World Building in Video Games

A comparison of fictional elements across mediums.


It seems as though the concept of word building is not discussed nearly as much as it should be.  With regards to the works of fiction in each type of medium: literature, comics, film, and games all have their own methods for presenting their created world to their audience, no matter how fantastical they appear. As the arts and channels of entertainment evolve, so do the ways in which fantasy and world design is approached.

*Images are public domain unless otherwise noted.

What is World Building?

If you are already well versed in works based in science fiction or fantasy, you may already have a good understanding of the practice of world building.  However, for the sake of clarity, allow me to do a brief recap of some of the basics. A quick google search for "world building definition" offers some very straight-forward results: "World-building is the process of constructing a fictional universe."[1], "The process of constructing an imaginary world."[2], or "The process of creating worlds for use in a fictional tale."[3]. World-building means building worlds. I'm glad we got that sorted out.

What if we broke down this term a little more? The definition of "building" seems a little obvious here, yet looking up the term "world" in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides an interesting variety of definitions, one of the more notable of these being "the system of created things"[4]. Given some thought, this seemingly vague and broad definition may actually make the most sense, as the world we live in is more than just the people we meet and the ground under our feet. We have sets of laws (physics, nature, gravity, etc.) that keep the world turning. Most everything has some underlying logic that doesn't quite make sense until it is placed with context. The earth has a rich, diverse history of it's own that can seem almost unreal when considered today; Try to imagine dinosaurs roaming the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio[5], or California at the bottom of the ocean[6].

The history of the earth, paired with these "systems" that are in place, sets the stage for each and every one of our modern-day adventures. We aren't necessarily aware of these systems at all times, but they guide each and every one of our actions. Therefore, it makes absolute sense that artists, writers, directors, and game developers would go to great lengths to create a detailed world outside of our own, with its own rules and history, to better immerse the audience into their stories; a "second world". But just how exactly is this accomplished?

The common definition of a "second world" can be credited to J.R.R. Tolkien who, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", observes practices that were common among popular authors of fairy-stories of the time, concluding that the plots and characters that were developed in these tales were not necessarily what defined their fantastical nature.

"...for fairy-stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being. Faerie contains many things besides dwarves, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons; it holds the sea, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all the things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. ...The definition of a fairy-story--what it is, or what it should be--does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country."[7]

In short, Tolkien argues no matter how compelling a story may be, that story is made possible by the space in which it takes place. The realm of Faerie is, in this context, the "secondary world" outside of our own. Tolkien became so engrossed in his own created worlds that he would go on to design languages of the realm, craft histories and family trees, and map out the inner-workings of Middle Earth, developing what he refers to as "secondary belief".

"Secondary belief" is what results from tightly knit logic and rules; carefully crafted laws that govern the existence of the secondary world. It is one thing to create fantastic imagery for a world your making, but having these logical systems in place allows for the endless creation of stories that suspend reality to the audience.  This can be a difficult and time consuming practice, but there have been many artists, authors, and designers that have used their preferred medium to accomplish this suspension, each medium with it's own unique capabilities .

World Building Across Mediums


In the previously mentioned essay, Tolkien goes on to state how literature is, in his opinion, the ideal tool for creating secondary belief.

"In painting, for instance, the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it... Drama is naturally hostile to Fantasy. Fantasy, even of the simplest kind, hardly ever succeeds in drama, when that is presented as it should be, visually and audibly acted. Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. Men dressed up as talking animals may achieve buffoonery or mimicry, but they do not achieve are apt to misunderstand pure story-making, and to constrain it to the limitations of stage plays.  You are, for instance, likely to prefer characters, even the basest and dullest, to things."[8]

Literature is, according to Tolkien, the only true method that can aptly bridge the imagination and reality. Every individual has their own understanding of words when they are read or spoken; I suspect that when you read the word "dog" you may have pictured something other than an Australian Shepard (which is what I see). This is largely due to the abstract power of written words. Scott McCloud, author of "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art", states simply that "words are the ultimate abstraction"[9]. And what better way to establish secondary belief to a reader than by utilizing their own conceptual model of the universe, than through this abstraction? This is often the reason why, when books are adapted to other mediums, there is often the outcry of fans who "saw things differently".

This is the power of imagination, and often times, the more abstract the image is, the easier it is for the individual to use their imagination to make it their own.  We will go into further detail of how this is accomplished later on in this essay.


While literature may be declared as the best way to create a secondary world by most, it certainly isn't the only way. Taking a step away from literature takes us into Comics and Graphic Novels, a medium that utilizes illustration along side of written word for sub-creation.

Scott McCloud goes into fantastic detail of precisely how comics can accomplish secondary belief through the use of imagery and framing. More specifically, comics have the remarkable capability to adjust the amount of detail in an image; either stripping down the details of a face to give it more "universality" or adding more to create photo-realism.  McCloud states:

"the cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled... an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!"[10].

The cartoon, with it's focus on the general placement of details in place of photo-realism, serves as a means of projection for the reader.  Not unlike the abstract power of the written word, the cartoon allows the reader to subconsciously fill in the gaps to complete the image, creating an experience unique to each individual.  Adversely, the attention to detail can be used to create something outside of what is familiar to the reader, pulling them into a scenario created solely from the artist's imagination.


The film industry has given birth to some of the most vast settings known to popular culture. Science Fiction, in particular, has had the largest following, with movies and television shows like Avatar, Star Trek, Blade Runner, and Firefly paving the way for countless fan-fictions and spin-offs. However, this medium is far different from literature and comic books; the use of cameras and ever-evolving special effects results in a very photo-realistic representation of characters and environments, no matter how fantastical or outlandish. As these technologies continue to improve, world building and exposition in films becomes reliant on created imagery and sound, and often times, an actor's portrayal of their character in certain situations.

One of the best examples of World Building in film can be found in the Star Wars saga, where imagery of alien creatures, flying starships, and lightsabers created a universe that is purely unique.  You learn of the plight of the Rebel Alliance simply through an exchange between Leia and Vader when she is captured in Episode 4.  We learn more about the history of the universe in casual conversation between Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  We can even witness the cultural differences between alien races by the manner in which they interact with one another, in the cantinas or marketplaces of Mos Eisley, for instance.


Despite the size and popularity of the video game industry, there are many conflicting opinions as to what the true definition of a game should be.  One that I find the most accurate is quoted by Sid Meier, designer of the “Civilization“ series:

"Games are a series of interesting decisions."[11]

Video games earn their distinction from other mediums because of their interactivity; the player can influence what appears on screen.  Games can be further defined as sets of rules that govern what occurs at any given point.  The ball cannot go outside the court or a penalty as given; If the player touches that conduit, they are dealt with 10 lighting damage.  It could be said, then, that world building within video games becomes reliant on which decisions the player makes, perhaps revealing more about the virtual world being inhabited whenever the player goes out of their way to explore every nook and cranny of the map, or testing the interactive properties between two virtual objects.

Video games, however, have the added benefit of  being able to utilize world building techniques from other media.  Text-based adventures like Zork have built their environments using some of the literary techniques previously mentioned, while some more modern games will rely on more cinematic experiences, through cut-scenes or by utilizing high-powered graphics processors to create photo-realism. We’ll even find that some of the more immersive games can utilize all of the above to tell their stories; through text, imagery, acting, and player interaction.

The Foundation (Rules and Guidelines)

The Ultimate Guide

The practice of world building in games is not uncommon and can be found frequently within games that require nothing more than dice, pen and paper, and a bag of dice.  As this essay will be primarily focused on video games akin to the adventures that are possible within Dungeons and Dragons, it will be worth noting the guidelines for world building that are established within the 5th edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide[12].

Courtesy of
Dungeons and Dragons is a game with it's own rules.  So, naturally, there are a lot of core assumptions regarding those rules that need to be taken when designing a world for a campaign.  That aside, there are two distinct methods that are commonly used when designing the campaign map: the top-down and bottom-up approaches.  The former indicates the practice of creating a map of the entire possible playing field, like a continent, and "zooming in" on the more detailed regions and towns.  The latter is, of course, the opposite, in which map design begins at a particular starting town or kingdom and "zooms out", building the continent outward from this focal point.

Settlements should exist with a purpose; maybe it is a merchant town established at the mouth of a river or port, or an underground city built atop of a mining operation in a mountain.  Whatever the case, the settlement should have local color, a culture that becomes apparent through the application of details and descriptive devices.  What sounds can be heard upon entering the town?  How to the settlers here react to newcomers?  Details as to the history and infrastructure of the settlement should also be considered.  How did the settlement come to be established in this particular area?  What sort of currency do they use?  What is their standing in the current political climate?

The guide offers a few pre-written lists of details to take into consideration to assist the Dungeon Master in constructing the setting for a campaign, some of which may be chosen by hand or by a roll of the dice.  One of these helpful lists is titled "Significant Events", which includes items like "Cataclysmic Disaster", "Extinction or Depletion", and "Prediction/Omen/Prophecy".  Any one of these suggestions might be used as a foothold in developing the overarching story of the campaign, affecting the way in which geography and history is considered.

Taking the time to apply all of these details can, if considered carefully, have an effect on the atmosphere of any given place that your adventurers travel to which, in turn, can have an effect on the decisions they make and their overall experience in your secondary world.

"Show, don't tell."

As I was researching for this essay, I was presented with an interesting contrast of guidelines with regards to world-building.  One is the idea that secondary belief is “all in the details”, as we just saw when building our Dungeons and Dragons campaign.  As Scott McCloud states in his book “Making Comics”:

Sweating such details can make the difference between drawing a page in six hours or drawing it in twenty but for your readers, it can make the difference between knowing where your story takes place and being there.”[13]

While McCloud is referring primarily to visual details in this passage, there is, of course, systematic details that ought to be considered as well.  Revealing to the audience that a city has a basic infrastructure, or mapping out a history whose traces can be seen in the current setting will take much more time and effort, but the results are phenomenal.  We can see this in practice when we take another look at the work of Tolkien, who dedicated “The Silmarillion” to the details that might have gone amiss in “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”, including history and detailed explanations into the systems that govern Middle Earth.  The more details that are added to an image (or perhaps, the more adjectives tied to a noun), the more vividly the image is produced in our minds, until we eventually reach the point of that image being considered “photo-realistic”.

But while these details are important to establishing the setting of your story, their delivery is just as critical to suspension of belief (if not more-so).  It is common practice among artists and creators to provide just enough detail to spark interest and curiosity, without simply “dumping” information on the audience.  We’ll find that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of “Dark Souls”, has become quite masterful at this method of world building, but we will go into further detail later on.

Journey Screenshot - Courtesy of
There are a few different ways that this teasing of details can be approached.  We have already stated that games, as opposed to film and literature, rely purely on interaction to tell a story.  Journey is a
masterful example of how these interactions can be simplified and abstracted to tell a powerful story of the player’s pilgrimage to the final mountain; only one button is used for interacting with the world and fellow players that you encounter, and history is explained through hieroglyphics.  There are no fireside tales or scrolls to read.   This idea of utilizing a lack of detail for player immersion does not necessarily stop at the actions that the player performs with a controller, however.  Katherine Isbister, in her book "How Games Move Us", discusses how the use of avatars in games to help bridge the gap between player and game, stating:

Over the course of gameplay, players extend themselves further into the motivations and the visceral, cognitive, social, and fantasy possibilities of the avatar, forging an identification grounded in observation as well as action and experience.”[14]

The practice of implementing customizable avatars, common especially in RPGs, carries this idea of player identity even further.  Scott McCloud's writing becomes relevant once more, regarding the remarkable capability that comics have to adjust the amount of detail in an image; either stripping down the details of a face to give it more "universality", or adding more detail to create photo-realism.  If the avatar is designed to be more "abstract and stylized", the more capability it will have for player projection.  McCloud states: 

"The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled... an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!".[15]

While the concept of the avatar might seem separated from the world-building discussion, it is important to note the separate effects of detail and abstraction in this regard, as it can mean the difference between a player witnessing a story and being a part of it.  Having the ability to project one’s self onto an avatar helps to instill a sense of ownership into your actions and decisions.  The idea of ownership in an experience becomes an important aspect when attempting to establish secondary belief, especially when some details are left to the imagination.  Upon reviewing McCloud's exploration into the definition of "cartoon", we find that many comic artists will vary the use of detail between avatar and environment to better immerse the reader into a character's position in any given panel:

"This combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.  One set of lines to see.  Another set of lines to be."[16]

Hidetaka Miyazaki understood this balance of detail all too well, and made it a primary tool for the construction of Lordran.  Dark Souls, a game rich with lore and detail, is also filled with “patches of impenetrable darkness”; spaces in the details that force players to apply the knowledge they have already gathered to draw their own conclusions for these mysteries.  Miyazaki further elaborates on this decision:

I believe that this mirrors the real world, and that it leaves more to the imagination of the players, and it makes it easier for them to adopt the world as their own… It follows that we were never concerned about whether or not some things would be left eternally undiscovered by the users.  The spirit of exploration among players goes far beyond the imagination.  This notion had occurred to us while working on Dark Souls, and we remain firm believers in it.”[17]

Balancing detail with a lack thereof helps the player establish their own conceptual model of what may be occurring behind the scenes of their own story.  In this manner, everyone can experience a world in a different way by filling in the blanks with their own conclusions, possibly even debating with other players as to what is really happening outside of the main story-line.  It opens the world up to possibilities, toying with the player’s imagination and establishing a sturdy foothold in secondary belief.

It this mental process that gives us folklore and legends in real life.  There are several oddities that exist on planet earth that, while they have scientific explanations today, had fascinating tales as to their creation in the past.  The story of the Giant's Causeway in Ireland and of Fingal's Cave in Scotland, for example, involves a dispute between an Irish giant and a Scottish giant.  The Irish giant, Finn McCool, was looking to defend Ireland from the Scottish giant, Benandonner, by throwing pieces of the coast into the sea to create a bridge, so he might go and fight Benandonner himself.  Scotland's Cave was made of the same geological rock formation, and was thus considered to be the other side of the bridge that Finn McCool had started.  There has since been a scientific explanation for the creation of these two geological formations, but such legends are still noteworthy, as they demonstrate how we as humans can take something out of the ordinary and apply already familiar details and logic to fill in the gaps.[18][19]


Saving Zelda

The Legend of Zelda has become a symbol of adventure in gaming after the series's debut in 1986.  The original entry is still well known today for it's mystery and difficulty - qualities that become even more apparent when compared with some of the game's successors.  Tevis Thompson discusses these differences in great detail with his essay, "Saving Zelda".  There was one particular concept he touched on, however, that would eventually lead to the initial drafting of the essay you are reading now: the idea of the indifference of a secondary world.

"[Hyrule] must aspire to ignore Link. Zelda has so far resisted the urge to lavish choice on the player and respond to his every whim, but it follows a similar spirit of indulgence in its loving details, its carefully crafted adventure that reeks of quality and just-for-you-ness.  But a world is not for you.  A world needs a substance, an independence, a sense that it doesn't just disappear when you turn around (even if it kinda does)."[20]

The final sentence of this excerpt echoes the sentiment of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose essay was discussed earlier in this paper.  Secondary belief is created when the creator not only applies the aforementioned details and logical systems, but does so in a way that the player (or the story) is not the focal point;  the world itself serves as the foundation for the story.  The world should feel as though it has always been there and it always should be.

The word indifference can be defined as "a lack of interest, concern, or sympathy".  An indifferent world in video games suggests, then, that not every object wishes to be interacted with, or perhaps is not intractable at all; not every NPC simply waits around for you to receive their quest, not every dungeon will turn you away if you are too inexperienced.  In this mindset, the player has to work to find their own place in this world.  Thompson further argues that an indifferent world  in video games should not carry the limited scope of a simple virtual space, but should instead be considered as "something to inhabit and be inhabited by"[21].

The World and it's Inhabitants

It appears, then, that most games (particularly of the Role Playing and Adventure genre) utilize two particular tools to create the feeling of indifference: the world itself (that is to say, the landscape, structures, or other non-living parts of the world), and it's inhabitants.  Which of these two categories an 'object' might fall under depends on it’s interactive capabilities.  These two devices can be used to not only paint an image of a living, breathing ecosystem, but can indirectly reveal to the player it’s history and the systems that govern it’s existence.  The word "indirectly" is key here, as it is considered to be the ideal way in which to present information about the world to the player.  To further quote Thompson: "This world, dangerous, demanding exploration, must also be mysterious.  This means: illegible, at least at first.[21]"

Lover's Tent - Courtesy of
Utilizing the non-living terrain is surprisingly common in games as a method used to develop the history and lore of the virtual space.  The Last of Us is an excellent example of this; players can gather clues that assist in telling the story of the infection and it’s effect on the world, typically through collectible notes written by NPCs that you may never meet, or just simply by observing the graffiti people have left behind in anguish.  Skyrim is well known for leaving such clues behind as well, one of the more well-known artifacts being the “Lover’s Tent“[22].  Players can stumble across this solitary encampment on a shoreline to the north, containing only ”two bedrolls, some empty wine bottles, an Amulet of Mara, a scattering of Red Mountain Flowers, and two pairs of shoes“.  Even without the amulet (a symbol of the Goddess of Love in Elder Scrolls lore), the story of what may have occurred in this tent is pretty self-explanatory.

The entire playable space of Lordran (Dark Souls, once more) has it’s own stories to tell, some of which you can conclude by mere observation, while others may require the clues that accompany the items scattered around the map.  My favorite of these being The Great Hollow and Ash Lake; two interconnected pieces of the map that are entirely optional, can can, in fact, be missed altogether if the player doesn’t go out of their way to explore.  It is theorized[23] that the great hollow, a massive, hollowed out tree that can can only be entered via an illusionary wall,  is a descendant of the great stone arch trees, and that it burned in the age of fire.

Ash Lake - Courtesy of
Ash Lake, which can only be accessed by traversing downward into the Great Hollow, earns it’s namesake as being a tranquil, open lake, with a large pile of ashes serving as an island for you to walk upon.  It is said that Ash Lake is, geographically, the lowest point in Lordran, and that all of life originated here.  Peering around, you would notice that there are other great trees off in the distance.  The community lore suggests that each of these trees supports it’s own world (based upon the trees of Norse Mythology[24]), which makes some sense, given the Great Hollow’s size and visibility in various parts of the map.  However, you will also notice some of these trees seen on Ash Lake's horizon have fallen, or have been snapped in half.  Given the state of affairs in Lordran, one can only imagine the cataclysm that the other worlds must be facing for such a sight to occur.  Lordran is filled to the brim with stories such as these, and to see more of the research that players have conducted to solve these mysteries, I strongly suggest you watch any of the "Prepare to Cry" videos featured on VaatiVidya's youtube channel (

When designing Dark Souls, Miyazaki purposefully leaves these small visual clues in hopes that adventurers will draw their own conclusions and piece together their own theories as to the history of the universe.  Whether or not these “fan theories” all hold true remains to be seen, but the stories that players can tell based upon these clues are truly fascinating.  One of my personal favorite fan theories is the story of the Stone Tower in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.  By observing visual details of their surroundings combined with their own understanding or Termina lore, the author of this article claims that the story told of the Stone Tower is one dark and obscene in nature.  The design of the architecture and patterns used within the temple suggest that it was once inhabited by a population who had cursed the Goddesses that were established in the previous Zelda title, Ocarina of Time.  Statues are shown to be sitting on and licking the sacred triforce, and many pieces of architecture are vaguely phallic in nature, which suggests that the inhabitants of this temple favored the worship of Termina's giants over the Goddesses.  To avoid making this essay too long, I will suggest that you take a moment to read this fascinating theory in it's entirety, a link to which will be provided in the bibliography[25].

The use of inhabitants can also establish the feeling of indifference, whether they are akin to the player's avatar or completely separate in nature.  From the moment Link arrives in Clock Town, it's citizens are all running about their own business, their entire focus on their own tasks and problems, rather than the player's.  Of course, to fully complete the game, Link has to stick his nose into the lives of these individuals and assist them in their needs, which can only be done by following them around and understanding their schedules and interactions with the rest of the world; no one is simply waiting around for Link to come and solve their problems.

The use of NPCs as an indifferent world building tool is witnessed once more in Dark Souls, one of the most memorable of these being the story of Siegmeyer of Catarina.  You might first find Siegmeyer sitting on the steps that lead to the front door of Sen's Fortress.  Upon speaking to him, you learn that he is an adventurer, perhaps on a similar quest as yourself.  He appears in multiple locations along your journey, occasionally running in to fight the enemies on the path ahead (assuming you haven't disposed of them already), though he is never quite there as your companion, like Solaire.  In each step of your own journey, you are witnessing the progress that Seigmeyer is making in his.  The manner in which you interact with the NPCs of Dark Souls can, of course, influence their story-lines, but the option still stands that the player can simply avoid speaking to these characters altogether and their stories will continue onward, as if you were not there in the first place.

Believable Generation

Two of the more common practices of world building are through Grand Design, which we have discussed previously in games such as Dark Souls, Skyrim, or the Legend of Zelda, and Procedural Generation, where the computer applies a set of rules in place for the game to create the world automatically.  The latter has seen a surge in popularity, with games like Minecraft, Spelunky, or No Man’s Sky utilizing this method to create new and exciting worlds every time you press “New Game”.

No Man’s Sky, in particular, made exploring procedurally generated worlds the focal point of their experience.  In a presentation at the Game Developer’s Conference in 2015, Grant Duncan opens up to fellow developers regarding the artistic design and direction that was being implemented behind the scenes when developing the game, revealing how they aimed to make every individual variety of the boasted 18 quintillion planets unique in it’s own way.

Duncan searched for inspiration through the science fiction artwork of the 1970’s and 1980’s; images that were awe-inspiring and beautiful, although may not make a lot of sense if you looked closely.  Reviewing these images with the audience, Duncan would often try to identify objects in the images by relating them to objects he has seen in reality.  Duncan would go on to discuss how subtle imagery in the generated landscape could be used to suspend belief; images that would suggest that each planet has had a natural history of it’s own:

It’s very easy to kind of forget about history on a planet that is a jungle, but it’s actually really important… You just add trees, rocks, bushes and things.  But unless you can see where they came from, your brain kind of rejects it.  So you have to have little hints… Younger trees, signs like ivy or hanging branches… Just little hints that it hasn’t just popped up.  Erosion has been involved, various sequences have occurred.”[26]

Courtesy of
In many ways, it would appear that the team behind No Man’s Sky would take Tolkien’s statement regarding Faerie Stories to heart; No Man’s Sky was a game about the universe you inhabited, taking a lot of the focus off of the player and NPCs (at least, initially).  After all, the game began as a humble terrain generator, being built by Sean Murray in his spare time at home.  The engine would eventually be used to create landscapes that were more akin to those of Earth.  Duncan had the realization that grounding world building in the familiar, then “breaking a few rules” here and there, established imagery that, while fantastical in nature, wasn’t necessarily unbelievable.  As with his observations of Ralph McQuarrie’s artwork for Star Wars, “you don’t question it, you just accept it”.

Exploring No Man’s Sky will yield lakes at the bottom of massive caverns, where water would have been collecting over the course of decades, or rivers that run downhill and join together, because this is the sort of natural behavior we as humans already understand and are familiar with.  This natural behavior can be applied to worlds where all other factors are left to the fate of random number generation, and the result is something that you may have never seen the likes of before, but you “don’t question” the logic behind it.

However, rules were still necessary to avoid creating what Duncan referred to as “procedural soup”; without some guidelines to follow, randomly placed objects can turn messy quite quickly.  This was also the case with Spelunky; Derek Yu had to make sure that the randomly generated levels wouldn’t leave the player stuck unfairly, so he programmed each level to have a specific pathway that the players could follow where bombs and ropes were not necessary.  When these kinds of rule sets are applied to a game, especially in systems where objects and characters interact with one another, there is the opportunity for the game to produce unexpected yet logical results, in a practice known as Emergent Story Telling.

Emergent Storytelling

To reiterate, the term “world” has been defined as “the system of created things”.  It’s possible to observe these systems as the rules within a game, as they determine how the players interact with their surroundings.  Emergent storytelling utilizes these rules to demonstrate to the player just how things work under the surface, finding every possible way to connect the dots and producing often surprising results.

Courtesy of the Slime Rancher Press Kit
A more recent example of this occurred during the development of Slime Rancher.  Nick Popovich, one of the designers of the game, discussed how emergent story telling became a primary focus during development at a GDC talk in 2017.  In his talk, Popovich shares a video in which a player discovers the "wants and needs" of the slimes, and how these interact with hard coded behaviors that are particular to each slime.  In this particular case, the player placed chickens in an enclosure not far from another enclosure that contained a large number of pink slimes.  He discovered that these slimes would automatically move towards the chicken, their current need, and get themselves piled onto one another, activating a "stacking" behavior, that allowed many of the slimes to escape their own pen and get into the enclosure containing the chickens.  Popovich elaborates further on the development of these systems:

"The capacity for emergent storytelling in a game is often linked to how much control the designer is willing to give up... But even a little goes a long way."[27]

By adding even the simplest of rules and behaviors to creatures that interact with both the player and each other, the designer establishes a logical system within the game that can be used to establish secondary belief.  In Skyrim, the occasionally random placement of creatures can result in a predator/prey situation, where a sabre cat may chase down a deer, or a group of bandits may defend their hold from a nearby dragon.  These occurrences do not necessarily involve the player; whether or not you choose to intervene, you are still witnessing a world that is indifferent to your presence.  The power of video games, however, is the fact that in most situations, you can interact with and manipulate these systems once they are understood.

Spelunky applies a somewhat different approach to emergent story telling, applying a set of rules that can be knit together between player, NPC, and object to create fascinating interactions.  You can pick up and throw a knocked out caveman in the same way you might pick up and throw a rock.  You can sacrifice most anything to the goddess Kali, who may find favor with you, depending what is placed on the alter.  I once found myself sacrificing myself just after death, falling onto the alter by pure happenstance.  While I may not have been able to witness the effects of this accident, the very fact that it was a possibility blew me away, but considering the previous sacrifices I had made, it made absolute sense.  By creating this tapestry of rules and behaviors, Derek Yu suspends our own reality in favor of the one that he has created, where the possible stories that can occur seem almost endless.

This style of gameplay is not by any means limited to computer and video games.  The stories that are made in Dungeons and Dragons rely, for the most part, on the player's interpretation of the situation, and the Dungeon Master can often find themselves adapting a situation based upon the player's decisions.  Those decisions may take the story in a direction that the Dungeon Master may not have anticipated.  While there are, of course, many other factors that may come into play, the ultimate outcome of any situation will be based on the player's awareness of the details and rules.  If a similar situation was presented in a video game, however, the computer will have a much easier time keeping track of these details, and can produce results that our human brains may not have taken into consideration.

The Furthest Reaches of Your World

The most compelling of secondary worlds allow for expansion.  Games can have mods, expansion packs, or direct sequels that build from the foundation that their setting has already established.  However, the boundaries of these worlds can be pushed even further outside of their intended medium.  The Witcher series originally started as a book series before it soared in popularity as a video game, and there are countless authors who venture in the opposite direction, writing book adaptations or novels based upon the universes of Halo or Starcraft (just visit the Science Fiction section of Barnes and Noble to see the extent of these yourself).

Jesse Schell discusses the power of "transmedia worlds" in his book "The Art of Game Design", initially focusing on the Star Wars action figures that were released not long after the movie's debut.  To most, the release of these toys were considered to simply be a "cash-in" on the movie franchise.  But to the children who saw the movies, these action figures proved to be a brand new window into the Star Wars universe.

"...the toys provided another gateway into that world--one that was better than the movie, in some ways, since it was interactive, participatory, flexible, portable, and social...the toys afforded them the ability to visit the world, sculpt it, change it, and make it their own."[28]

Pokemon is, perhaps, the ideal example of a transmedia world, ever since the game's initial release on the Nintendo Game Boy in 1996.  The game itself became well known for it's internal rules and systems.  But by evolving the world into other mediums, such as the cartoon series, creators could approach an already well established universe and build upon it from a particular angle.  In the case of the television series, the characters and creatures were given new life with an audio and visual overhaul.  Schell continues:

"...the TV show gave gameplayers a new gateway into the Pokemon universe--one that showed the Pokemon in full color with dramatic animation and sound.  When viewers would return to the Game Boy, these vivid images were retained in their imaginations, making the crudeness of the Game Boy graphics and sound completely irrelevant."[28]

The world of Pokemon stretched even further than television, most characters receiving their own action figures, novels, comic books, and even a trading card game, all of which soared in popularity with those who were familiar with the franchise.  I, myself, still own the physical Pokedex produced by Tiger Electronics, gifted to me when I was a child completely immersed in that world.

User koun_youkai's Pokemon collection, posted to


The art of world building has been an integral part of nearly every notable work of fiction in the history of entertainment.  Tolkien's definitions of "secondary world" and "secondary belief" helped to provide a framework to the creators of countless works of fantasy, not only in literature, but in just about every other medium as well.  Video Games, in particular, have the benefit of providing their audience with a layer of intractability, providing the player with a sense of place based upon the decisions they make and their effect on a virtual plane.

Game designers and developers, from the days of Zelda to the current generation of adventures like Dark Souls or No Man's Sky, put an immense amount of time and effort into providing the details of their own created universe.  By balancing the amount of details they reveal at any given time, appealing to the natural curiosity that drive many game players to explore and study every nook and cranny of this simulated universe.  The abstract design of an avatar gives the player a means to reflect themselves onto the screen, while more detailed environments provide a sense of place; a window into a fresh new world.

Game designers utilize the interactions between the player and the game as well as computational power to craft powerful and immersive experiences into these fantasies.  Games like Skyrim and Majora's Mask rely on the careful placement of NPC's or environment objects to build a world indifferent to the player; one that feels as though it had existed long before you first installed the game onto your console or PC.  Other games, like No Man's Sky or Minecraft, use a complicated set of algorithms to create a new world to explore with every play session.

When these worlds are created with such passion and dedication, they expand into other forms of media, opening up a gateway into their universe even to individuals who might never own a television.  Games like Pokemon have become cultural icons, expanding into literature, film, and other forms of entertainment.  Other franchises, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, have found the potential of exploring the systems of their worlds by branching into video games, opening up the opportunity for fans to interact with their creations in a whole new way.

World Building is the foundation for each and every story, even our own.  By taking the time to develop the systems that connect all things, you may be surprised of the impact that you might have.


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[7] - Tolkien, J. R. R. “Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia.” Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 9.

[8] - Tolkien, J. R. R. “Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia.” Tree and Leaf: Including the Poem Mythopoeia, HarperCollins, 2001, p. 49-51.

[9] - McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. “Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, p. 47.

[10] - McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. “Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, p. 36.

[11] - Game Developer's Conference, Sid Meier. "Interesting Decisions". Online Video Clip. GDC.

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[12] - “Chapter 1: A World of Your Own.” Dungeon Master's Guide (D&D Core Rulebook), 5th ed., Wizards of the Coast, 2014, pp. 9–38.

[13] - McCloud, Scott. "World Building: Sense of Placem Perspective, and Research." Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: Harper, 2007. 159. Print.

[14] - ISBISTER, KATHERINE. "Avatars--Inhabitable Protagonists." HOW GAMES MOVE US: Emotion by Design. S.l.: MIT, 2017. 13. Print.

[15] - McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. “Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, p. 36.
[16] - McCloud, Scott, and Mark Martin. “Chapter 2: The Vocabulary of Comics.” Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, William Morrow, an Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, 2014, p. 43.

[17] -  MacDonald, Keza, and Jason Killingsworth. "Final Boss - Understanding Dark Souls' Creator." You Died: The Dark Souls Companion. Great Britain: BackPage, 2016. 147. Print.

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[20] - Thompson, Tevis. "Helicopter Parents." Saving Zelda.

[21] - Thompson, Tevis. "Everything That is the Case." Saving Zelda.

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[26] - Game Developer's Conference, Grant Duncan. "The Art Direction of No Man's Sky". Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 18 Jan 2017.

[27] - Game Developer's Conference, Nick Popovich. "A Thousand Tiny Tales: Emergent Storytelling in Slime Rancher". Online Video Clip. Youtube. Youtube, 23 May 2017.

[28] - SCHELL, JESSE. “Stories and Games Take Place in Worlds.” ART OF GAME DESIGN, CRC PRESS, 2015, pp. 337–339.

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