Worldbuilding for games: Q&A follow-up

Antony Johnston
Jul 13, 2020 · 13 min read
Photo: Alex Clarke

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (of which I’m a member, and sit on the video games committee) recently hosted a week-long series of daily online panels about writing for games, covering a variety of topics.

One of the most popular was the final panel, discussing the art and process of worldbuilding. I was thrilled to take part, sharing the virtual stage with a panel of great writers and narrative designers. You can watch the event here: https://youtu.be/pH8lZXAh0Mw

During the panel, our live audience used the webinar’s Q&A function to ask questions in real time. And there were a lot. Far too many to answer in the time we had. So, afterwards, WGGB host Andrew Walsh sent the panelists a transcript of the questions asked, and I’ve picked out some of those I can answer here.

Whether you’re an experienced games writer, just starting out in the industry, or someone looking to move from another field to games, I hope you find this useful.

(NB for data protection purposes we weren’t given names or details of who asked these questions, so they’re presented anonymously and verbatim)

I’m currently world building a sci-fi universe for a video game. What advice can you give in regards to creating different alien species that are varied and well-developed, without falling into the trap of having one trait associated with each species. For instance, the “smart species”, the “war-mongering species”, the “exotic species”, etc…

The solution to this is simple, but requires a lot of work: you design a variety of traits and societies for all those alien species.

How deep you go into that design depends on your available time, budget, and inclination. If you’re making a game with just a couple of different alien types, you should probably create detailed pictures of their home worlds, the diverse societies found thereon, and their global geopolitics. Who are the superpowers? On what are their economies primarily based? How do they handle the issue of extraplanetary ambassadors? How do their politics affect their relationship with other species, who may have very different political and societal structures? How does their physiology, and planetary habitat, affect the politics of their nations?

There are a thousand different questions you can ask, and answering them will deepen and enrich your depiction of those species.

If, however, your game has a hundred alien species, you probably don’t have time to go into that level of detail! In that case, restrict yourself to a few bullet points on each species’ more prominent societies, personalities, and geopolitics. Focus on diverse examples, such as showing how different two examples of the same species can be. If one or two species are more significant to the game than others, try to go deeper on those particular aliens.

Once you know the answers to these questions — and with the other departments on board — the decisions you’ve made will inevitably bleed into the game design. But you can then also take it further by reflecting the alien diversity directly in the narrative, to show that your game’s species are not homogenous.

As your world begins to grow, how do you best stay on top of spiralling lore and disseminate this information to other departments without causing confusion?

Many developers use Atlassian’s various tools, including Jira and Confluence, as an internal wiki to hold all the design and narrative documents relevant to the project. In my experience they’re a set of tools which nobody loves, but are just fine, and there’s no better alternative that works at the kind of scale necessary for a large game.

There are, though, free wiki and database tools available which small developers can use to the same end. In this day and age, and especially in an era of both increasingly-distributed studios and increased work from home, online repositories are undoubtedly the best way to distribute information amongst teams.

Whatever tool you use, the key is to make sure everyone is using it, and understand that it’s the ‘source of truth.’ Any and all changes should be reflected in the wiki. It’s easy to let this fall by the wayside as a project expands, and especially as it nears deadline, but you should strive to not let that happen.

Using a resource like this as the source of truth helps avoid confusion, but it shouldn’t be your primary method of communication. The other departments rely on you to inform them when you create something that will have an impact on their work, just as you rely on them to tell you when they make a decision which will affect how the game’s narrative is experienced. Do what you can to foster a culture of clear and honest communication between the narrative department and all others — and have patience when explaining storytelling concepts to non-writers!

This one is mostly for Antony. How do you decide if a story is fit for a comic book or a video game? And how does your writing approach differ for each?

First, let’s clear up a misunderstanding; writers are almost never asked to pitch their original stories to game developers or publishers (I say almost only because the world is strange and nothing is impossible, but I’ve never heard of it happening).

Games are created because a studio or publisher decides they want to make something, and proceeds from there. Hopefully at that early point they’ll hire a writer, if they don’t already have one on staff, but that writer will be working to create a story which fits the project’s needs.

The exception to this is when a studio is itself led by a writer. Some small indies, and a very (very) small number of larger studios, are in this position. So it’s possible those studio heads might come up with an original idea and have to decide whether it should be a game or something else. But honestly, I suspect it’s an easy decision for them. When I come up with a story idea for other media — a book, a graphic novel, a screenplay — the format is intrinsic to the conception. I’m not sure I’ve ever come up with a story idea without also knowing, as a fundamental part of the concept, how I want to present it.

As for the writing approach, that can differ wildly, because you must always write to the strengths of the medium in which you’re working. In comics, that’s the power of sequential art, juxtaposition of text and image, ability to control the narrative pace, and so on. In games that’s interactivity, immersion, the ability to force choices through player agency. In novels it’s the ability to get inside characters’ heads, and tell a complex, lengthy story. With a screenplay it’s the immediacy of live motion, the ability to hold people’s attention through a camera lens. etc, etc, etc.

So they’re very different — but that’s not to say there aren’t skills you can carry across from one to the other. In fact, my first ever GDC lecture, ‘Comics to Consoles’, was on just that subject and you can watch it here.

I’m an aspiring game producer. What could I do as a producer that will make your life easier?

First of all, whoever you are, thank you for asking this question. If only more working producers did the same 😉

Time, budget, and autonomy are the three primary things all writers (in any field, not just games) want more of.

Give us time to create and develop. Bring writers onto the project early, and allow us the schedule and freedom to experiment, to try things out, to build the world you need. Sometimes that will mean following dead ends, ripping everything up, and starting all over again. That sucks, but it’s a necessary part of the process to ensure you get the best world, story, and player experience at the end of it.

Give us the budget to achieve that. You may need to hire more than one writer. You may need to let us in turn hire sensitivity readers, or cultural consultants, or simply take time to do extensive research. As I said on the panel, these costs are a tiny fraction of a game’s total budget, but deliver enormous returns on investment. Skimping on them is a false economy.

Finally, give us the autonomy to judge what’s working, what isn’t, and how best to achieve the goals we’re all striving towards — but also encourage us, and the other departments, to communicate and consult with each other regularly as collaborative equals. We’re all there to make the game the best it can be.

How do you balance information that the characters in the world know about and information that us, as the audience, know about?

There are two sides to this.

Where the audience knows more than a character, this could be a case of dramatic irony — think of, say, a film scene where we know a gangster is walking into a trap, because we saw their enemies plotting in a different scene. Drama and tension is heightened because we know more than the character. In games dramatic irony can be equally effective, and sometimes more, because we know something bad will happen when we walk through that door… but we have to walk through the door to progress. So we cross that threshold with gritted teeth and sweaty palms.

Or it might be a question of world knowledge. Imagine a character who has never seen a gun before, and has no idea what it is — even though the player does. These cases require careful consideration of what’s important to the narrative. Can you ‘handwave away’ how this character will simply pick up a gun and somehow instinctively know how to use it? Or must they go through a learning process? The latter option is more realistic, but could be frustrating to a player. Collaboration with the game’s designers is vital to determine what’s most important to the game, and to its audience.

On the other hand, a character may know more than the audience. This is common in all kinds of storytelling, and only becomes a problem when the information is important to our enjoyment of the story. Does anyone know how spaceship engines work in Star Wars? Some of the characters surely do, but we don’t — because we don’t need to. All we need to know is that they do work, but sometimes the hyperdrive breaks down. Any more detail is completely unnecessary to our enjoyment.

When such information is important to the audience, things get tricky. Now we have to figure out how to get it across in a way that feels natural, without a huge ‘infodump’ of exposition and detail. That takes skill to pull off, and it’s a skill only gained through time, practice, and hard-won experience; things I can’t give you, sadly.

Many games get around this with protagonists who know as little about the world they face as the player does. Sometimes that manifests as a character with insomnia, a trope we’re all familiar with. Other games will simply fling an ordinary person into an extra-ordinary world. Think how many horror titles, for example, feature a protagonist with all the same real-world knowledge as us… but to survive they’ll need new knowledge, which they — and we — can only gain by playing the game.

Do you distinguish when worldbuilding what the truth is and what the cultural perception is (eg. Earth revolving Sun vs Sun revolving Earth)? How do you make sure the player/reader can tell the difference with unreliable narrators?

Unless told otherwise, players will assume things in your game work the same way as they do in the real world. That’s both a burden and a blessing.

It’s a burden, because it means you must make them aware of anything that’s different. You can design a world where the sun revolves around the earth, but unless you give the player that information — in dialogue, in lore, or even by literally showing them — they’ll never assume it. (And even if you tell them, they might not believe it without strong evidence.)

But it’s a blessing because it means you don’t need to tell players anything that’s the same as our world. Does the earth in fact revolve around the sun in your world? Congratulations, you get that for free. It won’t even occur to players that might not be the case unless you make a point of it.

(You can also extend this to the most common tropes in your chosen genre. You don’t need to tell players fantasy dwarves live underground, or noir cops are corrupt, or what an FTL drive is. But if your dwarves don’t live underground, and it’s important to your story, you’d darn well better say so.)

When we come to secret or hidden information, things get trickier. As soon as you even introduce the idea that what we assume might not be true, you’re planting doubt in the player’s mind. The strength of that doubt will depend on how it’s delivered — a mad prophet shouting about how the sun revolves around the earth can easily be dismissed, but a serious scientist delivering the same news to a conference will carry more weight.

You can even use this to your advantage by having one follow the other, so the player’s opinion swings back and forth, and they begin to question what’s true or not. Push them enough, and they may even decide they must seek the truth for themselves.

Such self-discovered proof is the only thing a player will believe once you plant sufficient doubt in their minds, so wield the power responsibly. Don’t introduce massive ambiguity into your narrative unless you plan to address it. Players won’t forget, and if it’s left unresolved without good reason you’ll leave them unsatisfied.

One of games’ unique strengths is how players can find things out for themselves; let them do so and they’ll thank you for it.

There are multiple ways for world building, and some can be very vague such as Dark Souls. Do you plan on building worlds to make it as vague to keep the player more drawn into it, or do you believe in having on the nose diaries that spell out exactly what happened?

There’s no right or definitive answer to this. It’s a question you must think about, and answer, separately for every project.

The reactions suggested in the question aren’t fixed in stone; sometimes a game can draw players in because of its extensive, detailed lore (e.g. Skyrim), while sometimes a vague mythology can turn players off because they’re frustrated at the lack of answers (e.g. No Man’s Sky).

As I said on the panel, it’s a good idea for you to know the details of your world’s lore, because it helps you write events and characters consistently. Internal consistency is important in almost all forms and genres of storytelling. But whether or not you expose that detail to your players, or keep it vague, should be decided by the experience you want the audience to have.

(And don’t be afraid to A/B test this sort of thing. As a writer, you might be too close to the material to make an informed judgement. Testers’ reactions to more/less world lore may surprise you.)

Would you advise against worldbuilding or writing a game’s narrative TOO much before beginning to develop the game? Is such a thing possible? [For context, I had an idea for a game concept first, started worldbuilding & coming up with characters and plot (along with game mechanics), and it’s becoming rather monolithic. I realize that I would need a team to make it at this stage]

I regard all worldbuilding as useful.

I mentioned on the panel that it’s only a problem if your world has so much detail that you’re struggling to actually think of interesting stories to tell. It may sound counter-intuitive, but an excess of detail can ‘choke off’ story avenues and prevent seeds growing. Leaving historical gaps, vaguely-described conflicts, unanswered questions, and more can prompt stories which explore those things, or simply react to them.

However, just because it’s useful to you — to help, as I said previously, with consistency — doesn’t mean it’s always useful to the player. Your enormous world bible doesn’t necessarily mean the game has to be so huge it requires a team to build. You can focus on a small aspect of that world, and a game with small scope, while still drawing on all the work you’ve done to create it.

How would you prioritise what information you give to a developer on a game where they don’t consider the narrative to be the main focus?

Once again, the answer requires asking a different question: what is the game about? What’s important to the audience? The answer to those questions determines what you should prioritise.

If you’re working on a project where the story isn’t a primary focus, first count your blessings; many developers making such a game wouldn’t bother hiring a writer at all. Then focus on asking why the developer hired you. What do they expect from you? What do they need from a writer to serve the game design? How can you help them deliver the game they envisage? Focus on those aspects.

That said, where possible you shouldn’t only do those things. If background worldbuilding will help you be consistent and knowledgable when delivering what the game needs, go ahead and do it. The developer probably won’t want to see it, but it will make the work they do want to see better…

…And sometimes, just sometimes, it may be so good they decide the narrative is more important to the game than they first thought.

Closing remarks

You’ll surely have noticed that many of the above answers can be summed up as, ‘it depends.’ That’s no accident, because it’s absolutely true. All writing is a process of making decisions to solve problems in a way that best suits the story you want to tell, and no two stories have exactly the same needs.

In game writing you have the additional task of deciding what best suits the story players will want to play, which differs not just from project to project, but from player to player.

So take this advice, by all means, but also follow your instincts. Remember that there are no rules in writing or storytelling. Many things are often done a certain way for good reason, but just as many boil down to taste and convention. Don’t be afraid to carve your own path, to challenge conventions, and find new ways to tell stories. Better a bold failure than a boring success.

A game writer’s life is rarely easy, but never dull. Good luck.

Writing and Breathing

Thoughts on writing by Antony Johnston.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store