How to Create a Video Game World
Now that you’ve learned how to approach writing a video game script, you’re now ready to start building the world of your narrative and start bringing it to life.
If you’re not sure how to write a video game script, be sure to return to the first post in the series below:
How to Create a Video Game World
How to Write Video Game Characters
What makes world building so important in video games
Though you can write a novel without doing any world building, it is absolutely essential for video games, as that is how all players will experience your story. You cannot explore a video game through the mind, through contemplation and through thought the way you might in a novel—there always must be something for your character (and player) to wander through for your story to be a video game and not a movie or a TV series.
As mentioned in the first post of this series, the world is therefore how players—whether your game is in first or third person—experience perspective. It is in many ways the device of the story, which is why it is so important to do early on, if not before you brainstorm about your characters.
This is especially true because in many ways, the world is an extension of your character. As players play your game, they are seeing the world through their eyes. When they are rejected in the world, they feel the rejection of the character. When they succeed and the crowd cheers them, so they feel that triumph as if they were their own.
Because of this perspective and relationship to the character, world building is absolutely essential to master in video game writing, no matter how in-depth or simple it may be.
How to build your video game world
Step 1. Determine the scope of your world
Before you do anything else, you’ll want to determine the scope of your story’s world, meaning how big it is and how much of it the player gets to explore.
This latter part is especially important, as it is ideally what your player will see, though the former is important for your own storytelling skills as well.
However, focusing on the scope of the story your players will get to explore, you’ll first want to decide how much they can explore in the first place:
Open world - Open worlds give the player the sense that they can explore anywhere. There are no loading screens or invisible walls, though there are of course limitations.
Some games, like Bloodborne, have very few interiors to explore, whereas Skyrim nearly every interior and exterior can be explored.
Both are considered open world games, but in Skyrim the rooms and interior locations usually have loading screens, though some open world games like The Witcher 3 do not. The most notable trait here is the ability to explore a large map without any limitations or stopping points.
Linear world - In linear world’s the player does not get to go from location to location, but follows a direct path. There is no exploration of other areas or a wide-open map for them to wander.
Events in the story take place within a confined location, and though those areas themselves may offer various rooms or areas on a map to explore, they are likely closed off after that part of the narrative is over.
A great example of this is Bioshock, which offers many side areas to explore, but does not allow full navigation of Rapture nor does it allow you to return whence you came.
Of course, there are games that are a blend of these two types of worlds, which is more than likely the case for most games. For instance, in Persona 5, players can explore and navigate Tokyo, but there are loading screens and limitations to what they can explore. However, it is very rarely a linear path the characters are required to take. Whether they visit the school or a new neighborhood is up to them.
The same goes for games like the original Mass Effect trilogy or Dragon Age: Origins. In these games, players may follow a linear path at times, but at other times they can choose various points on a map to go visit and explore. Additionally, there are games like The Stanley Parable, where players are confined to an office space, yet the world offers exploration possibilities left and right.
As you can see, video game worlds take many forms and offer many variants. Before you begin to build your world, take the time to determine the scope and size of your world.
Will players be able to walk from one end of the map to the other? Or will be confined to a few areas that are extraneous in their detail?
Spend time figuring this out before you move on to anything else.
Step 2. Develop a backstory for this world
Once you’ve determined the scope of your world, you’re ready to begin developing the backstory. Though you may be like me and not prone to developing backstory, this is just as essential as understanding the scope of your story.
Without a backstory, you’ll find it difficult to give meaning to objects, interactions, cultures, and so forth. When players wander your world, it will appear void of anything deep and very surface level without a backstory. As a player, you’re not just following someone’s perspective, you’re immersed in their world and therefore expect it to look and act like the real world you explore everyday—even if it’s a fantasy world. You expect backstories and anecdotes to reveal themselves in an organic way, and the best way to do this is with backstory.
Step 3. Create a culture and a system of order
After you’ve developed a backstory, it’s time to build a culture, even if it’s the most simple one ever, like in Portal or Gone Home. You’ve likely already established this culture somewhat with a backstory, but it is important to develop it further and set up a system of order, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
For example, many fantasy games have a hierarchy where elves are perceived as superior than humans, and dwarves as inferior. This creates conflict and mirrors our own world, where we are not so kind to those who are different than us, though of course for simple two-hour games there is no need to go into such detail with the hierarchy in your culture.
It’s also worth noting that for bigger games, it can be more than one culture that you develop, of course, which will in turn most likely create a clash of cultures somewhere in your game and a potential for conflict.
Step 4. Create items for your world
After you develop your lore, culture, and backstory, you’re ready to start creating items for your world in the form of weapons, letters, and just fun artifacts that tell stories.
Begin to make a list of items that players can use or find, and if possible mark where they can find this item, at least for the sake of lore or storytelling. You don’t need to know exactly where it is found on a map.
One of the easiest ways to do this is with a spreadsheet. How you organize it is up to you, but use it to fill out the item name and any description for the players would read upon picking the item up or in the encyclopedia. You can also do this if you plan to have creatures or monsters for combat that tell the players more about them.
Step 5. Draw out the layout of this world
Finally, draw out a layout of your world. This is more for your own spatial awareness when you get to writing later on, so it doesn’t need to be perfect.
It can be a map of one area or the entire world, just give yourself space to navigate and place quests later on so you can see if you’re crowding one area with too many quests and want to reward players for exploration with items and other storylines on the map.
You’ll use this world map to plot out quests and other parts of your game later on, so try and give yourself a rough outline as soon as possible before writing.
Now that you know how to approach building the world of your story, you’re just about ready to craft your main and side video game characters. Take as much time as you can fleshing out the world and you’ll make it much easier to execute scripts for various quests and cutscenes. Though it may seem counterintuitive for most writers who like to write by the seat of their pants, it really does make a difference in the long run.