Years of playing difficult games have left me somewhat of a masochist and another hobby of mine is watching bad movies and one genre that I like to watch out of a morbid sense of curiosity are the young adult fantasy novel translations. Stuff like The Mortal Instruments, The Hunger Games and so on, with the help of fast forward course. And one area where all these movies suffer in their narrative from is poor world building and is an area where video games fall flat as well.
In the past I’ve talked about the importance of world building when it comes to narrative as a way of getting around “the chosen one” trope. For this post I want to talk about the difference between a backdrop and a world.
A backdrop is where the environment mainly serves as a loose context for the events of the story and its importance shifts based on the author’s intent. A world is where the setting, people and culture of the environment are a major part of the narrative and can be more important than just one character or group.
I know that those definitions aren’t that clear but it’s easy to see when we start bringing up some examples. Casablanca would be an example of featuring a backdrop where the events take place. The events of World War 2 are left in the background where the focus is on the characters then becoming important as part of the main character’s decision at the end of the movie.
I’ve used this before as a positive example but Lord of The Rings would be an example of a narrative happening in a world. Middle Earth is as much a part of the story as the fellowship, with the story jumping between different characters, species and events all are happening throughout the story. The world didn’t just exist at wherever the main character was but events from one situation would affect others and so on.
Before we go on, it’s important to note that neither backdrop or world is inherently the superior choice for narratives. If your story is more about the interactions of a small group of people dealing with a singular situation, then you don’t need a huge explanation of the world. In the movie Alien, while the setting is futuristic, there isn’t a huge time spent on the setting and instead focused on the crew and their situation.
Likewise if your story takes place in a pre established setting like the 30s, modern day or in a well known fictional setting, a backdrop can work.
But if you’re trying to tell a massive story or one across several books, games, movies etc, in another reality or alternate take on our world, then you need to develop the world around the characters.
The reason is that if you want the actions of the characters to have some weight to them, then the audience needs to know how these actions impact the world around them. Also whenever your story takes place in some fantasy world or alternate version of our world, you need to have the world properly defined or your story may fall apart.
That last point is where a lot of these young adult fantasy movies are failing as despite taking place in some crazy alternate world, the actual lore is never explained in favor of just dealing with some romantic story.
And while there is nothing wrong with writing a romance novel, if you’re trying to make a continuing series, be it in a movie, book, or video game, then the world needs some explanation. Or you start to run into cases where the narrative contradicts with the rules of the world and suffers for it.
This goes back to my previous look at the chosen one trope and how the world is effectively fashioned around the main character as opposed to the character living in this unique world. And with a lot of these fantasy stories, the main character barely does anything important, except for that one thing that everyone says “has never been done before” or they just so happen to be amazing at one specific thing that directly relates to the plot.
Despite that importance, the best reason why authors don’t explain the world as much as they should is that it gives them wiggle room when writing more books. There can always be some new town to explore, family member to find, or bad guy to deal with until the series is no longer making any money. And then there’s of course the option of continuing the backdrop with a completely new character and repeating the cycle.
A common trend in these fantasy stories is to introduce new characters, rules or settings that are quickly woven into the narrative by the main characters saying that they’ve always been there even though this was the first time the audience has heard it. So that each book/sequel feels bigger but is still constrained by the lack of depth of the world itself.
And while it is a lot harder to write any narrative along with a world, it does pay off in providing a stronger brand regardless of the medium. Games like Mass Effect pulled gamers in with a massive universe that felt like a real place. Blizzard with series like Warcraft, Diablo and Starcraft give their games a bit more in the lore department.
But perhaps the perfect example of how creating a world can lead to an amazing story would be the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the build up to the Avengers. Each movie featured both the backdrop of the environment, while having the world of the Marvel Universe sort of hang over everything.
For instance, Captain America took place during the backdrop of World War 2, but was a part of the Marvel universe and world with characters like Howard Stark, Red Skull and what would become a focal point for The Avengers. Each movie acted in a similar fashion with the culmination of all these different plot threads and characters meeting in The Avengers and officially bringing all these movies and characters into the greater Marvel Universe.
It’s quite amazing to look at Marvel’s strategy for the brand and how the next plan is to take the universe and world building further by introducing the larger cosmic backdrop of the Marvel universe in the movies.
Because video games are an interactive medium, most titles simply ignore world building in favor of a focus on gameplay. Despite so many Mario games over the years, the world has never been explained at all and simply exists as a backdrop for the gameplay. On the flip side, some games go for exposition dump and try to explain the whole back-story of the world as quickly as possible.
Games like Final Fantasy go with this approach and it can lead to the back-story becoming confusing outside of some bad guy trying to take over the world. In Final Fantasy 12′s case: building this massive world with different factions, politics and so on happening; then throwing it all out for the big bad trying to destroy the world. There is definitely an art in being able to write a narrative and world that grows at a steady rate, as opposed to rushing through everything.
A good example of narrative and world would be from The Witcher series, which uses the amnesic Witcher: Geralt as the guide for showing the player the world around them. Since he doesn’t remember much, it gives both the player and Geralt a way to learn the world without the game stopping for exposition. The player knows only as much as Geralt which is a great touch compared to other games where the designers may tip the player off to events early.
Another interesting tactic for narrative is simply building it into the world as opposed to cutscenes or narration. Games like Skyrim and Dark Souls don’t pause the game for a narrator or cut scenes, but instead fill the world with lore waiting for the player to find them.
We talked about this on the RPG cast a few months ago but the Souls series was really great in building this amazingly depressing world and then leaving it up to the player to discover it. Depending on your level of commitment, Dark Soul’s could take place simply in the backdrop of this land, or this fully realized world based on how far you go to find it all out.
As I said before, if your entire narrative and character motivation can be explained by using the phrase “just so happens”, then you are not making a good narrative.
And one of the reasons why “just so happens” can be used so often is due to not having the world of the narrative explained.
Granted, with the poor movie examples listed at the beginning, they weren’t created with the intent of making a series on the same scale as The Lord of The Rings, but for developers wanting to create richer narratives, it’s important to develop your world as well as your characters.