Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Three Dimensions of World Design

One of the greatest, most influential game companies of all time is Origin Systems, which faded into obscurity during the second half of the '90s. But for a while there, Origin was at the forefront of the medium, specifically with the Ultima and Wing Commander series. I think it was in Ultima VI, the latest in a streak of outstanding games, when I noticed Origin using a succinct and fitting slogan: "We create worlds." They weren't kidding. To this day, Ultima and Wing Commander are among the most fully realized and, for me at least, memorable videogame worlds. These settings supported any number of games and other extensions ranging from novels to feature films. Unfortunately, someone failed to defend the integrity and quality of these worlds somewhere along the road to fortune. However, the string of failures leading to these franchises' demise ought not to diminish what they succeeded in doing in the past. Especially since the total number of memorable, unique gameworlds is relatively small.

I want there to be more, whether I make them or you do.

Think of your favorite gameworlds as I thought of Ultima and Wing Commander: What do they have in common? In my case, on the surface it seems as though the medieval fantasy world of Ultima has little in common with the futuristic-yet-modern-feeling world of Wing Commander, and to be sure, the best games in these series didn't come out of a formulaic process. But I do think these and all other successful, original gameworlds share a certain structure in common, and here I'm going to illustrate its triangular shape.

I think anything that qualifies as a successful, original gameworld can be expressed in exactly three dimensions. Two dimensions is too few, and four is generally too many for a gameworld intended to be enjoyed by a large number of people. When I say dimensions, I mean specific overarching traits -- these are not genre statements like "science fiction", but are broad-stroke characteristic statements, such as "on a space station at the beginning of the 21st century." In other words, each of these dimensions must be a valid, reasonable answer to the question, "what are the essential properties of this gameworld?" Moreover, the gameworld must make good on each of these dimensions, by developing it in an artful way and to a sufficient degree, to the point where the author could, if he so chose, answer any player's questions about how the world works. The version of the gameworld that we experience as players ought to be the tip of the iceberg.

Let's walk through some examples of what I'm talking about, starting with the game series I already mentioned.

Ultima -- Ultima's world of Britannia has the following dimensions:
  1. Set in a medieval low-fantasy world based on the European dark ages
  2. Teleportation-style travel is possible between this world and ours, as well as within this world
  3. The world is governed by a strict and ancient moral code
I think when people who remember Britannia think of Britannia, they mostly think of the first dimension I listed here, because that's the world's main characteristic. However, I think the second and third dimensions are the ones that gave the world its depth, accessibility, and originality -- they're the traits that take Britannia far beyond the boundaries of cliché. If you've never played one of the good Ultimas before, the world may sound generic to you, because its secondary and tertiary dimensions aren't as prominent or may not sound that cool when you just read about them. But those dimensions do reveal themselves very quickly in the context of any of the classic games in the series. For such long games, they all have very strong openings that grab you and pull you in. And there you stay, for two decades and counting in my case.

Now let's have a look at Wing Commander before moving on to more modern examples so I stop sounding so dated.

Wing Commander -- The world of Wing Commander is:
  1. Set in the Milky Way galaxy in the relative near future when spaceflight is common
  2. About a war between humankind and a race of cat creatures (not as embarrassing as it sounds)
  3. The war is waged by pilots whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
On the surface, the world of Wing Commander maybe sounds less interesting than the world of Ultima, given these dimensions. And indeed, it isn't as interesting -- not the world itself. Because, the most essential dimension that lends Wing Commander its aesthetic quality is the third one, the one about the characters. Interesting characters, like interesting worlds, require multiple dimensions in and of themselves, which is a topic I'll cover next time. For now, the fact that Wing Commander pays special attention to its characters and their personal lives is -- while not the primary characteristic of the gameworld -- essential to the integrity of the world.

Gameworlds can change form over time, though the evolution process is dangerous. Later Wing Commander games attempted to replace the second trait about humans fighting cats, by introducing a new antagonist faction. These attempts were not very successful, so deeply ingrained were the Kilrathi in the world design. The same thing happened to Star Wars when they expected you to care about the Trade Federation in Episode I. It's not Star Wars, because Star Wars is essentially about a rebellion versus an empire, and the world loses something important when that dimension is replaced by some other dimension.

Once in a while you get a truly inspired gameworld out of a shooter. The go-to example is:

BioShock -- Its world of Rapture is:
  1. A fallen underwater city
  2. A place where genetic mutation is done purposely and has druglike properties
  3. Set around 1960 in the not-too-distant past
I think some would argue that the philosophy of BioShock, the Ayn Rand-inspired objectivist themes expressed in the setting and some of the main characters, are essential to BioShock as a gameworld. To me they're the game's fourth dimension, something that added a great deal more depth for certain players but was not fundamentally important to what made the world of the game so interesting and popular. The use of philosophy in BioShock reminded me of the use of philosophy in The Matrix; it shaped certain key characters, made people in the audience who "got" it feel smart, and it worked best as an easily ignored undercurrent. When the Matrix sequels dialed up the philosophizing, people tuned it out. They wanted more more quasi-modern dystopian mayhem, more kung fu, and more visions of humanity struggling against its robot oppressors. No one wanted naked raves, at least not before those other essential requirements were met.

Now let's speedrun through a few others:

Halo --
  1. Distant future setting beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
  2. War between humankind and a fanatical high-tech alien collective
  3. Mysterious ring-worlds that are ancient weapons
If the Halo games were about space combat instead of surface combat, then the world of Halo would be very similar to that of Wing Commander. But Halo and Wing Commander couldn't be further apart as games. It bears mentioning that the core systems of a game heavily influence the sensation given by its world.

Fallout --
  1. Post-apocalyptic America in the near future
  2. The culture of the world was "locked" in the not-too-distant past in an ironic way
  3. Morality is subjective in a society without law
If BioShock reminded you of Fallout, it's because the worlds have similar characteristics.

Starcraft --
  1. Distant future beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
  2. War between humankind, a fanatical high-tech alien collective, and a voracious alien hive
  3. The war is waged by soldiers whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
Starcraft has similar properties to Halo and Wing Commander, far beyond just being in the sci-fi genre. Yet to fans of these games, they all feel very different. You need only change one dimension of a given world design to alter the essence of that world.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. --
  1. Post-nuclear-meltdown Chernobyl set in the near future
  2. Radiation has created horrific mutants and strange anomalies
  3. Opportunists and others with little to lose explore the region for its riches
Let it be known that we Russians love Fallout. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes some influences from Fallout beyond just the post-nuclear setting -- it too is a gameworld concerned with the American dream, in a way.

Super Mario Bros. --
  1. Surreal and whimsical world where human characters don't fit in
  2. Comedy-violent interactions in which no one ever really gets hurt
  3. Lots of anthropomorphic inanimate objects, such as clouds with eyes
When Super Mario got away from dimension #3 in Super Mario Sunshine, the result was an uncomfortable departure from the expected-and-wanted Super Mario experience. Could there be a great Mario game without Mario as the star...?

Demon's Souls --
  1. Dark gothic medieval setting following a societal collapse
  2. Ancient gods and legendary warriors are reborn with newfound powers
  3. A prevailing sense of purgatory in which there is no release for the dead
As seems to be the case with a number of these, the third dimension of Demon's Souls is what makes the gameworld very interesting. Demon's Souls also does a good job of fully developing its world along all three of these axes, not just from a fiction perspective but from a systems design perspective as well.

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This type of deconstruction is tougher for certain gameworlds, sometimes because they have so much going on in them. The world of EverQuest was a hodgepodge of every fantasy trope. It worked great for a while, but EverQuest started losing people when it started expecting people to care about the fiction -- none of the EverQuest spin-off games were particularly successful because the world lacked cohesion. Kingdom Hearts scored a lot of points by featuring recognizable Disney and Final Fantasy characters, but again, the world itself was difficult to describe. The world depended on its audience's preestablished familiarity with its supporting cast of characters, like a videogame version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Most gameworlds are bland. Typically they have only one or two dimensions. Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite Xbox games but the world of the game makes no sense -- it's a modern or near-future world filled with ninjas and demons and ancient lore, and that's pretty much it. Being a relatively open-ended game that encouraged some degree of exploration, it could have benefited from a more well-defined world, such as the Legacy of Kain series' ancient and troubled land of Nosgoth. (But then, Ninja Gaiden is so good as an action game that this barely even matters.)

There are also those games that seem to have memorable gameworlds, when they only have memorable characters. God of War. Tomb Raider. The Legend of Zelda. These gameworlds defy the kind of deconstruction I've explained here by lacking a sufficient number of specific, defining traits. It's because their real defining trait is their protagonist character -- which, as with Wing Commander's ensemble cast of pilots, can count as one of the gameworld's three dimensions. But if you remove the character from these games, the world loses any distinction. You can't have a Tomb Raider without Lara Croft. You can't have a Zelda game without Link. And you can't have a Half-Life game with a wise-cracking protagonist rather than a silent one -- then you'd have Duke Nukem. As for my earlier examples, with the possible exceptions of Halo and Super Mario, those are worlds that are arguably defined by their own characteristics, rather than by the characteristics of their protagonists. The upcoming Halo: Reach has practically proven already that Halo is bigger than Master Chief. And the world of Super Mario Bros. is so iconic at this point that it can even withstand not having Mario in the spotlight, as we saw in last year's Bowser's Inside Story.

The point being: Unique gameworlds must be created intentionally, as a cornerstone of game projects that merit such an effort, in the service of game experiences in which the world itself is intended to be a major attraction.

I'm not advocating for all new games to try and create bold new worlds. If exploring and interacting with environments and their inhabitants are not integral parts of the game experience, then the game experience likely does not need to take place in some sort of unique world. A unique world may even be somewhat of a distraction, as in Zeno Clash, an awesome and inspired game whose world design is so out there that I feel as though it might have pushed away some players who really would have liked bashing in bird brains, which is really what the game boils down to. A more-traditional fighting game such as Super Street Fighter IV invests heavily in its characters and backstory, but not in the world itself -- the characters may be memorable but the backdrop matters less. A modern military shooter like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 likewise invests in its characters because the world itself is the modern world, and the game benefits from bringing players the familiarities of that world, from the weapons to the destructible environments. But certain game genres do benefit from or arguably require original gameworlds, and their creators bear the responsibility of crafting these worlds with the same care and attention as they put into their graphics and game systems.

What I've described here is not a formula, it's the form of the result. It's creatively bankrupt to attempt to create a gameworld by deriving or mixing and matching three different properties. But do think that one way to gauge a potentially promising world design is to identify its three primary dimensions, and then to make sure that each of these dimensions is fully explored in the context of the world and its stories. This thought process and the associated writing work has been useful to me at least, in my own attempts at outlining various gameworlds I'd want to build or be in.