A Ramble Across Worlds (*minor spoilers)

I have been thinking lately about the creation of worlds for video games and for films.  I don’t mean it in a literal sense, as in how to make props or sets, etc.  I mean it more like how does one create and convey the world of the story?  My musings came from three different sources which succeed varyingly at this creation, and I think you are going to like them 🙂

Portal 2, Bioshock, and Battlestar Galactica!!!


It comes down to the Tyler Welch Patented Three Easybake Steps to Creating a Story’s World! All you have to do is BUILD the world, SETUP the world, and then let me PLAY in the world.  All there is to it!

1. BUILD THE WORLD

This is the easiest and most obvious part of the job.  Everyone who goes into the industries of game and film strives to make this.  It means making the environment of the game or show…ie half of the story.
Kind of a big deal.

So how do the sources stand up?  Well obviously they all made worlds, otherwise it would be stupid. It wouldn’t make any sense. Portal 2 creates a great world under some wheat field, and goes deeper (pardon the pun) into the history of the facility and Aperture Laboratories. But (in true Valve fashion), it still leaves several big questions as to what happens now. For example, what is the Borealis doing underground (ie – not in the arctic)?

Bioshock sets up a really deep world, full of real-to-life references, it’s own theme and mood, and it does so in a very interesting and intriguing way.  To be honest, of the three I feel that Bioshock has the best potential for a great story. I must clarify that I just played the very beginning (up to finding telekinesis), but still I can clearly see a great potential for story. More on that later…

Finally, Battlestar Galactica obviously takes a some base from our world (ie – humans) but then creates it’s own universe…literally.  It works well and is pretty interesting.  I just wish they would stop explaining it.  WE GET IT! They’re robots that want to kill us!!! Enough!

Huh. Not bitter. No.  Now that that is over with, we can move on to step 2:

2. SETUP THE WORLD

This is where it gets tricky.  Whether we are talking the first few levels of a video game, the pilot and early episodes of a tv show, or the exposition of a film, there exists a crucial point of introducing the player/audience to your world.  Check out this diagram the internet offers up:

How a story works

As the diagram shows, while the story makes sense in the mind of the creator, it has to go a long way to get to me and usually it gets a bit muddled along the way.  Thus it is important for a creator to not only make the world, but to ensure that it connects with the audience.  We have to get it, or else we won’t buy it…literally.

So then, on to the examples.  Portal 2 nails this.  It is the Inception of video game stories – three quarters of it is spent explaining either the history of the world or the mechanics and physics of it.  It’s a puzzle game. You start off working basic puzzles and progress to more and more difficult ones. I highly recommend that once you beat it, go back and do the commentary version. They tell you that they did this step – listening to what their play-testers said. Good job Valve. 😉

Now Bioshock.  As I said before, it has great POTENTIAL for story world.  However it doesn’t give you the in to the universe of Rapture.  First of all, I need to note that Bioshock plays with something the other two don’t deal with: it mixes two different worlds.  While Rapture is it’s own world that has it’s own rules and mechanics, you start out in our world as a human like you and me.  So I ask these simple questions to you, a normal human individual of our world (assuming your trans-atlantic flight just went down in the middle of the ocean, and that you just happen to find yourself close enough to swim to a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean), would you:

1. Get into an archaic submersible device that might or might not work anymore?

2. Get OUT of said submersible when you watch someone murdered upon your arriving at the end of the ride?

3. Would you, having murdered several psychotic mutant humans, willingly and without any hesitation inject yourself with some mysterious substance?

Yeah….about that….

They don’t make the introduction of the player to the world work, which makes me want to stop playing now.  Well that and the fact that it scares the bleep out of me.

Finally, Battlestar Galactica mixes the two prior sources success at creating a world, but I will dwell briefly on that. Basically, the miniseries is supposed to set up the world so that I both understand and want to further engage the series.  What I got was a rush job which leaves me wondering why I should care about the characters at all.  You don’t have to do the whole history of the Cylon War at the start, but you do need to set up the characters a little bit more before you nearly kill them.  I didn’t care who lived or died to be honest because I didn’t know who they were.  On the other hand, I now feel that concern for the characters after having seen the 2 parts of the miniseries and the first 7 episodes.  Just wish they didn’t take so long.

That said we now arrive at the third and final step to making a great world for a story:

3. LET THE AUDIENCE/GAMER PLAY IN THE WORLD

Basically this is were it gets fun. After you’ve build the world and set me up in it, you can let it just be fun! In a video game, this is the point where you stop explaining how it works and let the player work it out for themselves. For example, after the first few missions in Modern Warfare in which you basically observe, you suddenly have options. You make your own choices and begin flying solo.  That’s when a game gets fun – when the gamer gets to play free in the world.

Same principle for tv and film, just different manifestation. We get to “play” when we no longer care about the mechanics and history of the world and focus entirely on the present situations and relationships of the characters.  When I begin worrying what happens to Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, I begin to have fun and really look forward to getting back into the world.

Portal 2:  Duh.  By the time you finish the first couple of test chambers, you get to really try to explore the possibilities of the portal gun and the environment.
Bioshock:  Haven’t got to that part yet, but part of that is because the world hasn’t been explained yet. While the unsuredness works to the fear element, I just don’t want to play because I don’t know what the bleep is going on.
Battlestar Galactica:  Again, just getting there but I like the characters and anticipated a growing care for them.

So that’s it!  The three simple steps to making a good world for your story. You have to make it, make it accessible, and then let us have fun in it!  Sorry this ramble was so long but this is basically what I love. This is what I am passionate about and would love to study for the rest of my life.  So there you go….little bit of me there for you. You know. Well…actually…a little bit of Wheatley…really…um. But that’s alright. Just a bit of Science…uh…I think.

Okay, that’s it. Me again.  Thanks for sticking with it and as always, please comment below and subscribe!

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Author: Tyler D. Welch

Filmmaker, Storyteller, Scholar

5 thoughts on “A Ramble Across Worlds (*minor spoilers)”

  1. A pleasure to read once again. I think your examples are great, but I just watched Anchorman and Eastwood’s Hereafter today and I thought of something else. Even though these stories take place in a human (or very familiar) world, they still must be created. We know things happen in Hollywood movies that don’t happen in real life, and I don’t just mean Mythbusters stuff (like upside-down canoe in POTC). What I mean is stuff like “coincidental” meetings, love at first sight, the storm trooper effect, in short any suspension of disbelief viewers make through the course of the movie. Here’s an insanely long intriguing list of them: http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Hollywood_movie_clich%C3%A9 . Anyhow, these cliches rarely exist in life and when we watch fiction narratives we’re looking at a world that is different from our own. Yet sometimes it is hard for people to see the difference. What I’m getting at is I wonder at what point people become aware they are looking at an unnatural world? Also, what affect do Hollywood cliches have on the mind? It is interesting and I think further discussion could stem from everything surrounding not so farfetched worlds created in film. I hope you understand what I’m getting at, if not please respond. In fact, I hope you respond anyway.

  2. I understand your view of the BSG miniseries but I don’t believe that it’s intention was to get you to care about the characters. Any pilot episode, no matter how long it is, exists to introduce you to the characters and the story, so you know at least know where they’re coming from. Actually getting to know them and care about them comes in subsequent episodes. I think that pilots are just meant to pique your curiosity more than anything else. For example, “Community” is one of my favorite TV shows right now, but the pilot is easily the worst episode of the series. Though by the time I got halfway through the first season, I’d fallen in love with the characters and by the end of the season, it was one of my favorite shows. In my experience, most shows take some time (at least a season) before I can be really invested in the characters and stories (Buffy, Dr. Who). Never judge a show by it’s pilot episode or sometimes even it’s first season. (I’m not saying you did that. I’m just giving my view on pilot episodes).

  3. Ryan, I agree with you that you shouldn’t judge a show by it’s pilot. That axiom has been proven over the years a thousand times. In light of that, I will addend my previous statement to focus more on the introduction of a reason to care about the characters. While I don’t necessarily have to feel I know the characters from the pilot, or even really the first full season, I feel that what is necessary is to want to care about them.
    For example, the pilot of LOST instantly engages me, makes me really wonder who are these people and what the hell just happened. As the show progresses I begin to discover more of who I care about and whom I don’t like.
    Another example is Avatar. By the end of episode one I have a genuine desire to get to know the characters more because they were set up as intriguing people.
    In BSG, the only person I found interesting was Dr. Baltar because he had a story to follow. Other than that, everyone was just who they were; they became background filler for the Gaius-story.

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