make the player want to read a novel in game, or watch a holodeck, just to stave of boredom from the character.

Tying the logic of the world together, we must have a World that is plausible. Another term for this is verisimilitude. However, I believe strongly that consistency and plausibility are the same thing. If you have an animal in your game that is too large to fly, then that’s an inconsistency and is implausible. If I can go and kill giant rats in the sewers for a few hours, and not have to worry about diseases at all, then the overall plot point better not involve a plague. If nobody can tell that Superman and Clark Kent are the same person just because he puts on glasses, then these aren’t people, they’re robots, and the joke’s on Superman. I’m not saying that suspension of disbelief isn’t something we should ask of our audience, I’m just saying that we shouldn’t ask it very often.



Yes, more Destiny concept art

The new update list of what makes a setting/world/place/universe good:

Dynamism: The worlds ability to change, and change through both it’s own actions, and the actions of the player. An example of this would be giving a gang a weapons cache and having their territory expand. Preferably we have systems triggering systems, so the new territory causes increased police funding, which causes citizens to be resentful, which increases the likelihood of a revolt. It doesn’t have to be perfectly logical, just plausible and interesting.

Ambiance: The “hum” and tone of the world. Have ambient noise, or at least fill the silence. In terms of tone, aside from systems, my only advise would be to find someone who can focus on patterns, colour choices, and abstraction vs realism in such ways that fit the game. There’s a reason why I didn’t show you my own concept art.

Possibilities: The world’s potential for large amounts of interesting play. Achieve this by focusing on the civilization and nature of the game world. Find things that would lead to interesting stories, and then systematize these. Example: set your game on a spaceship with very limited supplies, that is smuggling weapons and people to a location. Systematize distrust, weaponry, hunger, and other things.

Consistency: Last one. This runs throughout the entirety of a world. If the world, where that might mean the people or the technology or the animals or whatever, is not behaving consistently, then the player will not enjoy themselves as much as they ought to, so systematize things. This is also true for the tone of a game, as tonal whiplash is a real thing. Finally, don’t have the world feel totally different. Everything needs to feel cohesive, like it’s all a part of the same world.

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2 Responses to Game Worlds

  1. If only the storyline in Destiny was as impressive as the environment. Anyway, I love the point you made about Skyrim! Dragons could be flying overhead, attacking a nearby village and some guy still wants help picking his crops. Unreal.

    • tdcoish says:

      I know it’s hilarious. I’ve never been so aware that I’m playing a video game.

      Also, for Destiny, I never actually played the game, and I’m not really trying to praise Destiny or pick on Skyrim, just specific parts of each of them. I don’t think that Destiny has a truly reactive world, and I’m sure that it has it’s own problems with dynamically reacting to things.

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