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September 18, 2021
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Story Design Tips: The 3 Building-Block Principles of World Design

by Guy Hasson on 05/30/11 06:51:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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This is the third Story Design Tips column that talks about the principles of world-building.

Our goal is to design a world which the player's mind will buy as 'a world'. The trick is to fool the player's mind by designing a world that fits the player's subconscious criteria for 'world'. As we've established, our minds don't simply accept this world and move on. Rather, they have criteria for it, and constantly put our surroundings to the test. Our world, oddly enough, passes these tests every minute.

We have to make sure that the world we design also passes the test. To do that, we need to establish what these criteria are. We've already talked about how worlds need closed doors, and that there can be no beginning and no ending to anything, and now we're going to move on to the building blocks of all worlds. There are three simple principles which all objects in your world must follow without exception. Here they are:

1.         Everything you see is made out of smaller things.

There's an obvious way to look at this principle and a less obvious way. You need to look at it both ways when designing worlds.

The obvious way: The table I'm sitting at right now is made out of many pieces. Most of them are wood, some are plastic. The wood is made out of different colored rings (that I can see) and both the wood and the plastic are made out of many kinds of molecules, which are made out of many kinds of atoms, which are made out of protons, neutrons, and electrons.

And each of these is made out of something else, and so on ad infinitum. In the same way that physicists have never said for long, "Okay, atoms make up the world and that’s it", or "Okay, electrons are the tiniest thing there is and thats 's it," – whatever solution they came up with that explain the universe is going to be quickly followed by another question: but what makes up that? It's in our nature to ask that, whether we're physicists or players (or both). It is hardwired into us to ask that question. In just the same way, it is soft-wired into us to look at everything and to know that it is built of something smaller. That is how we came to understand the world when we grew up.

Now, you don't have to go down to the molecular level when designing a world. You have to understand that everything you show needs to be made out of small things. And you need to know what makes them up, too, or the player will notice the flaw in your design.

That was the obvious way of looking at things. Here is the less obvious one: The room you're sitting in is made out of many objects. Each of them has its story to tell, and each of them fits into your world. And each of them is made out of something smaller. Your neighborhood is made out of things, too: buildings, bushes, trees, sand, asphalt, stones, people, dogs, cats, electric wires, etc. Your country is made out of smaller things. So is your garden. So is your microwave oven, so is any computer, iPhone, newspaper, book, wire, rope, hair, watch, car, glasses, high-school class, your office, the roof, the clouds, etc. etc. etc.

Everything is made out of something smaller. Every. Thing. Acknowledge it and design according to it. That'll be the first step to creating a believable and amazing world.

2.         Everything you see makes up bigger things.

Just as everything is made out of something smaller, everything is also 'something smaller' in creating something bigger.

This is true of objects, people, ideas, and anything that exists in your world. My room is part of my house, my house is part of a neighborhood, which is part of a (let's say) good part of the city, which is part of the city, which is part of a state, which is part of a country, which is part of a continent, which is part of the world, which is part of the solar system, which is part of the galaxy, which is part of a family of galaxies, which is part of the universe, which, if I was the game designer, would be part of a greater thing, which would also be a part of a greater thing.

The same is true for me: I'm part of a family, but also a part of a company. I can also be a part of the city's political party, for example. Each one of these is also part of something bigger than itself.

Everything in your world must make up something bigger than itself. Our mind recognizes that our world works like that, too, so it's going to miss it when the world you designed doesn't. Remember: every single thing, no exceptions.

3.         Every level of 'bigger' and 'smaller' must have slightly different rules.

That's simply how the world works, and our minds know it. Knowing it, they will reject anything that doesn't answer this category.

This works physically: The rules for objects like tables and chairs work one way, but the rules for the molecules that make them up work another way. The rules for atoms that make up the molecules work differently than the rules for molecules, and the rules for electrons, neutrons and protons that make up each atom work differently than atoms do. Now let's reverse direction: The rules for continents work differently than the rules for objects on the continents. The rules for planets work differently than the rules for continents. Both are different from the rules of galaxies. All are different from the rules of universes interacting.

This works on everything else, too: Cars work one way, but cars on the city's roads (seen from above) work with different rules. A person and his family behave differently than a crowd or a mob of people do. A country of people behaves differently than a crowd of people or a small group of people.

So: Each 'level' (by which I mean a level of reality) must be designed with slightly different rules. If you build everything the same way, players will notice and something will feel wrong. If you skip the behavior of even one such level, players will again feel something is wrong with the world and most will reject it.

In conclusion

It looks as if I've given you impossible instructions and standards to fill. You have to create an infinity of rules, and each set of rules has to work slightly differently from all others.

Well, it's true. Our world feels infinite, and you need to design a world that feels just as infinite in its complexity. But there's actually a simple way to construct the infinite complexity these principles require of you. We're going to talk about that next week.


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