Worldbuilding in Video Games

Building a narrative setting for your games is very important. Think through the vision for your world, draw from other work and experiences, and consider the limitations to build a compelling and interesting universe.

With the ability to create high-quality, mechanically sound games faster and with greater fidelity than ever before, game developers often turn to narrative aspects of their game to keep players engaged. The art of storytelling and worldbuilding in games is different for everyone, but there are a few things to keep in mind when creating your world that can help bring your own unique world to life.

Worldbuilding Serves the Game

When it comes to worldbuilding, you should remember that a fun game comes before anything else. If simple mechanics like movement, point systems, and combat are painful and awkward, no amount of worldbuilding will keep a player interested in your game. The main focus of your game should be, well, the game.

Worldbuilding is the process of developing a narrative setting for your game. Many modern games are based in specific time periods, from Edo Period Japan, to Post-Apocalyptic United States. You don’t have to stick to points in time for your world. In fact, you don’t have to stick to Earth at all. But regardless of where and when you set your world, make sure to come up with a clear picture of the world your game takes place in.

Start with a Clear Vision

It's important to have a clear idea of what kind of world you want to create before you start building it. This includes deciding on the overall theme, tone, and aesthetic of the game, as well as any specific elements or features you want to include. Find the specific niche you want to fill within a set genre.

One tendency to be aware of is the desire to create an incredibly intricate and complicated world that encompasses every aspect of society. Besides being time consuming, it isn’t necessary to plan to this degree. Remember that worldbuilding serves the game, and your player won’t always pay attention or appreciate every single part of your world.

You can always expand your vision, but make sure your vision is clear and consistent at each step.

Research Your World

Sci-fi shmups, steampunk roguelikes, and fantasy RPGs all have something in common: they rely on a believable setting for impactful worldbuilding. If your game is based on a space farmer on Mars, look into hydroponic techniques and weather patterns on the red planet. And if your game focuses on a disgraced knight lost in the underworld, research stories of the afterlife, the day-to-day experience of medieval knights, and so on.

The elements of your world should make sense within the context of the game. This includes laws of physics, the social and political systems, and any magical or supernatural elements. However, don’t get bogged down with too many details. Allow the player to fill in some of the missing gaps.

Draw from Other Work and Experiences

There’s no shame in aping ideas from your favorite games, artists, and historical periods. Of course, you should strive to turn these ideas into something unique to you, remixing them in novel ways that haven’t been explored before. The beauty of worldbuilding is that there are many ways to see and experience a single concept. Elves, for example, have been described in several different ways, from tall, slender beings to wild, barbaric creatures.

Embrace the Limits

Sometimes your hardware can have interesting limitations that you can use to develop your plot or worldbuilding. Being forced to develop a game that can only be a specific size, for example, might be the inspiration for a storyline involving a large boundary that circles your world.

Being only able to carry a limited number of items may be due in part to local laws that prevent you from amassing large numbers of weapons or destructive potions. Consider artificially limiting your game (number of pixels/colors or amount of memory provided).

Q&A

Worldbuilding is an exciting concept because it totally depends on your own creativity and the ways you want to develop your world are completely up to you. Because this topic is so wide, you may have several questions about worldbuilding and how to implement it in your game.

What is worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a world, originally an imaginary one, sometimes associated with a fictional universe. Developing an imaginary setting with coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology is a key task for many science fiction or fantasy writers.

Is worldbuilding the same as storywriting?

Worldbuilding is how you build your story, but it's not exactly writing. It's also not exactly not writing. It's a bit of writing adjacent. The problem with worldbuilding is a lot of people do it instead of writing because they just like worldbuilding and never write anything and that's fine. If this is how you like spending your free time then spend it doing what you like. But if the goal is to write a novel, do you "really" need to know every aspect of your world's religion or weather patterns to write your story? Probably not. You could just as easily write your book and then before the 2nd draft, go in and flesh out the worldbuilding to add more depth to the story.

How do I write a compelling story?

Have a single message. We've all had the experience of being at a party and finding ourselves trapped by someone who has launched into a long story about...well, it's impossible to tell. At a party, this is annoying but not devastating. You smile politely, slowly move away and get yourself another cheese puff. However, if you are trying to communicate something to, say, the leadership team, this kind of (pointless) storytelling is fatal. You need to make sure you get your concept across.

What makes an interesting world?

Good worldbuilding tells a compelling story with well-developed characters, all while setting the events in an imaginary world intriguingly different from the real world. Good worldbuilding is concise and closely related to the plot, characters, and central themes

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