One thing that has been on my mind a lot lately as I go back and play though the Fable series as well as Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2 is just how important it is to craft a thoroughly believable world that you play in. There are different ways that developers go about creating these worlds, I think that the base elements are pretty much the same regardless of the game.
One thing I want to touch quickly on – I think I would be remiss to mention the role that game manuals play in world building. Of course, with manuals all but extinct at this point, developers have to adjust a little bit. In the old days, a developer would put the backstory for the setting, characters, enemies and lore all in the manual – at this point, all that information has to be added in the actual game, at least it does to ensure a rich world to explore.
Which brings me to a couple examples I have, from a few different genres too. First, I want to look at the Borderlands series. I think it’s a good place to look at how a developer can take a slow burn approach to building the world. Looking at the first game, most of the extra information that helps create a fully fleshed out world lives in the quest cards that you get for all of the quests, there is very little in the way of cutscenes or dialogue. That changes a little bit in the second game – the bulk of the extra info still comes in the quest cards, but they definitely added more cutscenes and dialogue to help flesh out the main storyline. As it extends to world building, the lack of dialogue in the first game can be somewhat written off as Pandora being an incredibly hostile planet, while most of the dialogue in the sequel takes place in Sanctuary, which is a (relatively) safe location. If you dig a little deeper into the quest cards, you can find a much more detailed world than first glance might show. I don’t know if it’s the most effective manner to build a world, but it does work – I think the Pandora is one of the more unique settings in gaming, with a really unique universe to tell a bunch of stories in.
Next, I want to look at the Elder Scrolls series, specifically Oblivion and Skyrim. Since the franchise has been going on for a number of years, the backstory for these two games is incredibly in depth, going back years through a number of games. Looking at them as stand alone games, the strength of the writing and dialogue helps make the towns feel much more alive, and each character has a life that is easily observed. That in and of itself helps make the world of Cyrodil or Skyrim an incredibly in depth place to explore. But going beyond that, Bethesda has always put tons of extra information in the games – each book is fully written, with a bunch of variation in tone, length and topic; each unique item has a backstory, the alchemy ingredients that exist in the world have multiple properties, and a lifespan out in the world where they regrow after being picked. That detail is something that I’m glad that Bethesda has extended to the Fallout world too.
Finally, I want to look at the Halo series. I want to look here because shooters in general tend to have the “weakest” worlds to explore – just based around the confines of the game mechanics. But with that said, Halo has always had a very in-depth universe to explore, with tons of little details, from each shell casing from the shotgun having a brand name printed on it; to the details on the Warthog’s dashboard. Going beyond that – the early games came with really well thought out manuals – each going into surprising depth on each weapon, enemy, vehicle and piece of technology in the universe. The later games build on that with extra incentives through special editions, or the terminals in-game.
I think ultimately, there really isn’t a perfect way to go about creating the worlds that players get to explore. The most important thing is that the players can immerse themselves into the universe.